“Last year everybody was blown away about Sydney,” Maybe Sammy co-owner Stefano Catino tells Broadsheet. He’s talking about the debut run of the Maybe Cocktail Festival, the event that sees bartenders from across the globe invited Down Under for a week-long party. “We have tequila bars, we have rum bars, we have cabaret-style bars. There’s so much variety and everything is executed to perfection. You can go to Newtown and find a tiki bar, an aperitivo bar, a club, a noisy pub. That’s what I think is unbelievable now: each neighbourhood really is shining.”

The 2024 festival kicked off this week, and it’s even bigger than last time. Thirty of the best bartenders, from 16 bars across the globe, have descended on the city. “We take them round to our bars – Maybe Sammy, Dean & Nancy, Sammy Junior, El Primo Sanchez – and they do a pop-up. You get to meet the guy who invented the Tommy’s Margarita, the guy who invented the Espresso Martini. There is a lot happening.”

We chat to Catino about how the festival came together, and what events are still to come this weekend.

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Stef, do you think there’s anything else like the Maybe Cocktail Festival in Australia?
I don’t think so, because this is an organic gathering. I’ve been lucky enough for the past five years, when Maybe Sammy was voted one of the best bars in the world, to travel around the world and meet everybody. And the reason I do [the festival] is because a lot of people ask me, “Oh, what’s Australia like? I heard the cocktail scene is good!” So I make friends with these people and I tell them, “You know what, I’ll invite you to Sydney – you spend one week with me and do a pop-up in my bar.”

One of the first things we give to these people is a map of Sydney with all our favourite bars, restaurants and museums and things to do, and we let them live the city. We don’t put them on a schedule. We just ask that they do a pop-up one night, and then they can go to Shady Pines, go to Baxter Inn, go to PS40, Apollonia.

We don’t do it for the money, we just do it to contaminate the brain, you know? We want to give young Australians the opportunity to sit at the bar with a guy from San Francisco and vice versa. We want to [cross]-contaminate people – with ideas, way of doing cocktails, serving style.

How did you choose which bartenders to invite?
I tried to choose whoever I didn’t choose the year before, because I wanted to have a bit of variety. I look at the list of the best bars in the world and I put feelers out. Whoever comes back to me that’s free on the week, I try to get them. I tried to pick from every country in the world. I got some from America, Europe, Asia. We tried to get someone from the Middle East and Africa – it was part of the dream to have at least one bar from each continent. But it’s a busy schedule for bartenders these days – there’s so many events going on.

Was there anything you learnt last year that you’ve changed this time round?
We learnt that we needed a big party. That’s why on the Sunday we’re doing the bottomless Bartenders Brunch. And we’re also doing the Best of Australia, where we invite 17 of the best Australian bars to be in the same room all together, because we want to give them a stage.

And then we have a big party [on Saturday], starting at 5pm until close – we call it the House of Maybe. We’re just gonna have a really good party for people to really wind down after the week. We made it bigger than last year; I don’t think we learned much. We’re stupid – we’re actually doing more.

What makes a great bar in Sydney?
When people say hi at the door, when they say bye when you leave. When your beers are cold, when the smiles are there, when there’s good music. You know, these are the thing that I [look for] when I walk into a bar. I want to feel welcome, and I think a lot of the bars in Sydney do that. This is one of the best bar scenes in the world, and I just want more people to know it.

Do you have a favourite spot in Sydney to get a drink?
Lately I’ve been going to Caterpillar Club. I go down there cos it’s open late and I know they’re there: I can have a good drink and listen to some very good music and I’m happy.