Interview: Bartender of the Year Charlie Ainsbury pours out the inspiration behind his award-winning cocktails

For those willing to go beyond the hustle and bustle of Oxford Street between the CBD and Taylor Square, you will find This Must Be The Place. This neighbourhood small bar is the combined success of two award-winning bartenders and cocktail connoisseurs, Luke Ashton and Charlie Ainsbury. Luke and Charlie have both claimed the title of Diageo’s World Class Australian Bartender of the Year Awards; Luke in 2013, and Charlie in 2014 and 2016.

In an incredible second time round, Charlie was crowned this year’s Australian ‘Bartender of the Year’ for 2016, after being pitted against the nation’s top 24 bartenders across four cocktail challenges – ‘Bottled Cocktails’ ‘Against the Clock’, ‘Culinary Cocktail Champions’ and ‘Keel One Craft’. As a result, Charlie will represent Australia in the Diageo Reserve World Class Competition’s Global Final in Miami this September.

This year, despite competing for a second time, winning the ‘Bartender of the Year’ title for 2016 proved to be no less a challenging experience than the first time around.

“Nerves still get to you, and there’s a bit more pressure because people expect you to win again,” he said. “But that’s not the case. You’re looking at the top 25 of the most amazing bartenders.

“This year there was fresh faces, I hardly recognised anyone but this time around they were all really good bartenders and very experienced,” he added.

Charlie’s skill and passion for cocktails seemingly surpassed his nerves, seeing him take home a brace of national titles, though this year has left him with more time to enjoy his winnings, unlike back in 2014.

“In 2014, the day after winning, I had been given the global challenges (for the Diageo Reserve World Class Competition global final) and had four to five weeks to prepare for the comp, so it was a rushed period,” he said.

“This time round I haven’t received the global challenges yet, so I have time to enjoy winning the Australian competition. I’ve been able to go to places like Amsterdam, and have a bit of fun, and more time to prepare.”

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As part of this year’s competition prizes, Charlie was invited to Ketel One’s 325th Anniversary party in Amsterdam, an exclusive event that this year hosted soul legend Leon Bridges in a full band performance. This is one of many opportunities awarded to Charlie. Prizes from 2014 included the opportunity to visit various distilleries around the globe, such as the world famous Johnnie Walker distillery in Scotland, the George Dickel distillery in Tenessee, USA, and the Ron Zacapa distillery in Guatemala, South America, as well as the Bundaberg distillery back home in Queensland, Australia.

“Visiting the distilleries paints so much colour for everything. Things you have read before is only from books and online, but being there, smelling and feeling the distillery creates a much better picture of what is in your glass. To see how it was made and who by was such an eye-opening experience,” said Charlie.

Back home, Charlie now has the time to start his preparations before the global finals. The specific challenges are yet to be released but the brainstorming has begun.

“I am trying to think of what people won’t do in order to stand out. You want to be different, you want the judges to see what you can do that others can’t. From the previous global experience, I will look at where I did poorly or where I did well and work off that.

“In the past when the global challenges were created, ideas are taken from different markets, so a challenge may be a mix of several. I have no idea though. I feel a little bit more prepared. I know there will be a speed round, a food matching and probably something that has to be inspired my Miami or the US. So I am doing my research on that now.”

As part of World Class Cocktail Week, which wrapped up earlier this month having shaken up Sydney’s bar scene with various cocktail events, Charlie’s passion and award-winning creativity was poured into glasses as part of an exclusive four-piece menu at This Must be the Place. Two of his cocktails, Blood Sweat and Tears, and the Domaine Julio ‘cocktail wine’, were among fellow bartenderLuke’s cocktails, all debuting for the public from the ‘World Class’ competition challenges.

Blood, Sweat and Tears, the 2014 winning cocktail from the ‘blend of worlds’ challenge, has a rich smooth salty taste and packs a punch, bursting with delicious spicy flavours. The inspiration behind it is close to home for Charlie, who sourced the flavours from his own family heritage. Competitors were set the challenge of combining the traditions of Johnnie Walker with their own background, to craft a cocktail that connected them to the whisky itself.

“Johnnie Walker has strong family ties and I added that with the heritage of my own, which is a combination of Thai, South African and Australian. Mum is Thai, so from that, I took the five pillars of Thai cooking (sweet, sour, spice, salt and bitters).”

The spice elements were then combined with ingredients inspired by his Dad’s favourite drink, Dark and Stormy whisky, to craft his cocktail.

“Whisky is the base, which represented Dad, and the Dark and Stormy is represented in the cocktail as a reduction. That is where we get the spice – the ginger, the aromatics from the lime, and a little bit of sweetness from the rum.”

To tie that together with his Australian upbringing, Charlie really focused on local in sourcing the final ingredient. He hand-produced the salt, using water taken from Bondi beach.

Also on the menu from World Class Cocktail week was the Domaine Julio 2016, from the ‘bottled cocktail challenge’. This cocktail wine offers the sweet tastes of burnt fig, oak wood, and vanilla. For Charlie, the Domaine Julio cocktail was about creating a “cocktail without commitment”, a drink that would “bridge the gap” between wine and cocktails. The result is a smooth mixture of tequila, chardonnay and warm autumn spices including fig, clove and vanilla.

“I thought that in the setting of a restaurant, people may start off with wanting a cocktail, but then more often or not they will sit down for dinner and say ‘forget the cocktail, I will just go for a wine’. I took wine as the base and used Dom Julio because it was one of the first premium tequilas to enter Australia. It had to be drinkable like a wine but still have the taste of tequila.”

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The cocktail Charlie created for the Ketel One Craft Challenge from 2016’s World Class Competition was not on offer for the public. However, the inspiration, aptitude and formulation behind his Ketel One martini exemplifies Charlie’s innovation and unique passion for quality drinking. Competitors in the competition round were given the craft challenge of producing a drink inspired by 325 years of Ketel One. Charlie combined Ketel One’s dedication to improving their business for each generation with the trend of sustainability in bartending today. He employed the ‘closed – loop’ technique, meaning using the entirety of all ingredients, to produce a Ketel One martini using a sustainable method.

“I took a lemon, and people tend to use the juice and throw everything else away, but the skins do have the aromatic oils. So I used the skins. I was left with the pith but you can burn it down, leaving a grilled aromatic lemon flavour. I infused that with natural oil and so you have the grilled lemon oil from that.

“I made a Ketel One Martini with a Vermouth I made from scratch. Bartenders tend to throw away old wine that’s gone off. I got a wine that was a little bit off and created a Vermouth out of it. Then I infused the wine with different herbs and spices, and different botanicals including lemon and orange peel. I fortified that with Ketel One citron vodka. Then that was stirred and served in a Martini glass.”

His creative entry for the challenge didn’t end there. The Ketel One Martini was served on a coaster Charlie made himself.

“Once a drink served on a napkin gets wet, it goes in the bin. So I took a bunch of coasters and made my own paper. I got old bits of paper and threw it in a blender with some water. Then I poured it over a wire screen that drains the water and leaves cloggy paper. I let that dry and it becomes paper. I then took the seeds from the lemon I used for the cocktail and put it in the paper so the coaster had seeds in it. Once it is thrown away it could be used to plant a tree.”

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Charlie’s ethos to fine drinking extends beyond the practicality of skill and taste. His passion for tasty drinks and vision for excellent hospitality is combined to provide pleasurable experiences for patrons of This Must Be The Place.

“You can have the best drink in the world, but it will taste like shit if you had bad service and didn’t enjoy yourself at that venue. Alternatively you can have the worst drink you ever had, but if you loved who served it to you, you’re in a great atmosphere and having fun, then in a way the drink doesn’t matter.”

Although boasting a very different feel from Charlie and Luke’s previous establishments, Eu De Vei and Vasco Bar respectively, the light, minimal and contemporary design of This Must Be The Place adds a refreshing vibe to the Darlinghurst cut of Oxford Street.

“We wanted to make it feel like you are walking in to a café, a surrounding that is inviting as opposed to down a dark alleyway or in a basement. I love those bars but want to do something different,” he said.

There was a laid back feel to the bar’s overall atmosphere. Sophistication and efficient dynamics. The friendly staff greet you at the door, take you to your table and offer informed descriptions of the menu. This proves to be of much assistance when deciding on what to choose from the impressive and complex list of drinks.

The menu is seasonal, providing beers, wines and cocktails, and of course an impressive selection of spritzes. The Autumn menu is now on, offering a new range of cocktail creations. If you feel like escaping the cooler nights, become acquainted with the Indian Summer, a whiskey-based cocktail mixed with Perry cider and rosé, infused with sweet and spicy aromas of chai and Ume-su plum vinegar.

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This Must Be The Place:

Address: 239 Oxford St, Darlinghurst NSW 2010
Contact: (02) 9331 8063
Website: www.tmbtp.com.au