From behind the bar at the Capitano in Melbourne’s Carlton, Darren tames the bold palate profile of the extremely bitter Fernet-Branca and creates the After Eight, inspired by After Dinner mints from childhood memories, and the golden age of home-entertaining.
You have been challenged to make a cocktail with Fernet-Branca. Tell us about the liquid and the inspiration behind your creation?
I looked to make a slightly softer variation on a classic Stinger with an Italian bent. Fernet-Branca is such a wonderfully psychotic ingredient so, to my mind, requires bold flavours and lower alcohol levels to tame it. I wanted to create something that anyone could make with ingredients that most bars have on hand and with products that can be easily substituted as well. A childhood memory growing up was when my parents had friends over for dinner a box of After Dinner mints would inevitably follow the coffee out. Childhood memories are on-trend these days thanks to shows like Chef’s Table. I was inspired to combine the more fun Fernet-Branca with Cognac to create a bourgeois take on the After-Eight.
Tell us a little about yourself and how you got started in the industry?
I was working in a factory doing an apprenticeship as a boilermaker when one Saturday night I got a call from a friend asking if I could pull a ‘glassie’ shift. I begrudgingly (hungover) accepted under the promise of as much Red Bull and Coopers Sparkling Ale as I could consume. Within the first half-hour I was completely sold. I was pretty much ready to walk away from my apprenticeship, however, stuck it out and worked weekends and the odd weeknight at the bar (Botanic Bar, ADL). Once I scraped my trade papers together, I started working full time in bars.
At what stage did you know you were going to be involved in the F&B Industry?
That fateful Saturday night all those years ago, just the feel and energy of the room was intoxicating. When you’re 19-years-old and out drinking and partying you never think about more than trying to get laid, shots, and trying to get laid. To see the choreographed mayhem that goes on behind the scenes, that whole swan effect, was super cool. Add to that, you’re part of creating memories and moments for people, even if I was picking up empties and sweeping up broken glass and ciggy butts. It just felt like such a rewarding way to earn a living. Interacting with people having the best night of their lives is pretty cool. Once I started learning about cocktails and spirits and matching flavours, I fell quite fast down that rabbit hole. It’s an immensely rewarding feeling to see someone’s face and get a sense of their happiness when they taste something that they deem right or delicious. So no matter how I’m doing that with either cocktails, wine, shots or whatever, it’s a feeling that I’ve not yet, and don’t think, I’ll ever tire.
Share with us the good, the bad, and what is exciting about the current scene in Australia?
Good – Creativity is absolutely insane at the moment with bartenders looking at using modern techniques and local, native ingredients to give some of the drinks coming out of Australia a true expression of terroir. The inclusivity of the industry and willingness to share knowledge is also super good, and it keeps you pushing every day.
Bad – People not wanting to learn how to bartend and instead be creative. It’s all well and good to challenge flavour profiles and guests’ ideas about what works in drinks, but if you don’t have your head up to greet people as they arrive in your venue, come to work with the intention of making sure people feel better when they leave than they did when they came in, or pump out drinks and multitask like a mofo, then what’s the point?
Exciting – It’s such a clichéd answer, but the produce here is just outstanding, so it makes creating drinks more accessible than it should be.
As a bar manager – how do you stay current in the growing F&B scene?
Try to travel as much as possible, read as much as possible, go out as much as possible, especially to new openings or places that you love. There is something about just being out and about that can be hugely inspiring. You have a different view of
things when you’re not getting paid to be in a bar, watching who’s doing what and which bars are at the global forefront of the industry. The beauty of platforms like Instagram allows you to seek out an individual’s page and hear more about the exact preparations of their drinks.
Globally who inspires you or which country has a bar scene you would love to work in or immerse yourself?
I’d love to work in New York or San Francisco. There are too many people and venues to name, but the crews at Sager + Wilde, Caffé Dante, Three Sheets and The Everleigh are all doing their bit to make the world a happier place!
What’s next for Darren?
Just keep my head down and push on at Capitano. I feel like looking too far ahead will mentally push you halfway out the door.
20ml Branca Menta
20ml Mancino Rosso Vermouth
Method: Stir over cubed ice and strain