Sam Kirk brings global perspective to Sydney’s cocktail scene

Sam Kirk

Originally from the Central Coast of NSW, Sam Kirk recently left behind a decade of international bartending to return to Australia, bringing a wealth of experience and a unique global perspective to the local hospitality scene.

Sam was recently appointed GM and Creative Lead at Newtown’s newest late-night haunt, Pleasure Club, bringing a fusion of London’s timeless elegance and Montreal’s consumer-focused flair to the Sydney hotspot.

It’s 10 years since his stint in London, where he found his feet at Matt Whiley’s first solo venture Talented Mr. Fox and later with the team at Peg + Patriot, and Sam feels that his approach to cocktail making has been heavily influenced by the creative freedom he was given at the time.

“London 10 years ago was a really interesting place to be, it was the start of the modern cocktail renaissance. We were using all of the technology available, and for the first time there was this real creativity in terms of where people wanted to take their drinks. The availability of technology meant that you could literally translate those ideas into drinkable cocktails,” he says.

“You had this unlimited creativity flowing around everywhere and people were coming up with new things that nobody had ever seen, like savoury cocktails. My experience of London was just about having this wild creativity where anything could be done, and I’ve always stuck with that.”

Sam also learnt a lot about the high standard of cocktail making in London.

“Cocktails were always mega presentable because the standard was so high. It’s stuck in my head forever since then, thinking that all drinks should be clarified and they should look neat. That’s really dictated the style of cocktail that I put out.”

Leaving London behind, Sam went on to spend eight years in Montreal, which offered a stark contrast to the bar scene that he had become familiar with.

Starting out behind the bar at The Coldroom, and eventually taking the reins as Beverage Director for the group, one of Sam’s biggest takeaways from North America was the career-driven approach of bartenders, and the emphasis on good service.

“For a long time [in Montreal], the drinks weren’t as important as the hospitality of the venues, there was a lot more emphasis on the service style. It’s a lot freer over there in terms of restrictions and compliance, so it’s a bit more wild,” says Sam.

“There’s a different way of approaching hospitality, where there is heaps of pride in how warm and welcoming your bar is, and that’s obviously influenced by tipping culture as well.”

Sam Kirk

With the hospitality industry at a standstill in the height of the pandemic, Sam opened a beer-focused retail, and later bar, concept in Montreal, but the draw of the Australian lifestyle quickly became the catalyst for a move back to Sydney, where he took the lead as Bar Manager for the opening of Jackson’s on George.

“While you have the opportunity to make a lot of money working in bars in North America, you’re also at the mercy of seasons and tips.

“Australia has always been home and I really like the hospitality here, it’s a little bit cheekier and we have an Australian way of doing everything in our own humor. We have a really high level of hospitality, with really good drinks and good service. While people take what they’re doing seriously, they’re not taking themselves too seriously while they do it,” he added.

Shaping Sydney’s cocktail culture

Back in Sydney, 10 years since his first bartending role at Talented Mr. Fox, Sam finds himself in a new, yet familiar space. Reconnecting with Matt for the launch of Odd Culture Group’s latest venue Pleasure Club, the pair co-curated the opening cocktail programme.

“Matt came on for the opening as a consultant. I started as his bar back 10 years ago, so it’s really nice to be working with each other 10 years later, but with me as the GM and Creative Lead. It’s amazing to be working together and collaborating with a mentor, rather than just working for them.”

For Pleasure Club’s opening cocktail menu, Sam was given a brief of nostalgia, which Nick Zavadszky, Creative Director at Odd Culture Group, encouraged him to interpret as he pleased. Turning to his own personal nostalgia, Sam spent some time unpacking his childhood memories and anecdotes of Australian culture with his Canadian partner.

What’s interesting about the cocktail menu at Pleasure Club is that each of the drinks are based on such specific memories of Sam’s, but they resonate so deeply with everyday Aussies. Cheez TV, for example, harks back to his memories of watching the popular children’s cartoon show.

“I had this memory of never being able to watch the end of Dragonball Z because I had to go run and catch my school bus. I’d be sitting there eating some cereal, watching Cheez TV before I had to grab my school bag and run out the door.

“I was one of those kids that never cleaned their bag, there was always a banana peel in there or a leftover lunch, my bag always smelt like bananas. With that cocktail, we took those memories and ended up with a milk punch with coco pops milk, a banana juice made with one of our techie processes using the centrifuge, and whisky. It has the core elements of the cereal and banana smell.”

Knowing that Sam never had his creativity limited in London, there are some very literal translations of this almost a decade later in his menu at Pleasure Club, and another great example is the Sex Wax.

“It’s designed to have the coconutty-pineapple smell of surfboard wax, that fresh smell and the idea of sunscreen at the beach. Growing up on the Central Coast, this was a very specific nostalgia for me, and to translate that into a drink we ended up making a really fresh, carbonated cocktail,” he says.

“We ended up doing double coconut, using fig leaves for a grassy coconut flavour with a coconut rum, and then lightened it up with cucumber and pineapple clarified. Trying to incorporate that beach element, we created a coconut sand on the rim, so it’s got this visceral feeling when you pick up the glass, it’s a bit sandy.”

With further signatures such as Mr Whippy, Passion Pop, Chicken Parm and Cherry Ripe, the list of nostalgia-loaded cocktails goes on. While the early noughties influence dominates the first iteration of Pleasure Club’s cocktail menu, Sam says a new menu will launch in the coming months, although the theme has yet to be decided.

For Sam, themed menus present an opportunity to engage customers on a narrative level, but they also rely on creativity and craftmanship for successful execution.

“There’s a lot of creativity when you’re working within a box or context. It cuts out all of the background noise and allows you to really focus on theming, and making drinks that work within your theme,” he concluded.

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