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Catching Up With Charlie

A few months ago, we heard that Charlie Ainsbury was stepping aside from his multi-award winning bar This Must Be The Place to expand his horizons in the industry. This news came off the back of Dan Murphy’s announcing Charlie as its first ever spirits ambassador. With the dust now settled on this whirlwind of change, we spoke with Charlie about venue ownership, how he felt stepping away from behind the bar, what his role with Dan Murphy’s entails and his search for the next industry opportunity.

How did you first feel stepping out from behind the bar and how do you feel now?

For the first week it just felt like I had a few days off. It’s hard to switch off from that kind of work but I’ve had a chance to recuperate. My legs feel a lot better and I’m back in the gym and in the boxing ring on a regular basis, which is great. I’ve found that the role of househusband suits me down to a tee! My girlfriend seems to think so anyway.

What does your role with Dan Murphy’s encompass?

I am the Dan Murphy’s Spirit Ambassador for Australia and this role is aimed to inspire and educate the consumer on spirits and cocktails with a particular focus on home bartending. The role is only part-time, but it’s a topic I am passionate about. As bartenders, we tend to make things look a lot more difficult and showy than they really are or need to be. Behind the bar we are in the spotlight, framed by shiny bottles and fancy bar tools and present cocktails sometimes with esoteric ingredients, weird brand names and, perhaps, with ingredients prepared with an odd technique. These things can alienate and confuse our guest. If you don’t believe me, host a cocktail class and tell me how many people ask you, ‘What’s sugar syrup?’ I’m trying to break down those barriers, show people that it’s not that hard and that anyone can do it at home. The Australian public have embraced the world of cooking, I’m trying to do the same with bartending.

Does Dan Murphy’s offer bartenders anything by way of workshops or opportunities for education?

The role with Dan Murphy’s is very much consumer focussed. Bartenders have their own opportunities for education within the industry, so it’s my job to provide the consumer with their own.

A fact people may not know about you, you grew up in Bangkok before moving to Sydney in 2001. What was the bar scene like in Thailand then and how do you think it has progressed to now?

Bangkok’s bar scene in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s wasn’t just about the infamous red-light district. There were plenty of nightclubs and lounges opening in different neighbourhoods all the time. Interestingly, the government and local police were known to occasionally display their power and raid certain nightclubs so for a while there, so if you wanted to go out and party late you had to find nightclubs hidden in certain parts of town that could only be found through word of mouth – like a speakeasy.

It has certainly progressed since then. There’s a fast growing small-bar movement in the city now, with great bars opening that serve great drinks. In a few years I can see it being one of the top cocktail destinations in Asia.

When you were at This Must Be the Place, what did you find were the most rewarding and challenging aspects of bar ownership? 

I can put down the most rewarding aspect to a moment in the bar on a Friday night. A new bartender was about to embark on his first shift running the floor. He was starting early in the evening but already our venue was full front to back, so I had to give him a rapid briefing on every table before I threw him in the ring; who was who, who were they with, what was the occasion, what were they drinking etc. About halfway through the rundown I realised that we knew everyone in the venue. Every table was occupied by a regular or a local.

The most challenging aspect of bar ownership, particularly small bar ownership, was trying to find a balance to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Like I said, it was hard to switch off; even when the night is done, the lights are off, and the door is locked, your day isn’t over. There will always be something to worry about, something to pick up the next day or something to do to help keep your business afloat. 

With the benefit of hindsight, what advice can you give to anyone looking to open a venue in Australia?

Work in as many venues as you can. Work in nightclubs, pubs, small cocktail bars and everything in between and make sure they are good, busy bars. If you can work in a venue that’s brand new or about to open, even better. Open what you think will suit the market and importantly, the local community. Take as much information as you can from all of your managers and owners. Trust your instincts and other people’s instincts; once you think you’re ready, ask someone in the industry you respect if you think it’s a good idea. And then do everything I just said, again.

What does the future look like for you? Are there any other projects on the horizon?

I’m doing some small projects and event work in the meantime to keep those ‘numbers in red’ a little less red, and searching for a new role in the industry. There’s a few things in the pipeline so stay tuned.