Bartender Profile: Michael Nouri

Michael Nouri of Vasco bar was only on the bar scene for seven months when he was nominated for the 2014 Time Out Hot Talent Award. In this interview, he speaks to us about how he started in the industry, his source of inspiration and the evolution of the Sydney bar scene.

Michael Nouri
Michael Nouri at Vasco Bar – Photo © by Kevin Burke for Gourmantic

Tell us a little about yourself, your family and where you grew up.

I was born in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1982. Two years later my family hauled ass to Sydney.

At the age of 10, my family and I moved to the Central Coast to pursue new business opportunities and to start a new life. Not long after, many of my extended family would follow suit, setting up their own ventures along the way. And so it began, my 20 year residency in my families’ businesses of restaurants and cafés.

The restaurant game wasn’t all that kept me occupied in these years. Running parallel with my life in the hospitality industry was my passion for music. Not only was it a necessary outlet, but it also laid the foundations of my creativity. It taught me composition, arrangement, timing, nuance, balance, feel and energy. It taught me how to work with others, how to think on my feet, and how to think outside the box despite technical limitations. These lessons proved to be invaluable to my work in the hospitality industry, especially as a bartender. It’s been a mutually beneficial partnership.

How did you get started in bartending?

Bartending was something I had an inkling for during my early teens. There was nothing around the Central Coast in those years that could satisfy that itch. Instead of spending time in shitty pubs, I chose to stick it out as an all-rounder and learn everything I could about the hospitality industry.

Up until four years ago, I had never worked a shift behind a bar, and like most good ideas, my career as a bartender was born out of necessity. At that time my cousin and I were setting up a restaurant and cocktail bar called Byblos. We wanted a place to call home. A place where we could spend most of our time. A place where the liquor selection took care of us as much as we took care of it!

Cocktails weren’t a thing on the coast at that time and there was a definite gap in the market, so I decided to set up solid and approachable drinks program that would create a point of difference and inject some excitement into the dining culture. It was a blank canvas and I would have to quickly learn how to tend bar.

Tell us a little about your bartending career.

I was pretty much self-taught during my three year tenure at Byblos. As the only person there who knew anything about booze outside of drinking it, I was constantly sampling, creating, experimenting, and training. Many sleepless nights were spent endlessly reading and researching.

In April 2013, I moved back to Sydney, and in May I took up a job at Vasco. I’m still there and loving it. Not long after starting at Vasco, I entered the 2013 Suntory Cup, where I placed second in NSW. My first and only cocktail comp to date. Great fun! Also, being nominated for the 2014 Time Out Hot Talent Award was quite a shock, considering I’d only been on the scene for 7 months at that point.

What is your most memorable bartending experience to date?

It was Friday, 24th May 2013, my first night at Vasco. I was having a terrible week. I’d just moved to Sydney and wasn’t having any luck finding a job. At 4pm I received a call with an unfamiliar voice on the other end. It was Max Greco. He needed a hand and asked if I’d like to come in for a trial. As it turns out, it was also Luke Ashton’s birthday, and there was the promise tequila, lots of it. Quite frankly, he had me at Luke Ashton. HAHA!

I get there and the place is jumping with the smell of beautiful people and the sounds of rock & roll and cocktail shakers. I was home. Within minutes I’m behind the bar making cocktails I’d never even seen before. Max yelling the specs down the bar. 45, 20, 20, 15…..!!!! As is tradition, it got pretty wild. I got the job. The rest is history.

Who has been an influence or a source of inspiration to you?

Everyone I’ve met has had some sort of influence on me. I admire so many people in this industry and I’ve had the pleasure of working with quite a few of them in this short period of time. I owe a lot to these fellas in particular: Max Greco, for his inimitable style, passion, energy, experience and hospitality, Luke Ashton, for his creativity, drive and encouragement, Hayden Wood, for his patience, kindness and mentorship, and Nigel Weisbaum, the first guy I ever called on when I was starting out in this game.

What are some of the challenges you face as a bartender?

It’s physically taxing. Even though I’m used to it, being on your feet for long hours, and working very late nights, only to get up early for the day job can really take it out of you. My back and I have a love/hate relationship.

What are your favourite ingredients that define your style of cocktail?

Arabic ingredients are definitely things I reach for a lot. Even to me, they can be so mysterious. For want of a better term, they speak my language. Ingredients like traditional cordials, herbal syrups, teas and infusions, rose and blossom water, za’atar and spices all tickle your senses with an ethereal quality you just can’t find anywhere else.

As for a “style”, it’s not a limitation that I’d care to place on myself. Be honest and apply yourself to what the moment calls for. Your personality will naturally come through and you will have created a timeless experience for someone.

What excites you about the Sydney bar scene?

What isn’t exciting about the Sydney bar scene?! It’s social, high quality, fast paced and one hell of a good time! The avant-garde are developing new concepts and business models that are pushing the boundaries of what’s possible, and profitable. The abundance of options within each area are giving locals the opportunity to experience great food, drinks and service never before seen outside of the inner city. Coupled with the emergence of some very talented bar keeps, it ain’t hard to get a good drink in this town anymore.

Is there anything about the Sydney bar scene that you’d like to see change?

Realistic and sensible licensing laws. Legislation that does not debilitate what is the fastest growing and most influential cultural development this city has seen. Sydney is taking the world by storm, and with so many people having worked so hard to take this city to an international level, it’s a shame to see the gears go into reverse. I’d love to also see us fostering more live music! If your venue can support it, then get those talented buggers in there.

How do you see the Sydney bar scene evolving in the near future?

With the rise of new business models, such as crowdsourcing, the industry is beginning to understand that there is more than one successful way to do business. Creative ways of interacting with your clientele through new forms of media. Collective ideas that bridge the bar scene with cultural initiatives.

What cocktail trends or spirits interest you at the moment?

What I’m actually diggin’ at the moment, is that there doesn’t seem to be any dominating trends per se. We seem to have gotten through our adolescence reasonably unscathed. Now much more mature, we appear to have acknowledged that everything, and every style, has its place. How and when you choose to apply those tools, products and ideas, is a sensibility that, in my opinion, encourages greater individual and communal creativity. Whether it’s a spirits category, venue theming, or even drink styles, bartenders all over are becoming more open to working more freely.

When you’re not behind the bar, what do you like to drink?

When I’m off duty, I don’t want to think. So whatever the barkeep is pouring, is fine with me.

And finally, is there a special cocktail of your creation that you’d like to share with Gourmantic?

Rich and aromatic, this is wonderful comfort drink, perfect for Autumn. The Scotch Milk Flip, calling for Scotch whisky, fresh coffee, Milk Oolong Tea syrup, Angostura bitters and a whole egg. Grate some fresh nutmeg on top and find your favourite spot in front of the fire, you won’t be moving for a while. Enjoy.

The Bartender Profile series continues next week.


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About the author

Corinne Mossati

Corinne Mossati is the Founder/Editor of popular online magazine Gourmantic and Cocktails & Bars, a website dedicated to cocktail culture and the discerning drinker. She is named in Australian Bartender Magazine’s Top 100 Most Influential List since 2013, is a member of The Academy responsible for judging the World’s 50 Best Bars. She has also judged the inaugural Australasian Whisky Awards and various national cocktail competitions.