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Follow the Balvenie's Ross Blainey around the UK with 6 of Australia's best bartenders. Pre Covid of course!
Six of Australia's best bartenders, a bottle of very special Oloroso (think Sherry) and me. Not bad for a Sunday afternoon in a hotel room in London prepping for our first takeover of The Balvenie Stories Tour UK January 2020. A couple months before COVID-19 was even a worry, we were embarking on what was probably to be the only trip of the year! I was lucky enough to be hosting 6 talented individuals in the UK for a week of collab events with Lyaness (successor concept to the No.1 bar in the world, 2019 Dandelyan), Artesian (ranked No.48 in worlds best bars) in London and Kelvingrove Café in my hometown of Glasgow before hitting the malting floor at The Balvenie for a few drams.
As with any great story, I hadn’t anticipated this happening when we began our journey 6 months before. I had started a conversation hoping for some inspiration, whilst making cocktails and chatting whisky with our apprentice malt master, Kelsey McKechnie. After some hard work, creativity and a little diplomacy, we were in London. Our 6 bartenders were about to show what Australia had to offer in terms of creativity and hospitality from around the country in one of the best bars on the other side of the world.
We looked out over the Thames river polishing off a wee Oloroso from Montilla, which I might add is not technically a sherry as it is from just outside the “sherry triangle” in Spain but was also an absolute cracker! I explained that over the previous few weeks as I travelled around some of the top bartending cities in the world, I couldn’t help thinking that we are so under-rated in Australia. Our bars are incredible and our people are so good that you can walk into pretty much any of the top 100 bars in the world and find at least one Aussie. I’d put money on it. Some of the most influential people in the bar industry, in the world are Aussies. Our actual Australian bars don’t always get the global credit they deserve. I wanted us to take the opportunity while on The Balvenie Stories Tour to tell our story, the story of just how inspiring the style, passion and creativity of the Australian bar scene is. Let's make sure everyone knows we’re representing Australian bars. Another clink of glasses, the universal bartenders cheers of a tap on the table and that was it for the Oloroso. Done and dusted.
So why do I think we have such great bars in Australia? Maybe it’s the exposure to an array of flavours with such a diverse and flavourful culinary culture. It could be about our use of native ingredients or our focus on sustainability which has, quite rightly become so prominent. Or the passion, creativity and drive that comes from a close community across the country supporting each other and sharing ideas. For me, it's all of those plus one big thing. The style of service expected in a world class bar is the natural style of how our bars work in Australia. Attentive yet casual, fun and professional. We know how to have a laugh in Australian bars while the work ethic means everything gets done at just the right time. The natural character of the general community is what makes Australian bartending so special and sought after around the world.
So with 6 of the best bartenders in tow we made our way around the country mixing up a cocktail list created by our Aussie geniuses showcasing one whisky, the new release Stories range from The Balvenie – The Sweet Toast of American oak. A beautifully sweet and toasty single malt that tells the story of Kelsey McKechnie, our apprentice to David Stewart MBE, the longest serving malt master in the industry. Kelsey created this whisky with an eye (or nose) on heightening the flavours she loved in The Balvenie. Sweet maltiness, honey and citrus. She made the journey to Kentucky and the Kelvin Cooperage to meet the owner, Paul McLaughlin. They created some very specially toasted virgin oak barrels with an extra slow long toast to really draw out that rich sweetness from the oak. In the same way, Kelsey used this slightly unusual method to heighten the character of the Balvenie our 6 bartenders used in parallel with their ingenuity, skill, native ingredients and stories from memory to create what has to be one of my all time favourite cocktail lists. One thing with this list that really amazed me was that all of them used the same base and every single one was so different. From Jess and her “Beurre Noisette” with its rich, creamy full bodied tones to Nicola’s “Up the Coast'' reminiscent of an ocean walk with Samphire tea, soda and her “outback elixir” each one had a new story, flavour and feel to it. I suppose it just made me realise the limitless possibilities whether in whisky and/or cocktails with a bit of skill, thought and the passion that goes with it to make something truly special.
The journey started with me passing on the story of Kelsey McKechnie, our apprentice malt master and our new whisky, The Balvenie 12 - Sweet Toast of American Oak to 6 bartenders around the country and it all finished with sharing the story of Australia and its awesome bars to 1000’s around the UK. A twist in the story I had not expected but certainly welcomed. At The Balvenie, stories are our lifeblood. It doesn’t all get written down but we love to pass them on. I hope we can share more stories of Australia, and its talented people around the world soon, across the bar over a dram or two.
A big thank you to the 7 people who made it a very special journey that I will never forget
Alissa Gabriel – Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Sydney
Alicia Clark – Double Deuce, Sydney
Jessica Arnott – Foxtrot Unicorn, Perth
Nicola Dean – Maybe Mae, Adelaide
Chelsea Catherin – Black Pearl, Melbourne
Kayla Reid – Nick and Norahs, Melbourne
Alwynne Gwilt – The Balvenie Ambassador, UK