Bartender Profile: Ben Blair

From jazz trumpeting in Sydney to managing a juice bar in Auckland and working “at some banging joints”. Presenting Ben Blair in our Bartender Profile series.

Ben Blair
Ben Blair – Photo © by Kevin Burke

Tell us a little about yourself, your family and where you grew up.
My first few years were spent in Clovelly, I grew up in the Inner West (Leichhardt was bloody boring) and am now firmly planted back in the East. When I was 18 I moved a little too far east – I ended up living in Auckland for a year – before coming back to Sydney for a little bit and heading to the UK.

I come from a solid little family, anything but standard haha. I’ve got gay parents (both of em) an adopted brother and I couldn’t be happier. At school I was a clown, I was more interested in girls, bodyboarding and football than being in class! I was a jazz trumpeter for 10 years alongside that, so the creative side was always prevalent.

How did you get into bartending?
I was managing a juice bar in Auckland, so I loved being in a service industry but was over the Juice Bar thing. When I came back to Sydney, I worked sales for 5 minutes before realising I was broke. I slipped into potentially Sydney’s worst bar (Bristol Arms Retro) as a way of earning money on the side before I realised I had way more fun there than any other job I’d ever had. I lasted about 2 weeks before finding myself a better job at a restaurant (totally lied my way in there!) and the rest sorted itself out.

Tell us a little about your bartending career.
Far from illustrious, I’ve lost more competitions than I care to remember! Best I’ve done is top 10 in World Class 2 years running (trying for a win this year!) and 2nd at Bartender of the Year.

I’ve worked at some banging joints, with some legendary people. From Tonic Lounge in The Cross and over to London where I was at Shoreditch House and managing the bars and drinks program for Sir Terence Conran’s 50th venue, plus a stint where I opened and was Bar Manager at a cabaret/burlesque club then back to the Victoria Room at its peak and The Corner House plus plenty of event work here and in London I’ve had some fun. I’m currently annoying Simon Toohey at The Crossing in Bondi, and will be opening my own Chinese Restaurant and Bar called CHI-NEE in the next year.

What is your most memorable bartending experience to date?

Working with Sweet & Chilli in London doing the V-SOUTH festival. Absolutely epic team, and waking up with Wray & Nephew to pick mint for 4 hours with 49 other people before getting flogged for 12 hours of cocktails really is much more fun than it sounds.

Who has been an influence or a source of inspiration to you?
Everyone I have ever worked with. I have tried to take a positive and learn from a negative of every person I have ever worked with. Love you all.

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

My body falling apart. My shoulder is gonna need surgery in the next couple of years and I’m semi deaf. Also, resisting face-palming every time someone asks me what I really do for a job. I tell em I’m a Bar Owner in training.

What are your favourite ingredients that define your style of cocktail?
I definitely have an unhealthy obsession with orgeat. I’m a rum guy at heart and…you can see where this is going. Tiki. Lucky tequila goes so goddamn well in those drinks as well.

What excites you about the Sydney bar scene?
Everyone is back to giving a f*ck about service. I like that. We’ve entered an era where bar concepts are well thought out and it’s not just kids with cash opening bars because the laws have changed (still happens though). In fact the new laws are stifling that, so it’s really just passion projects that make it appear as a viable choice.

Is there anything about the Sydney bar scene that you’d like to see change?
Legislation. Sort your shit out, you scumbag politicians. Pull your heads in and quit trying to dance around real solutions with ones that get you into the media. We need to change the culture of our drinking, not shut the bars.

How do you see the Sydney bar scene evolving in the near future?
I would hope for a tequila nightclub, a couple of decent tiki bars and a beach bar. Realistically? Everyone’s gonna be ageing cocktails in leather, lifting their garnish game, showcasing better beers and hopefully using more locally foraged ingredients.

What cocktail trends or spirits interest you at the moment?

Foraged foods, Australian native ingredients and the reinvigoration of tiki. Rum, I’m sorry I cheated on you with Tequila.

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

A decent beer – some far out flavours without the effort of someone in front of you having to do anything but pop/pour it.

And finally, is there a special cocktail of your creation that you’d like to share with Gourmantic?
Sure, it’s called a Quackery and it’s a twist on the Daiquiri that I use for people who don’t know what to drink. Don’t be a duck, bro. Drink a Quackery.

50ml Havana Club 3
7.5ml Campari
20ml lime
15ml orgeat

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.