Global leaders in the cocktail industry converged on Sydney last week for the annual Bacardi Legacy Cocktail Competition. The city became a melting pot of bartending styles and preferences, trends and ideas, advice and philosophies.
I interviewed a number of these influencers about cocktail culture in Australia and abroad. What follows are their professional tips and observations, which can benefit bartenders at any level of their career.
The subject of “Hey Bartender,” Steve Schneider’s journey took him from a near-death experience while in the U.S. marines, to becoming one of the world’s best-known mixologists as a principal bartender at Manhattan’s Employees Only.
What advice do you have for aspiring bartenders? You have to find someone you can believe in, trust and want to learn from. Before I joined Employees Only, I had loads of skills, but I had no leadership. There’s a lot of talent out there, but leadership can be lacking. Many people watch and practice techniques on YouTube, but they don’t have leadership.
And you’ve got to keep your head up and make eye contact. Douglas Tirola, director of “Hey Bartender,” found me because he came into my bar and I made eye contact with him. That led to us talking. Body language is so important. You have to carry yourelf like you want it. I don’t mean carry yourself with arrogance — I mean with confidence.
What are the biggest trends now in cocktail culture? I never act based on the trends of others. If I like something, then I’ll use it, and adapt it into my own style. I appreciate all aspects of bartending. I want to learn as much as I can, so that I can adapt to the fight, and then decide whether I want to use something new or not, and whether or not it fits me.
Ago Perrone began his bartending career in Italy before moving to London. There, his work garnered him global recognition and a bevy of prestigious bartending awards.
What are the global trends in cocktail culture? Cocktail culture is expanding, massively. Wherever you go, you can find a bar where they’re trying to make a good cocktail. Before, there were some places where it was impossible to find good drinks. Nowadays, thanks to all the avenues of communications, and thanks to the fact that people travel much more than before, people are always looking for a place where they can enjoy a good drink.
As a trend, there is a strong link to the classic cocktails, overall. And then there is very much the will of each bartender, and of each bar, to pull out their own identity. So they really try to give something unique to the clients. There is no more finding the same cocktail everywhere as before. There are some classics — the martinis, the margarita — but there is not as much of people drinking only a certain drink, like the Apple Martini or Cosmopolitan. Instead, they are drinking for quality ingredients, quality products.
What are the differences between the U.S. and U.K. cocktail culture? I see the difference between the types of bars. In the U.S. the needs of the business — because in the end you run a bar to make money —weigh a lot differently compared with the U.K.
For instance, in London, you work for wages, and then tips can be a good addition on top of that. But in the U.S., you work for tips. That is not so good for bars.
I see that, overall, because of this reason, in the U.S. there are fewer lounge bars. Perhaps because of the history as well, the U.S. being a younger country than those in Europe. The hotel bars in the U.S. are not yet so established and classic as they are in Europe. However, everyone’s trying nowadays to recreate this type of guest experience into independent bars.
What are your favorite cocktails these days? When I go out, I tend to drink martinis and margaritas. I also like to experiment, try something new, if I’m somewhere that inspires me.
I think we’re at this stage of the bars where you need to focus on your personality and service skills. Once you’re established, you can sell whatever you want, and you can bring the clients into new cocktails.
What I think has become a new cocktail is a very good drink, and is very pleasant, is the Penicillin, invented in New York [in 2005], a whisky-based cocktail with a smoked flavor, by Sam Ross. This is something that still looks like a classic cocktail, and has a strong identity when you see it in a glass.
Sven Almenning is at the heart of Sydney cocktail culture. He helped open several cocktail bars in the last decade — Eau de Vie Sydney and The Roosevelt, plus Eau De Vie Melbourne — as new city laws finally supported smaller establishments, after essentially permitting only larger pubs for many years.
How would you describe the Australian drink culture? Beer and wine are very big here. The spirits side is still relatively young. People are not as brand-oriented with that yet, but are becoming more so.
Right now, in Australia, gin is a big thing. There’s an exploding gin market. Whiskey is becoming bigger out here as well. Scotch is the biggest selling spirit, but it’s still being served predominantly in coke. We sell two whiskeys for every vodka.
In Sydney, good legislation came around thanks to long-term thinking that we should make out city more cosmopolitan, like in New York or Melbourne. A lot of clients have the idea that you go out here and have three beers or wines and then switch to spirits. I am trying to prove that you can start with spirits and stay there.
What can take Sydney — or any emerging cocktail market — to the next level? The cocktail movement follows food trends. Australians are foodies. There’s a lot of appreciation for that here, and so Australians are also becoming more discerning and critical with their drink orders.
We’re also getting bigger into fine wine and craft beer. Cocktail culture extends naturally with that. As wine and beer become something costumers look forward to, then their taste for cocktail drinks will also expand.