As the founders and former owners of eastern suburbs cafes Bellagio Tuck Shop and Bellagio Cafe, Felix Clark and Corinna Kovner were once known for daytime hospitality. But at home in Newtown, something else was brewing – or distilling, to be precise. The husband and wife were making gin on a small backyard still.
The decade-old experiments came to fruition in 2020 with the launch of Ester Spirits. The very same month, the couple won the joint Best in Show trophy at the Australian Gin Awards for their navy strength Strong Gin. And the next year, the Strong Gin was named the world’s best navy strength at the World Gin Awards. Ester Spirits has accordingly been picked up by highly regarded venues in Sydney and beyond, including Sean’s Panaroma, Quay, Nomad and Bangalow’s Ciao Mate.
Now the couple is welcoming punters to a dedicated distillery and cellar door in a Marrickville warehouse. “The tasting room gives us that opportunity to express what goes on in our heads and behind closed doors,” Clark tells Broadsheet.
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They originally took on the space just to make booze, but Clark says she’s “hijacked” it.
Growing up surrounded by bohemian creativity – her father was a travelling circus performer and her mother studied fashion, made props for the circus and organised music festivals – she’s executed a unique space that’s ripe with joie de vivre.
“That’s part of hospitality: really welcoming people, making them excited to be in there,” she says. “Visually we want it to be enticing as well as in the mouth.”
Oversized hand-painted cigarettes dress up the entrance, where a ramp takes you to the main floor. It’s defined by a central black-and-white marble bar, rods of neon lighting and sculptural pots filled with greenery. Small circular tables and plinths are speckled white and fire-engine red, to match Ester’s boxes and bottles. But there’s also a shining copper still, shelves of packed boxes and containers filled with ingredients – proving the duality of bar and workspace.
There’s no beer or wine, just a tight list of cocktails heroing the bottled beauties: The Strong, The Dry, Bees Knees and the soon-to-be-released Old Tom, a sherbet-y gin sweetened naturally with lemon verbena, jasmine flowers and liquorice that took out silver at the 2023 Australian Gin Awards. Felix’s Negroni (available pre-bottled) is his version of the perfect Negroni, mixing The Dry, Campari and the hard-to-find Cocchi Di Torino, a vermouth from northern Italy. A zingy mandarin seltzer combines a house-made shrub with yuzu sake and The Dry.
Or, try the line-up neat. “I don’t think it’s worthwhile making booze that you have to mask,” Kovner says. “[You should be able to] drink it straight and understand the nuances of the rollercoaster of flavour that you’re on.”
The food is simple and snacky: charred AP Bread dressed with bonito-pickled eschalot and sliced tomatoes, tins of Ortiz anchovies, smoked mackerel, a hunk of cheese and house-made eggplant kasundi. “I wanted to avoid cheeseboards,” says Kovner. “We’re doing the snacks we do at home mindlessly when we’ve got people coming over and we don’t have time to cook.” The menu will evolve as they grow – super-seasonal “sexy veg” dishes and oysters are on the cards. All understated, all punchy.
There’s also a cabinet of take-home curiosities: oceanic earrings and bespoke cocktail barware – think stirrers inlaid with shells, oyster forks and cocktail picks – from Cyd, a friend and resident assistant distiller. Plus candles, ceramics, silk bowling shirts and “mind-blowingly beautiful” reversible bomber jackets from LE Studio.
On the horizon is an upstairs space destined to become an intimate bar, as well as a rum and a coffee amaro that Clark’s busy perfecting. And those mandarin seltzers are being canned.
“We express our passion on the sleeve of our arms,” Clark says. “The cellar door is that visual expression of what’s going on in our crazy minds.”
31 Chalder Street, Marrickville