My first bar gig, like many others, began in extremely humble surroundings. I was seventeen, fresh faced out of school, and wondering what to do with my life. I had finished high school and a career teaching children was something I toyed with for a while. In the meantime -whilst I procrastinated - I took a job in the hills of Belgrave (an hour out of Melbourne city), working for an old friend who had recently converted an old post office into the Bell Tavern. All of a sudden bartending is what I wanted to do. I spent my weekends pulling beers, hustling Bourbon & cokes, and talking to girls. Or should I say girls talking to me. I guess the first real draw card to being a bartender, beside the free booze, is girls wanting to speak to you. A year and half later I was the belle of Bell Tavern and Belgrave. I moved on to the bright lights of the city.
The year: 2003. The bar: ffour. At the time Melbourne was taking off as Australia's cocktail capital. With thanks to easier liquor licensing laws, more innovative thinking and grungier venues it was leading the pack over its northern rival, Sydney. The Melbourne cocktail scene was being led by the likes of the funky Chaise Lounge, the crazy Der Raum, the institution Gin Palace, the dominant Ginger crew, Polly, Kitten Club, Cherry Bar, Honkytonks, and us at ffour. At the time I was merely a bussie for the likes of Shae Silvestro (now national Brown Forman ambassador) and one of the best bartenders in the country; Johnny Sit. I had aspirations though. I would do whatever it would take to get on that bar. Six months later I was a bartender, a year later I was head bartender. After eighteen months I would leave ffour as venue manager. A career in cocktail bartending awaited and I would leave ffour to work with another two fresh faced guys at a quiet spot in Fitzroy called Black Pearl.
Robb Sloan and Chris Boersma headed up the humble Black Pearl on Brunswick St. At the time I'm sure they could agree with me in saying Black Pearl wasn't setting the world on fire with it's cocktails. The drink list was dominated with synthetic purees, large amounts of juice-based cocktails, and flavoured vodkas. At about the same time Ginger, Australia's leading force in cocktail innovation, was going from strength to strength even after the legendary team of Sam Ross and Sebastian Reaburn had moved on. The bar team was being led by Mick Formosa and some loose kid from Brisbane, known to friends for his naked taxi-chasing escapades, but to most as 'Widge'.
I think it's fair to say the work Robb Sloan did for Black Pearl in the years he was there before I arrived is the reason the bar is as legendary as it is today. I guess i'd like to think I merley helped Robb find the energy and inspiration to keep pushing forward. And that's exactly what we did. In the two years I spent at Black Pearl Chris Boersma went from a raw newbie to one of the best bartenders i've worked with, we hired a foreign geezer named Cristiano Beretta -who for a long time - drank 97% of our Old Fashioned's sold in the place. Another guy hired was a stinky-haired hippy from the country who's classic lines on woman included the popular; "Do you wanna come back to mine and spoon?" His name is Chris Hysted.
I guess I still think the work we all did at Black Pearl was some of the best we have all ever done. Taking a small venue, owned by a lovely family and turning it into something beautiful is incredibly fulfilling. The current team of guys like Nathan Beasley, Adi Ruiz, Greg Sanderson, Evan Stanley coupled with the old brigade of last years Australian bartender of the year Chris Hysted and and the legendary - and incredibly cynical -Cristiano Beretta means that place is going from strength to strength.
I guess this post is an ode to the Melbourne bar scene, and the friends I have met from working in it. This is also a post of congratulations. Congratulations to my old friend, and cocktail competition sparring partner Jason 'Widge' Williams for taking home a well-deserved Bartender of the year title last night. Congratulations to every Melbourne bar who was nominated, but most of all congratulations to Black Pearl for winning Australia's best bar team, again. You have made me, and I'm sure all of the old Black Pearl crew proud and I look forward to joining you guys in a celebratory shot of Gin alongside a slice of some of Tash's homemade sausage rolls.
I have away for a few years now and am slowly getting older, wiser and more cynical by the day. I'm looking forward to being one of the old guys of the bartending scene. Perhaps someone that someday, somebody looks up to. My focus now is to keep staying motivated and yearning to learn and push myself even further still. If you are stuck in a rut in your respective venue, get yourself out of it. Go see what other bars are doing and take that motivation to your colleagues. Keep improving things in your bar day by day and before you know it the one-percenters will all add up. Always look forward and striving to keep improving yourself and your trade. But most of all respect and be happy for your friends achievements. Their happiness should be as important as your own.
Maybe this post was a bit 'Oprah-like'. I'm sorry if I sound like a life-loving preacher but I'm in one of those moods. A mood mixed with lashings of pride, several ounces of reminiscing, and a few drops of home sickness. Melbourne -and my friends in it- I'll see you soon.
Oh and Black Pearl guys. Ah, by the way, Do I still get staff discount on drinks?? x