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Meet Shaun Byrne

Shaun Byrne has managed one of the most renowned Melbourne bars, (or should I say “Ginstitutions”), The Gin Palace for almost 8 years. I caught up with him before he embarks on the next stage of his career.

How did you get the job at the Gin Palace?

I started here when I came back from London in 2007. I knew Murray Pitman, the previous manager and he was moving on so put me in touch with Vernon (Vernon Chalker owns Bar Ampere, Madam Brussels and The Gin Palace). We sat down and had a chat and he offered me the manager’s position then, but I didn’t take the job as I didn’t want to work too many nights! I didn’t become manager until I finished my Degree in Entrepreneurship at RMIT in 2011.

What’s the best part of the job?

I’d have to say the people I work with, my colleagues. Working in an environment where people still come in for a drink on their days off, that’s’ pretty special. It makes my job as manager much easier!

How has the gin category changed since you started here?

When I first started 8 years ago, there were 30 gins on the back bar, we’ve now started capping it at 200. I think I’ve probably tasted over 1000 gins in my time here.

Tanqueray, Hendrick’s really pushed the category forward as did Bombay Sapphire. The Americans pushed gin for their cash flow while they are waiting for their whisky to age, and now it’s the turn of the Aussie craft distillers.

Aussie gins are really focused. What we do with gin here is very unique; by using the native botanicals we’ve almost created a “terroir”. At the Gin Palace we even label it as Australian Dry.

Consumers beginning to understand the different facets of gin; the differences between gin cordials, navy strengths, and barrel-aged styles. I hope the next big thing will be genever; it’s such an underrated spirit.

 Do you think the category can sustain this growth?

No. Being the premier gin venue in Australia we cap our range at 200, because we just don’t have the room for more. We definitely go through the most gin out of all the bars in Australia and 200 is the limit.

I believe the category will eventually self-correct and those people making gins for a bit of cash flow while their whisky ages, won’t produce as much gin.

The drop in the Australian Dollar will affect imports and we’ll see more of a development of the Australian Distillers market. I love what Seb at Bad Frankie is doing, and it’s great to see the quality of Aussie spirits coming through and holding their own on the International stage.

However, anyone who knows anything about the Australian Distilling industry knows that the government needs to get off their backside and help them out a little bit with tax situation.

How do you pick the 200?

We call it the ‘Beefeater Bench Mark’. Beefeater is a good base rate London Dry Gin that you can pick up anywhere. It has everything you are looking for in a gin; juniper, great texture and botanical complexities.

That’s the level of quality we are looking for. The problem arises when you have 200 gins above the Beefeater benchmark! You can’t have a Gin bar without Beefeater!

Do people brand call when they come in?

Not really, we are a destination venue. People come here from all over the world to drink gin. The range does intimate people, and we help break it down for them as much as possible by offering gin flights. Inevitably, they are left in the capable hands of the bartender, who will ask them what they are looking for and what type of drink they are in the mood for.

What is the bestselling gin cocktail at The Gin Palace?

Martinis; 18 years in business and we still have the half a dozen martinis on the original cocktail list that we still sell. We’ve just added to the list!

The biggest change is the G&T bowls that we introduced (originally from Spain), they took off like I’ve never seen. We started dabbling with these large pours and they evolved to incorporate different seasonal garnishes. They’ve become a Gin Palace favourite and outsell everything else.

gin-palace-gin-tonic
Image reproduced with permission of Gin Palace

 

We do sell lots of Negroni these days, something that’s been driven by bartenders. Generally speaking whatever bartenders are drinking now, consumers are drinking a year later.

What is your favourite gin?

{Much laughter as Shaun and I both agree it’s like choosing between children}

It really depends on what I’m in the mood for, what the weather is like.

Like people drinking white wine in summer and red wine in winter, I don’t drink much genever at all in summer, but stick a Filliers vintage in front of me in the depth of winter and I’ll definitely drink that on the rocks.

Beefeater Aged (Burroughs Reserve) is also delicious. I can’t even give a definitive London Dry! Too much choice! It shows how varied the gin world is.

What’s your favourite gin cocktail?

I like adding gin to non-gin cocktails like the Bamboo (vermouth/sherry) or Duplex (vermouth).

Someone brings non-gin loving friend to the bar. What would you offer them?

Either Sloe Gin, or Bombay Sapphire Gin. It’s light and accessible. Generally speaking people often don’t like gin as they’ve either had bad tonic or bad gin.

Your other job is as partner in Maidenii Vermouth, how did that come about?

We started making our own versions of things we use behind the bar, like raspberry cordial, ginger beer, lime cordial, sherbets, and falernum and so on. I thought I’d give vermouth a go. It was OK, but Vernon thought it was good enough to set up a meeting with Gilles Lapalus.

Gilles then went off France to look at different vermouths and their production methods, returning full of ideas.

Together we tasted all the vermouths we could get hold of (around 50 in total). It was completely inspiring to taste vermouth with a wine maker because he could taste the wine base underneath everything. The common link between most of the vermouth was the poor quality of the base wine.

That gave us the starting point for what we wanted to achieve and we began playing around with different botanicals, with a focus on native and local ingredients to give a terroir to the product.

Maidenii-vermouth
Image reproduced with permission of Maidenii

Maidenii vermouth are made to EU specifications which insists vermouth be made with wormwood, be 70% wine and a certain sugar level. We don’t add any caramel (as a sweetener or for colouring) like other vermouth.

There are 3 vermouths: Sweet, dry and classic. I understand how to use Sweet and Dry, but where does classic sit?

It’s designed to be a vermouth you can drink by itself. Maidenii Classic was one of the botanical testing grounds. Gilles just happened to have a bottle when he was visiting Attica one day. Banjo tasted it and said he’d take the whole lot! We thought well, if it’s good enough for one of the best restaurants in Australia we should really think about producing it commercially. Since then it has developed and evolved to include more botanicals. Maidenii Classic is stocked at Dan Murphy’s and is designed to change people’s perception of vermouth. The Italians invented Aperitivo hour (bridging the gap between dinner and finishing work) and vermouth over ice is just perfect for that!

So, this May you are leaving after 8 years. How does it feel?

It feels good – I’m particularly looking forward to not working until 4am! There are lots of exciting plans with this consultancy business I’m starting up. I start the first job over in Shanghai immediately after I finish here, before going to Perth to open a lounge bar in a 6 star hotel. Then hopefully working with a few gin brands, but I can’t talk about that yet!

Would you consider making your own gin?

You’d be surprised how many times I’ve been asked and I’d say there is a better than average chance that it will happen one day.

Looking forward to that Shaun!

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The Gin Queen

The Gin Queen

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