Every city has fore runners of cocktail scenes. Those people that maybe without knowing it, have altered the direction of a city’s drinking culture. Alex Ross is one of those people for the city of Melbourne. After more than two decades of working front of house in every capacity imaginable, she has watched one of the world’s cocktail capitals go through changes both good and bad. She has experiences that cannot be captured by words, but we tried anyway. Alex is one of those people that you want to spend time with. When we were recently in Melbourne we met her for breakfast and even though it was our first time sitting together, it felt as though we had done so a hundred times. She is one of the most real, honest and kind people out there. Alex took some time to chat with us about how Melbourne got to where it is now.
Bartender Atlas: What year did you start bartending?
Alex Ross: Oh my goodness…ninety… Well hospitality in 94 and bartending I wasn’t legally allowed to until, now everyone will know my age – ha ha – late 95 I guess. 96 I started bartending properly. I was door bitching and making coffee before that though.
BA: What style of Bartending were you doing?
AR: Naff as fuck honestly. Toblerones and Splices and Japanese Slippers and that kind of stuff. Well there were some Martinis mixed in, but no one knew how to make Martinis back then, not in my world anyway. I created a drink called an Angry Beaver.
BA: Oh yeah?
AR: Named after the Angry Beaver cartoon on Nickolodeon because it was a fucking cool cartoon. The drink was essentially a rip off of a Toblerone, with two chocolate wafers in it that looked like beaver teeth. It was genius, hahaha.
BA: After making drinks like that, what inspired you to open your first bar?
AR: What inspired my first bar was a trip to England. I always knew that I was good at what I did in hospitality. I was a bit of an all-arounder, obviously. I started out working cafes and door bitching so front of house work was my jam. The bartending culture to where it is today. What inspired me was that I moved to England to be with my fiancé at the time. You know do a backpacking tour of Europe and all that kind of stuff back in 98. I had jobs all over the place and a friend of mine Tim Lackey started working at Match Bar EC1 in London. There was another bar called Mash. It was really funky and 70s and it appealed to me because I was a Brunswick St. girl and Brunswick street in the 90s was all about reclaimed 50s furniture, formica table tops, everything was used and second hand. It was grungier, I mean, it was the “grunge” era. So going to England, coming from that world and seeing Mash with it’s space age 70s kind of feel to it, just really appealed to me. They had the bar stacked full with all sorts of fruits. I will always remember the star fruits, it was amazing at the time. I looked at all these exotic fruits and I asked “What the fuck are you doing with these things?” I looked at the menu and they were using all this fresh fruit from all over the world and all these herbs and other interesting stuff that all appealed to me.
That, and Tim started working at Match EC1. I went in there and he was very excitable. He loved what he was doing which got me excited about what he was doing. They were looking at this real range of booze that I had never worked with. My range was so small and simple by comparison. I only knew Midori and the Suntory family of stuff. Seeing that all excited me and got me charged!
About a year later my brother Toby came over and did his tour of Europe and he started working in London at a bar called Tsunami with Sebastian Reaburn and Wayne Collins. They were part of that early London movement. There was this London vs. New York sort of competition, at least looking at it from an Australian standpoint. There was kind of a “who’s doing it best?” thing happening. I really feel from my travels and what I saw that London really pushed that movement first with the fresh produce and that sort of thing. I think in the States and the early 2000s, Angel’s Share and Milk & Honey, that classic resurgence, they just refined it and nailed it.
But back in London I watched Toby and Sebastian and Wayne do their thing and I came back home because I wanted to celebrate the turn of the century here in Melbourne. I had done my travels. So I came back and started back at work, at the same place where I was making the Angry Beaver and I ended up running the bar there with this new mindset. I had all these new ideas running around in my head but there was only so much I could do there. This place that I ran was essentially a 24 hour cafe. It was booming and bustling on Brunswick Street, it was great and it was fun but it wasn’t doing what I wanted to do…jeez, this is a fairly distant story, you want me to keep going?
BA: Yeah! How did you go from the Angry Beaver bar to opening Ginger?
AR: Well, I got back and I had all these ideas and all these new thoughts and this new passion for bartending and I also knew that Australia wasn’t really doing anything like that. My bosses at the time decided to take over a new site that they were going to turn into a cocktail bar because they had started to see the way things were going overseas. They asked me to run the bar so I started writing menus and I was excited. But then they hired a consultant who came in and said that I wasn’t experienced enough. So before I really got started I was put back into the original space that I had been. I was angry about it and heartbroken and in hindsight I made a very wise decision though at the time it didn’t seem that way. Trying to run a whole venue. I was pretty young at the time, I must have been 21? 22? But because of that sort of anger I was like “Fuck this! I want to do my own place with my own plan!” I had a night out with my mum and she had a settlement from a legal case and once we had a little wine flowing through our veins I said ‘Why don’t you open a place and I’ll run it”. She thought that was a great idea. She was trying to figure out what to do with her life and that’s where Ginger was born.
So whilst I was working full time at the other place and getting as much information as I could from the guy they hired to run their new bar, we were looking for sites. We found multiple sites. We chose one, my brother Toby came back from London and we started pulling together a menu from things he knew from Tsunami and inspiration from Match. He trained all the staff and yeah, that was Ginger.
BA: You have mentioned Toby a couple times now, how many siblings have you got and are they all involved in the service industry?
AR: I have four and at one point in all their lives, yes. So I am the first and I worked at a place called Hideout. My sister Kate when she was 14 or 15 I got her hired there as a waiter, she was one of the best waiters they ever had. It took me a while to convince them to hire Sam. I think it’s because he was a boy, but I eventually got him hired when he was 16 or 17. He was behind the bar with me so I taught him how to make coffees and smoothies and all that kind of stuff. He was great at it and so he stayed there while we were opening Ginger and then as soon as Ginger opened he came to work with us. Toby did all the training so he trained Sam but Toby didn’t really last that long in the industry. He got sick of Ginger. He was going to come and do every weekend with us but he got sick of the novelty and then he was done.
BA: How has Melbourne changed as a cocktail city since you opened Ginger?
AR: We opened Ginger in 2001 and it was an interesting time. We opened on Brunswick Street because that’s my home and pretty much where my entire hospitality career was. We opened in June of 2001 and things were great. It was a different sort of style for Brunswick Street. The old school Fitzroyalty weren’t so enamoured with the idea of a shiny new looking cocktail bar that they didn’t quite understand.
Three months into us being opened, September 11th happened. That affected trade across the board, for everyone. Obviously it was something that resonated through the whole world. From a business perspective, no one came out for a couple months afterward. We’re a fledgling business, struggling to keep open and all of a sudden Melbourne had become a ghost town and everyone was just hidden away. It also affected our insurance premiums and public liability and all of a sudden, running a small business became much more expensive and a lot more difficult. So the cocktail scene had a bit of a struggle to get through it. In the beginning we had on our list Martinis for eight dollars because we didn’t know if we could sell them. We thought “fuck it, make’m cheap so that we can sell them”. We had a Bronx on our first menu, we had some amazing drinks but a lot of them were too hard to handle. The culture was used to sickly sweet, creamy, gooey cocktails. I think the early 2000s was when the “gimme something sweet” call came about. After all the cocktails on our menu that we had on offer, we had a note that said “Don’t know what you want, tell us what you like and we’ll make you something”.
BA: So you had a “Bartender’s Choice” option in 2002?
AR: It was actually still 2001. So yeah, then we realized we needed to get on the map with the industry. We knew that Dram in Sydney had opened just after us and Black Pearl I think had opened just before us, but not doing what we were at that time. Those guys would come down to see what we were doing. It was an interesting time. For years we had lines of bartenders waiting to work for us because there weren’t many places like us open. Bartender Magazine had started just before us, I’m not too sure on the timeline. Bartender Magazine started talking about these wonderful bartenders and these wonderful bars doing really great things. So we started going to bar shows and bar awards and all that sort of stuff. We realized that we needed to make an impact for Melbourne and for us. So Sebastien Reaburn came back from overseas and he joined us and we started to get a little taboo. We were causing a stir and getting a bit of a name for ourselves. We started putting wacky stuff in our drinks just get people to stop and listen. One of our house drinks was a wasabi Caprioska, which sounds horrible, but it was a really tasty drink. Then of course the classic resurgence came in across the world. Sam had moved to New York and he started at Milk & Honey and I realized from a business perspective that waste is bad. These were the days of 10-12 ingredients in a drink and the wastage was insane. So we spent some time refining things and simplifying things and that classic resurgence couldn’t have come at a better time. Three or four ingredients is all you need and I still like drinks that way. I like it simple. I like it clean. I like to be able to taste each individual ingredient. You know, stop fucking with my drink. Don’t give me a garnish if it doesn’t need a garnish!
BA: You are in a special situation, where you went to London in the late nineties and you have your brother Sam working in New York City. But with Melbourne being so far from, well, everywhere, do you feel like there are less outside influences on the city’s cocktail scene or is everything based on what locals come up with?
AR: Well, for me, the accessibility of the world, everything is accessible now, that’s amazing. What I have loved watching with this industry, the way all these brands spend money on their customers has changed so much. Overhead and taxes are so high that they can’t throw money around. Back in the early days when there was only a half a dozen great bars that were the top tier and that they knew they had to look after them. Wow the trips you could go on and the hotel rooms and gift bags. We had some really wonderful times. I know that still happens for a handful of their top tier bars.
What has happened more now is that they are investing more in bartenders rather than venues. So the case is that it’s people moving in and out and around and winning trips overseas or travelling to go work. We have international bartenders coming through Australia like never before. There are all these pop-ups whereas before they would come to work. It wasn’t about showcasing themselves for one or two nights, they would come to work for 6 months or 12 months, however long they could get sponsored. Sometimes they would end up staying for four years and we couldn’t get rid of them! Sometimes it was vice-versa as well. I’ve lost so many of my ex-staff to their desire to go explore what other opportunities there are. I think that’s how knowledge gets transferred. That transfer of knowledge and that inspiration that comes through when people are transferring that knowledge. You know, when Sam was smashing it at Milk & Honey, a couple of times he came back and I’d make him come in and train my staff. I would tell him “I want them to do things your way, then that’s going to be our way.”…because I’ve never had a drink balance the way it does when that little fucker makes me a drink.
BA: Other than Melbourne, where is your favourite city to get a drink?
AR: I love going to New York. I love going to Sydney. I think Sydney does things really well, with all of the shit they have to put up with, the lockouts and all that. They build beautiful venues. I just feel that they get all the fine details right. I’m a fine details person. When you are sitting there and you can look at every tiny little corner and you know they have just thought about everything. That floats my boat and I see that as a strength for Sydney. They hire proper graphic designers and interior designer and architects and brand people and all of that putting the right people in the right places. The overhead is high, but it pays off in the end.
BA: When was the last time you pulled a full on bar shift?
AR: (long pause)I guess it would have been at The Rochester Hotel, about two years ago. I loved working there. It’s a pub that does really amazing drinks. Really high quality cocktails as well as really fucking good beer on tap. It’s rock’n’roll.
Thank you, Alex, for taking the time to speak with us.