In a career that spans several decades, Naren Young has worked as bartender, manager and drinks writer in Australia and the US, including a five year spell as Creative Director of Dante, at a time when the bar was ranked as number one in the World’s 50 Best Bars ranking in 2019.
Naren was one of the many hospitality leaders who came to Sydney for the Maybe Cocktail Festival. For Naren though, this festival also marked a return home for the Australian bartender, who is now living and working in Miami, where he manages cocktail bars, Sweet Liberty and Medium Cool.
Naren’s last trip to Australia came prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns, and Bars & Clubs asked him how the current hospitality industry compares to its pre-pandemic counterpart.
“Sydney’s always had a pretty strong bar scene I feel over the last 25 years or so, that’s kind of maintained… I’m happy to see it thriving, especially coming out of lockdown and lockouts. With those in our rearview mirror, we can kind of put the pedal on the gas a little bit, and get on with it,” Naren says.
Moreover, Naren shared how he felt the bar scene in Sydney compared to those in New York and Miami – with quintessential Australian understatement.
“The service over here is really world class – New York is pretty famous for bars and restaurants,” he comments.
“Miami is kind of getting there – but it’s kind of still in its earlyish phases I want to say, still a lot of big clubs, big club-restaurants with a DJ in every restaurant.
“Service here is a bit more knowledgeable, most of the bars and restaurants I’ve been to are manned by professionals, so super knowledgeable. That’s really something to be proud of.”
For Naren, the chance to showcase his bar at the Maybe Cocktail Festival was an important opportunity for cultural exchange.
“Stefano [Catino, Maybe Sammy Co-founder] and I have been friends for probably around 20 years, so when this came up, it was a no brainer, he said: ‘Of course we’re going to try and have you down here.’
“It’s great because we get to bring a few of our team who have never been to Australia, and get to experience a little something on the other side of the world.
“It’s a nice little thank for you them to be able to travel the world and see different cultures and bar scenes and maybe get some inspiration – whether that’s drinks, service, or operations,” Naren continued.
Why cocktail festivals matter
Naren is convinced of the importance of these kind of festivals for bar scenes, not only in the hosting city, but for the wider global hospitality scene.
“Man, I think it’s huge,” Naren states.
“Any city that has a bar show, whether that’s in Berlin or London or wherever, I think that only strengthens the local scene, because you bring in all this talent from around the world – all of them have different perspectives, cultural traditions and creativity.
“So I think by infusing that into the Australian culture can only be a good thing.”
It’s also an opportunity to personally develop his own skills, as Naren illustrates.
“Any time that I can be around this calibre of talent, it only makes me better at my job and makes me want to be better. So I think it’s awesome what these guys [the Maybe Sammy team] have done,” he says.
Naren believes that the diversity of venues on show during the festival is another important factor contributing to its success.
“The calibre of bars is pretty insane, and everyone’s bars are very different. So we get to get a real cross-section, a real broad window into what’s happening globally.”
He also outlines the concept of Sweet Liberty itself – a kind of bar that is rarely seen in the Australian market.
“It’s a neighbourhood cocktail bar – family friendly early on of an evening. We’re definitely a cross between a dive bar, and a nice neighbourhood cocktail bar, so nothing fancy.
“We’re not trying too hard to be over the top… It’s a place where you can come in and get a beer and a shot if you want, or you can come and get a beautiful Martini – we have something for everyone,” Naren says.
“We’re open till 5am, 365 days of the year. We never close early. Kitchen’s open 365 days of the year. It’s very much an industry bar. A lot of people coming after they’ve finished work, whether that’s waiters, bartenders or people who are coming because it’s reliable. They know they can come in at 4am and get a meal.”
What hospitality means?
Naren gave a session at the Maybe Masterclasses (held on Sunday 16 April), entitled: ‘What is hospitality?’ It was an apt title for a topic preempted in his conversation with Bars & Clubs.
“Hospitality is going above and beyond what people expect of you, and trying to find a way to please people,” he says.
In his Masterclass, Naren expanded on what great hospitality requires.
“It’s not all about drinks,” he added.
“The art of hospitality can get lost as we concentrate too much on what’s in the glass. Yes, of course, we need to make great drinks, that’s one of the many reasons people come to bars.
“But I think that it’s important we understand that hospitality service and the way we deliver is front and centre, as opposed to having some strange concept or fancy glassware.
“At the end of the day, the drinks aren’t about us. It’s about what our guests want,” Naren concluded.
Naren and his team hosted a pop-up session with Fords Gin at the Norfolk Hotel in Redfern on 16 April.
All images, including header, credited to DS Oficina.