The craze for artisan-made alcohol
Mix and match … El Topo's Luke Redington with the club's namesake mescal-based cocktail the ''El Topo'' made with hibiscus and rose syrup. Photo: James Brickwood
He has laid his hands on every obscure ingredient from spicy cod roe harvested off the Tokyo coastline to vinegar made with New York apples, but it's lemon, pickles, salt and rye whiskey that's getting David Chang worked up.
The culinary king and owner of the Momofuku restaurants in Sydney and the US was recently asked to create an original drink for an alcohol company and almost immediately concocted a fresh take on the drink-of-the-moment, a pickleback.
But rather than reach for a whiskey with a name as famous as his own, Chang went small. Very small. He teamed up with Bulleit Rye, a rare, small-batch American whiskey that hit Sydney a few months ago - despite a global rye shortage - and isn't stocked anywhere but a handful of top small bars.
''I'm not 19 years old; I don't want to pound shots of bad alcohol any more,'' he says. ''Quality and taste is much more important to me than buying cheap alcohol. Why would I want to buy cheese from the mass producers when I could use the country's only raw milk cheese? It's the same with alcohol.''
His knockout pickleback - a shot of the whiskey with a chaser of salted preserved lemon and pickled lemon juice - is a simple drink that plays on the historic marriage between citrus and classic whiskey cocktails, Chang's latest fascination with pickling, and one of his typical no-nonsense philosophies: ''Don't f--- with it too much.''
And while Bulleit Rye may not be the smallest of small-batch spirits (it's owned by the global giant Diageo but is still made on a small scale using a 150-year-old recipe) Chang has given rise to a trend that is rapidly spreading through Sydney's small-bar scene.
It happened with wine, food, beer and coffee, now spirits are embracing the trend towards the small-scale, finely crafted, artisan ethos.
A Bundi rum or Johnnie Walker whisky was once considered extravagant but now drinkers can choose from hundreds of rums at La Bodeguita del Medio or whiskies at Baxter Inn, some of them so obscure they have never found their way to Australian shores before.
Likewise, a Tanqueray gin and tonic doesn't cut the mustard any more. Bars such as Hazy Rose and Gardel's Bar are stocking Sipsmith gin from a boutique London-based distiller that makes just 350 bottles a day.
''There's a big movement towards having something that is a bit unusual and that is really going to challenge your palate or change your view of a classic cocktail,'' says the owner of Hazy Rose, Dominique Easter. ''And people are more interested in knowing a bit of the story behind a drink. They don't want something made in a big factory.''
Every time her staff travel back to their native Britain, they'll pop into Gerry's Wines and Spirits in Soho and bring back a couple of bottles of the latest obscure vermouth or rum.
Across town is El Topo, a new Mexican restaurant atop the Eastern Hotel in Bondi, whose bar supervisor, Luke Redington, spent six months traversing the hills of Mexico to bring back 30 rare mescals (spirits distilled from spiky plants called agaves) and five sotols, creating the biggest collection in the country.
His mescal menu resembles a wine list - each drink is listed by agave plant variety and differentiated by village and even family.
''Some of them are still using garden hoses and pots and bottling their stuff in empty plastic bottles,'' Redington says.
The tradeoff, of course, is price. The best spirits can knock the price of a cocktail up to $30 and a shot of Bacardi's rare 150th anniversary rum at Hinky Dinks in Darlinghurst is a cool $180. But bartenders argue the quality and novelty factor is worth it. For them, it's as much about offering their customers something unusual as satisfying their inner bar nerd.
''There's definitely a bit of competition to try to have something no one else has,'' says the manager of Gardel's Bar at Porteno, Jess Arnott. ''Someone from another bar in Sydney will post a photo of a crazy bottle of rye they brought back from America just to show off. I guess we're all total geeks.''
But Redington says bars in Sydney are moving away from boasting about the size of their collection to focusing on how well thought out it is. ''It's really cool that people are making a conscious effort not just to put in booze for the sake of booze,'' he says. ''But, rather, for the sake of customers trying something really different.''
The catalyst in Sydney was the small bar laws introduced in 2008. All of a sudden, small-batch producers that had been shut out of the market because they couldn't produce the amounts big pubs or bottle shop chains demanded had a way in.
''What you've got now is independently minded bartenders and owners that are not backlashing against big brands but just opening up to really exciting craft products,'' says the London-based owner of Sipsmith gin, Sam Galsworthy.
In fact, shunning big bottle shops and bars in favour of a few hidden cocktail bars has become such a desirable way to brand spirits that even the big players are doing it.
Bulleit's brand manager, Charlie Downing, says it is a conscious marketing strategy to have Bulleit supplied in just a few bars dubbed ''Bulleit Holes'' and promoted through a series of low-key ''Speak Easy'' bar hang-outs.
Booze blogger Simon McGoram says bartenders are seen as ''influencers'' who aren't going to sell huge amounts but will influence customers and set what's cool.
However, the small-batch trend has been severely hampered in Australia because of the country's ''ridiculous'' excise tax regime, says Curtis York, the owner of Quittin' Time, a Sydney-based small-batch spirits importer scouting out some of the world's rarest rums, cognacs and mescals.
''The tariffs are horrendous and worse than anywhere else in the world,'' says the 60-year-old, who gave up his job as the manager of a technology company in 2004 after falling in love with a Brinley Gold flavoured rum in the Caribbean.
''They prevent importing the type of products that people aren't going to be slamming down anyway.''
Interestingly, he shipped off a colossal order recently of almost every rum he stocks to Coles and Woolworths-owned companies that are opening specialty rum bars in Queensland.
It seems even the giants are jumping on the small-batch bandwagon.
David Chang's Bulleit Rye Pickleback recipe
1. Slice six lemons into four wedges running lengthwise. Remove the peel from the flesh with a knife and put aside.
2. Mix a 60:40 ratio of fine sea salt with white granulated sugar - for six lemons, mix 6 tbsp of salt with 4 tbsp of sugar.
3. Mix this in a bowl with the lemon peel and some fresh lemon juice.
4. Set aside in a plastic container, tightly covered, ensuring the lemon peel is submerged. Refrigerate for a week.
5. After a week, take out some of the lemon peel and chop finely to resemble a ''minced'' consistency. Mix this with some of the preserved lemon juice and some cold water to taste. It should be salty, a bit bitter and tart. The following ratios work well: ½tsp of lemon juice with 100ml of water and 50g of the minced lemon, or 3 tbsp of lemon juice with 650ml of water with 150g of the minced lemon.
6. At this point, you can add sugar or a sugar syrup to increase sweetness.
7. Pour 30ml of this liquid into a shot glass. Pour 30ml of Bulleit Rye or Bourbon into a second shot glass. Sip the whiskey alongside the juice.
Some of the best bars to try small-batch spirits
● The Baxter Inn: 360 different whiskies, almost one for each day of the year; 156 Clarence Street, city.
● Absinthesalon: the only Sydney bar carrying such a range of the green fairy; 87 Albion Street, Surry Hills.
● Eau-de-Vie: store your own bottle of obscure small-batch spirits in the bar's cabinet; 229 Darlinghurst Road, Darlinghurst.
● La Bodeguita del Medio: 150 rum varieties from every corner of the globe; 125 York Street, city.
● Tio's Cerveceria: a bunch of tequilas and mescals from who knows where; 4-14 Foster Street, Surry Hills.
● El Topo: claims to have the country's largest selection of mescal and sotol; 500 Oxford Street, Bondi Junction.
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Sipsmith gin makes 350 bottles a year. This was incorrect and changed to 350 bottles a day.