After traveling the world and winning a couple of Australian cocktail competitions, Tim Philips got crowned World's Best Bartender in the Diageo World Class competition in 2012. He has since become the owner of two successful Sydney bars – Bulletin Place and Dead Ringer, which opened in 2015.
We spoke to Tim Philips about how to get started as an aspiring bartender, and how to climb the ladder to cocktail success.
Photo: Daniel Boud
How did you get into bartending?
I started working in a pub out in the country outside Melbourne in 2001. I essentially worked as a glassy, picking up and washing glasses, helping out in the kitchen and doing a little bit of everything. I had just finished high school and didn’t really know what I wanted to do. So I got a full-time job in the pub, and a few things happened for me.
First off, I didn’t need an alarm clock every morning, which was amazing after having been in school for that many years. The other thing that happened is that girls were suddenly talking to me. Those things drew me into working in bars, and after a while I started to develop a passion for service and looking after guests, and cocktails after that.
You won the World’s Best Bartender title in 2012. What made you start competing?
After working in pubs I started working in nightclubs in Melbourn, then working at Black Pearl [Editor’s note: A bar named amongst the top 50 bars in the world]. I then traveled for three years, working in London, New York and France and really trying to take the next step every time I took a new job.
When I came back to Australia in 2010, I started entering cocktail competitions, mainly to re-establish my name in Australia. By this stage I had moved to Sydney and wanted to show Australia I had learned a lot and come a long way. Cocktail competitions are definitely a good way of putting your name on the bartender scene.
I entered for World Class in 2011 and won the Australian title. I then went to India to compete and finished sixth globally, which was actually quite disappointing. When I re-entered in 2012 I was lucky enough to win Australia again and go to the global finals in Brazil. That year I was even luckier to win the damn thing. It was huge.
How did traveling affect your bartending style?
I think one of the most important things that young bartenders should do is to take their skills abroad. Traveling bartending is super easy: pretty much every country in the world needs bartenders. And most countries have English speaking hotels, so even if you’re limited by the languages you speak, there are always English speaking bartending positions.
"Getting to know different cultures and learning how people like to be served in different cultures really opens up your eyes."
Learning from other countries and learning how to serve different styles of people is very important. As bartenders we need to be people-people. Getting to know different cultures and learning how people like to be served in different cultures really opens up your eyes.
Things you might perceive as rude is just the norm in another culture. The best example I have is in Asia. If you need service, you look towards your waiter or bartender and wave your hand. In Australia that's frowned upon. We try to make eye contact with our server and smile and motion with a head nod. In Asia a simple hand wave works in every bar. Understanding that is very important in making sure you are open to different cultures. That’s why traveling is still one of the most important things in my life for developing myself as a professional, but also as a human.
What are some things that you look for when you hire staff at your own bars?
We don’t look at skill sets too much. I’m of the opinion that skills can be taught. A lot of the time it’s almost best to get staff that haven’t learned bad habits yet. Whenever I hire staff, I look to hire people that I’d want to be served by myself.
I look for personalities, and I look for people-people. I want people with passion and personality. The most important traits that I look for in staff are personality, humility and a sense of hospitality.
How is training handled in your venues?
All three directors in the businesses have different skill sets, and we hire managers to bring more to the table. Ed, who works at Dead Ringer, has a huge background in wine, having worked at places like Rockpool, which has a humongous wine list. We look to hire managers who can train specifically on wine, and I obviously have a huge cocktail background. Between other directors we have great front of house experience.
Back of house is also one of the most important things to teach staff. Every bar is a business, and it's important for staff to understand the business side of things and that things cost money.
We want staff who are going to grow within the business. We want to give staff the tools to stay and grow with us or go on to be successful as professionals. If they leave us happily after a few years and open their own venue, I would be more than happy to be a kind of mentoring figure.
What tips do you give people who are just starting their careers or are wanting to become a bartender?
I think doing your yards is important. I have come across many young up-and-coming starry-eyed kids who want to work on the bar straightaway in some of the best bars in Sydney and Melbourne. You need to do your yards in bar backing because it teaches you to be fast, it teaches you good work ethic and how a bar works, and you can watch the interactions between a bartender and a customer.
I don’t think you should aim to work in a cocktail bar straightaway. Working in a pub is a beautiful thing. Pubs are where I spent the most time working. They teach you to look after regulars. They teach you the fundamentals of bartending. But the most important thing they teach is how to deal with characters and how to grow your personality. You need a personality to work in a good pub.
Once you’ve honed how to work in a busy local pub, that’s when you can step up and work for a place you admire. I’d say it takes generally two or three years before you should be aiming to work as a bartender in a good cocktail bar.
What are some things you see people struggling with when they first start behind the bar?
Experimentation. I think you need to learn the basics of cocktail bartending first. There are probably ten classic cocktails which are the fundamentals of classic cocktail bartending. Once you master those ten drinks, you have a really good platform to experiment.
Things like how to balance a Tom Collins, which is essentially gin and homemade lemonade. If you can make your own homemade lemonade, you have gone a long way towards becoming a great bartender and having a good palate.
"You’re only as strong as your weakest ingredient in classic drinks."
A Manhattan or a Martini are some of the most beautiful delicate simple drinks on paper. But they’re some of the hardest to balance because it’s all about subtleties.
You’re only as strong as your weakest ingredient in those drinks. Learning little details like ice and glass temperatures and all those beautiful intricacies is vital. I’d always suggest every bartender read classic cocktail books and practise making classic cocktails before they start putting things like dehydrated unicorn tears in drinks.
Do you encourage bartenders to taste a lot?
One hundred percent, definitely. We don’t allow our bartenders to drink behind our bars. Bartenders need to have respect for the drug that they serve. But tasting is something else. Whenever we open a new bottle of wine, we encourage all of our bartenders to take that first 10ml to taste the wine and get their heads around that wine. If they’re tasting it five days a week in their bars, it means they’ll know that wine inside and out.
When it comes to cocktails, even though I’ve been making about 500 to 600 cocktails a week for the last 12 years in my life, I still taste 90 percent of my cocktails before I put them out. Because I still forget ingredients, and I still like to test myself and make sure I am getting that balance. Making sure the balance of my drinks is correct helps me develop my palate.