A bartender works eight-to-13 hours a day. Shifts start early in the afternoon and finish early in the morning. We’re not just making drinks, of course. We’re cleaning constantly; sweeping up broken glassware and cigarette butts, unclogging toilets, changing kegs and unblocking drains with kitchen tongs, all in a room full of drunk people waiting for you to make them a drink. We’ll do this four to six days a week, standing up. When days off come around, what do we do? We go to bars.
Drinking in bars is fun, but let’s be honest, there must be more to it for it to draw us back there in our spare time.
I talked with some of Sydney’s best bartenders over a few pints and glasses of whiskey to get to the bottom of it.
Earl’s Juke Joint owner Pasan Wijesena says inspiration is one of the reasons we frequent the bars we do. “I love to drink at bars where friends work, both as a way to catch up and to be inspired by the standards of service and creativity behind the menus … You can always learn something by being around other people you admire.”
Pasan mentions Bulletin Place in the CBD. Nearly two years ago the team brought cocktails back to Sydney in a new light, with stellar service and comfortable surroundings, in the middle of the financial district, no less. Its cocktails are easily the best in town. Its daily-changing menu is a lesson in restrained creativity and how to get the most out of a drink by using less.
He also mentions Ramblin’ Rascal Tavern, a whiskey- and cognac-heavy basement bar with good-time intentions and hospitality. It’s where Charlie Lehmann holds the fort. When asked why we love to visit bars on our day off, Charlie says it’s, “Being a part of the dysfunctional, yet highly skilled and cohesive, family of any Australian industry. Not only do you have the joy of consuming delicious beverages while escaping the usual surrounds of your own venue, you also get to enjoy the morale boost you give to your fellow comrades when you roll through their doors.”
Charlie (and rest of us) can’t not mention Shady Pines Saloon, a bar that’s worked its way into the hearts of bartenders all over Sydney. It’s always full of welcoming faces and whiskey stacked deep. If there’s a queue, don’t worry; a beer, a shot and a high five from anyone of the guys behind the bar will be worth the time.
Over the road there’s Hello Sailor on Oxford Street, one of the most popular bartender nightspots in the city, run by Luke Redington and Marco Faraone. A pizza oven, cold beer, late licence and being surrounded by your peers to talk about the night just gone by are why we frequent this Darlinghurst hub; it’s post-shift therapy.
The humble pub will almost always do for a drink. When it comes to his nights off, Luke Redington keeps it simple, “I love going to places like the Lord Nelson Hotel or the Lord Dudley Hotel for the history of the venue. Nothing complicated, just the simple things done right.”
Christian Blair, formerly of Rockpool Bar & Grill is about to open his own venue, Annata, in Crow’s Nest. He says that while he’d love to visit a lot of the bars mentioned, location and timing play a key factor. With lockout laws firmly in place, options are limited for a bartender on the closing shift, so it is places such as Hello Sailor, and for Christian, The Different Drummer in Glebe, where we perch on the bar stools.
It’s not just the atmosphere of a particular bar, or the fact we finally get to play guest when we’ve played host all week. As great as the drinks can be, it’s never really about that, either. Pasan has the final word: “I keep going back to the places where hospitality is at the forefront. Whatever the drink is; beer, whisky, cocktail, a glass of the finest rosé, what keeps you coming back is the hospitality and friendship shared over the bar. We sell hospitality and the drinks are just the tools to facilitate that. I think the culture of looking after other bartenders in your venue and the camaraderie between hospitality staff is a big reason why I love what I do. There are few other industries like it.”
Charlie Ainsbury is a bartender and co-owner of World Class bar This Must Be the Place.