Jenna Hemsworth works at Bad Frankie, a great Melbourne bar that only sells Australian spirits and jaffles (so good!). After watching her compete at the Australian Bartender awards, I was keen to interview her.
How long have you been mixing cocktails?
I’ve been making cocktails for 4 years, but bartending for 6. My first 2 years were working in high volume nightclubs before taking it more seriously.
It was great fun, I learnt what to expect in hospitality, how to deal with people and to be quick at making drinks.
Then a friend offered me a job, saying he’d he’d pay me more and offer me some training.
Did you always want to be in hospitality?
It was just a job to get me through uni and then half way through I just decided I really enjoyed it, I was good at it and decided to put my heart into it and get as good as I could.
Where did you get most of your training?
Each place I’ve worked at I’ve chosen in order to fill the knowledge gaps that I’ve had. So I’ve worked in a beer hall and I’ve worked at Cookie. I worked the floor at Eau De Vie Melbourne, which gave me a great insight into fine dining and whiskey. The Kodiak Club gave me my knowledge of Bourbon, while Ramsay at Little Blood taught me a lot about tequila. Now at Bad Frankie, I’m learning about the Australian side of things and distillation.
What is your favourite drink?
At the moment I’m big on vermouth, sherry or anything fortified, but my absolute favourite at the moment is Rye Whiskey.
So this year I watched you compete at the Australian Bartender of the Year, bu that t wasn’t your first competition?
No, a Disarrono competition in Sydney was my first. I had to make an Amaretto Sour and a cocktail of my own which was about 45ml liqueur and lots of sugar. I think I got diabetes just making it!
Fortunately, going to bars after work and seeing how other people work has helped me develop my palate and cut back on the excess. I’ve realized that a cocktail can be as delicious with three ingredients as it can with 7!
For World Class (International Cocktail Competition) they gave us a food dish to match a cocktail to. The dish was Kingfish with avocado. Immediately, I thought that anise, fennel and tequila would go really well, even though I hate anise. It was a great, well-balanced cocktail but something I would never drink.
As bartenders we learn to make the drinks other people want, not what we like to drink.
So, who or what inspires you?
You are expecting me to say my boyfriend aren’t you? (Jenna is dating Nathan Beasley , Australian Bartender of the Year) [Laughs].
My driving force is knowing where I came from, and how, in such a short space of time, I’ve exceeded my expectations. I never thought I would get into to a national competition. It exceeded my expectations to get to the Final. All those people I’ve been up against, have been bartending so much longer than I have, so it’s a great honour to be held in the same regard as them. Now I want to be the first female bartender to win one of these competitions.
That’s my inspiration, watching how other more experienced bartenders work and challenging myself to be better than them.
Have you got a game plan for the next 12 months?
Study! I do watch Nathan and what he does. Every morning he’ll be on Alcademics and websites looking at what’s new in the world of drinks. He has that passion naturally, I don’t have that, I’ve got to work at it. It’s time to switch my brain into “This is something that I love, even in my down time I need to work on it.” This means going to cocktail bars I don’t usually go to, reading their house cocktail lists, going where you trust the bartender and have something off their house list to see what they are doing with fresh ingredients, and different things that I don’t have access to.
I’m also inspired by watching (bartenders) who work cleanly and precisely. It makes me think about how I’m working. Everything needs to have finesse to it.
So, I obviously need to ask you about gin, what’s your favorite?
West Winds Cutlass. It translates well in G&T, a gin and soda or in a martini, especially with olive garnish. If I could only drink one gin it would be that one. I also love Plymouth, and I like the exotic flavour of Beefeater 24. I select a gin depending on what cocktail I’m drinking.
What are you asked for most here?
What’s your favourite gin cocktail?
I like a Blue Moon (gin, lemon juice, crème de violette). It’s a delicate subtle drink that enhances London Dry with its floral flavour. The other one I like is a White Lady (gin, lime, sugar and triple sec, with or without egg white)
What gin based drink would you recommend to a first time gin drinker?
Either a gin Rickey, a Tom Collins or maybe a white lady.
What’s the best thing about working behind the bar?
Being able to read people and given them what they want without them having to ask me. Like if they aren’t into gin, figuring out something together they want just by asking questions about what they usually drink. I get my satisfaction from them saying, “That’s exactly what I wanted!”. Especially here, where I don’t have big brands to work with. Someone might say they like Hendricks so might suggest Dobson’s gin which is a light and floral and I think they would find it similar.
Do you think you have to work harder because of the parameters of having only Australian Spirits on the back bar?
It was very, very hard at the start, when I didn’t know the subtleties and differences between all the products. After working here a while and tasting them all, I made myself think of a more well-known equivalent, so if someone wanted a big heavy rum, I could tell them the closest equivalent we stock, and why.
Are your customers more open to suggestions?
We tell customers when they arrive that we only serve local Australian spirits and people are often surprised there are so many. We offer tastings or we ask people to tell me what they like and what I personally think they will enjoy. It challenges me to come up with a drink I think they will like.
What gin do you sell most of?
Four Pillars. It’s such an easy-going drink.
Where are your favourite bars?
I travelled overseas when I was much younger, so I can only tell you about Australian venues, but I love The Everleigh, Bar Americano, The Rook in Sydney and Black Pearl.
If I were taking a tourist around Melbourne, the favourites would be; Bar Americano, The Everleigh and The Beaufort. I love the way the Beaufort are doing a rock n roll dive bar in such a unique way. The bartenders there are as comfortable pouring a pint as making a cocktail.