Women behind bars – meet Australia's top female bartenders

Earl's Juke Joint bartender Jemima McDonald epitomises 'dive bar'.
Earl's Juke Joint bartender Jemima McDonald epitomises 'dive bar'. Photo: Steven Siewert

Bartending is the art of keeping other people happy. You're there to serve refreshments, but you're also there to entertain, educate, and occasionally stop people killing each other.

Which makes women particularly adept bartenders, though it is men who are so often associated with pouring, swizzling and muddling your favourite cocktails. These wonderful women are working late nights and tapping kegs for your refreshment. Listen to their jokes, learn from them about what they do.

If you are fortunate enough to be served by them in person, request a Hanky Panky. It was invented at the turn of the last century by Ada Coleman, the first female head bartender of the American Bar at the Savoy, London. It's boozy, it's sweet, it's bitter, but above all else it's fantastic testament to the long history of females behind bars.

Trish Brew from the Gin Palace.
Trish Brew from the Gin Palace. Photo: Simon Schluter

Trish Brew

Bar manager, The Gin Palace, Melbourne

Best known for: Dry martini with a lemon twist, which sits between hot and diluted like a spirituous, viscous dream.

Brew is famous for being as sharp as a tack. From her knowledge of booze to her humour and withering take downs of lame pick-up lines – "Sorry pal, I've got things to do and you're not one of them" – she's always razor sharp. When she finishes work she reaches for a bucket of neat whisky and a flavourless beer. She recommends drinking gin in a well-balanced, carefully diluted martini or a crisp G&T (with fresh tonic and citrus and enough ice to ensure the gin isn't drowned).

Sorry pal, I've got things to do and you're not one of them.

Trish Brew

Brew is the manager of classic Melbourne lounge bar, Gin Palace, which has weathered time like a fine whisky. It's comfortable but still glamorous with an impressive collection of gin, that to the delight of Brew and all sensible people everywhere, has grown its Australian collection tremendously with the boom of Australian distillation. They champion the small boutique spirit, paying the few dollars extra and studying the rare botanicals to ensure they can entice drinkers to new brands.

The Gin Palace, 10 Russell Place, Melbourne, Victoria

Shay Chamberlain

Bartender, The Black Pearl, Melbourne

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Best known for: pre 1900 Manhattan (rye whiskey, sweet vermouth, absinthe, curacao, stirred, served up).

Chamberlain is known as being one of the feistiest and fastest drink-slingers in town. Her CV is stellar, including Bulletin Place and Big Poppa's in Sydney, and currently Black Pearl, Melbourne. When you watch her work you see a command of her station and total consistency in her drinks. She is calm, resolved, and smashes out perfectly executed libations by the dozen.

For female bartenders lecherous men are a pitfall of the trade. Shay simply forewarns would-be paramours that she is a Siren, luring men to the rocks, only to drown them.

Shay Chamberlain, bartender at Melbourne's Black Pearl.
Shay Chamberlain, bartender at Melbourne's Black Pearl.  Photo: Simon Schluter

Chamberlain is  also one of the most vocal of campaigners for promoting sustainability behind the bar, being an early adopter of ditching plastic straws. Very possibly the easiest change you can make for a greener world is to ask your bartender to hold the straw. 

Her passion for drinks spans from classic to mod. When approaching modern drinks and twists she strives for funk.

Her current bent include shrubs, natural wines and vinegars. Her signatures are likely to be heavy on flavour, robust in strength and likely to intimidate the delicate drinker. Persevere – herein lies bountiful rewards.

Black Pearl, 304 Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, Victoria

Jemima McDonald

Bar manager, Earl's Juke Joint, Sydney

Best known for: a boilermaker: Wildflower sour beer and a shot of Bulleit rye.

Jemima is an old school bartender, through and through. She may not refer to herself as a mixologist but she delivers straight service with panache. She's also a classically trained dancer, swears like a sailor and is vegan.

Roll up to the bar and ask her to make her favourite drink, and the result will likely be something classic, with a story behind it. That could be a Sazerac, the drink that was invented in New Orleans, and is a classic serve of booze (whisky, cognac or a mix of both), spiked with bitters and a driblet of absinthe.

A bartender advocating such a dark and serious drink is all too uncommon, and even more so because it's the antithesis of McDonald, whose salty language and sense of humour is a drawcard in and of itself.

The greatest bars embody escapism. They are, if you're lucky, a bar within stumbling distance of your house, playing music you have forgotten you love, serving drinks that wash away your day, garnished with jokes pitched at you by someone as funny as this bartender.

She epitomises "dive bar", which is the opposite of the starched neo-speakeasy. The dive jive is all about fast-talking, fast-drinking, loose morals and loud music. And this star of Earl's Juke Joint nails it in every way. While she's slinging juice fast and loose, Harlem Shuffle by Bob & Earl is pounding your ears and tomorrow's work is a lifetime away. McDonald is studying to become brewer, so we may yet lose from the bar scene. If we do, we'll probably see her producing Australia's best craft beer. One to watch.

Earl's Juke Joint, 407 King Street, Newtown, NSW

Amanda Verratti

Licensee, The Marlborough, Sydney

Favourite drink: The Southside; gin, mint, lime and sugar shaken and served up.

When you talk about bartending, the attention is often not on the pub or the licensee. But if we're here to talk about women behind bars, we'd be remiss to ignore the publican. Verratti is the licensee of the Marly Bar in Newtown. A haven for bikies in the '60s, it's now one of the many outlets of Solotel, one of the fastest growing and most dynamic hotel groups around.

At the late-night Marlborough Verratti is trusted to run what could fairly be described as one of the most difficult pubs in the state. On the cusp of the lockout zone and Sydney University, the Marly has three venues, operating in fierce constraints. Verratti's role doesn't entail the glamour of front of house, but it encompasses business, operations, logistics and all of the detail of the bar. She champions the small producer. Five years ago that was unheard of in Sydney pubs.

The Marly back bar boasts local and national craft spirits and an impressive third of their taps are home to local, independent brewers on heavy rotation. If you want to spot Verratti, look for the petite blonde, with navy blue lipstick, tattooed on one arm with juniper and the other with lemon.

The Marlborough, 145 King Street, Newtown, Sydney

Mary White

Bar manager, Lobo Plantation, Sydney

Signature drink: White negroni daiquiri (white rum, Suze, Lillet Blanc, lemon, orange bitters).

When you descend the narrow spiral stairs from Clarence Street in the city into Lobo's rum paradise you might be excused for missing White. Cast your eye across the impressive line-up of tin-rattlers setting cinnamon on fire, look down. Look for the woman a hairsbreadth above five feet shaking two tins, while stirring three mixing glasses and serving four people. White's skills sit above anyone – this woman is more on fire than the 60-centimetre flames flying from her gas lamps.

When asked what she sees as the largest obstacle to her doing her job, she doesn't think gender, she thinks height, referencing jumping into the middle of two 1.8-metre blokes about to tear each other's heads off. You may well think she doesn't stand a chance, but she uses her brains and humour to separate the sparring Spartans. Humour and a megaphone. It's hard to focus your fists on the enemy when a tiny blonde referee with a loudhailer is calling you out.

Lobo's speciality is rum, and it has one of the best collections in the country. Just don't expect tiki. Lobo is the speakeasy for the rum brigade. Expect table service, high-end cocktails, and perfect execution delivered by a woman who can see over the bar, even if she can't reach the top shelf without climbing.

Lobo Plantation, basement, 209 Clarence Street, Sydney