Behind the list: how Caretaker’s Cottage crafted their new drinks menu

How one of Australia’s best bars put together their latest list.

Behind the list: how Caretaker’s Cottage crafted their new drinks menu

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Later this month, Melbourne bar Caretaker’s Cottage will pass the one year mark of operation — and they’ve had quite the debut year. They were named Bar of the Year by The Age’s Good Food Guide, picked up a win for best bar team at the Bartender magazine awards, and landed at number 60 on the long list for The World’s 50 Best Bars. They also saw their House Martini land at number 12 on the 2022 Boothby Drink of the Year Awards.

For my money? The bar was the best to open in 2022. As I wrote after they opened, Caretaker’s Cottage is something special:

“Caretaker’s Cottage reads like a love letter to some of the world’s great bars — there’s something of Edinburgh’s bar scene about it for me — little touches here and there of all the things that make great bars special, but put together anew to make Caretaker’s Cottage a thing all its own.

It’s early days yet, but Caretaker’s Cottage looks to be one of those rare beasts — the kind of place that becomes its own little world. It has the right ingredients. It’s the kind of place that, when you’re in it, you might even think that you’re in the best bar in the country, right now.”

As the bar’s owners, Rob Libecans, Matt Stirling, and Ryan Noreiks, get ready for their second year of trade, they’ve put out a new drinks list, one that feels quite different to their first effort. The graphic design is a little different, and they’ve evolved their approach to drinks, having spent a year getting to know the space and their guests.

Below, lightly edited and condensed for clarity, Rob Libecans tells us a bit about the big idea behind Caretaker’s Cottage, how this menu has changed (and why) from their debut effort, how they did it, and what makes their Guinness one of the best you’ll find in Australia.

The Batanga at Caretaker's Cottage. Photo: Supplied
The Batanga at Caretaker's Cottage. Photo: Supplied

For those who haven’t been yet, what’s the big idea behind Caretaker’s Cottage?

I suppose we always wanted a pub, but always saw it as the last piece of the puzzle — somewhat of a retirement venue for us. We stumbled across the cottage after probably seeing 200 venues over two and a half years. We knew instantly that we wanted the space.

That being said, we were totally naive to the sheer work that it would take to open it. First and foremost, we worked out what we thought the best things of a pub could and should be and then made them into what we thought they could materialise like. Ultimately, we wanted to open a spot that wouldn’t go out of fashion with drink trends and that we could express ourselves as much as possible in a small space.

How do you think about your menus — what is the role they serve for the bar?

Our menus act as the voice at the table for our venue. They’re always the brightest colour in the venue in which to stand out. We wanted the menu to convey as much information in bite size chunks as possible without visual saturation. Hence why it folds out to eight squares. Each square is its own drink category aside from our logo and acknowledgment to country.

This menu looks quite different from the menu you opened with. What’s the thought behind that?

The menu format hasn’t change since we opened, but having an in-house designer with Ryan I guess the change came with him just stretching his legs design-wise. We’re nearly a year open now. So, we’ve grown a bit. The “see you tomorrow” is just a little joke we say to everyone that’s on the way out of the door. Things like that take time to take root and become part of the venue’s personality. Moving forward the menu design will change each month with the cocktail offering, and the design will reflect the changing seasons and ideas we have towards the drink selection.

Have you changed the approach to drinks for this menu? Can you tell us a bit about why (or why not)?

When we started out, we had the right ideas but the wrong processes or convictions. We scaled back to get things right and out into guests’ hands. Now our team is bigger, we’re faster and smarter in our space, we can push ourselves. So now we can have more laborious prep, drinks that require a different method other than shaking and stirring etc. It’s just a matter of streamlining and honing what is to be our “house style”. We always have 1 stirred and boozing drink, Martini never changes and always one punch so that’s really three out of eight drinks that have a structure, so they’re always our starting point. Any perishables like fruit and wines tend to be added to the punch to negate anything being thrown away and adding to the bottom line. Next, we have two tall drinks, two in coups and one on the rocks or a unique glass for that drink to stand out.

We run a tight ship here. My days at White Lyan taught me to be creative without funds. Our menu must reach a minimum of 80 percent GP as an average for the collection of drinks. That means for the stirred and boozy numbers we can afford to have premium spirits such as Michter’s and Ocho in there, but it must be balanced at the other end with a low ABV drink or one that we can keep costs to an absolute minimum.

How long did this menu take to develop — can you outline the process?

The first 10 months were pretty much just me alone (we had three years to think of drink ideas, so I made an AirTable with 400 classics and 500 drink ideas for our contemporary section) as both Matt and Ryan have a lot on their shoulders too. I would finish a menu and present the drinks to the other two lads for feedback and finalisation. Now we have more staff and more ideas on hand and a better understanding of what we can produce but also sell to return guests and first timers. Now it’s a little more collaborative. We have a mock menu on our fridge in the kitchen and I assign the staff in pairs to submit a classic and a contemporary drink (plus back-ups). Then we present it to the entire team for feedback and direction. We have a rule that if one person doesn’t like a drink, it doesn’t make the list. From there we reach out to smaller brands in which to work with on short term partnerships.

Just a point on that. I’m not a fan of venues that present menus with a full brand-owned portfolio. Experience has led me to take less and work and collaborate with more people. Also means we’re not weighed under by a contract we can’t break from and can’t operate in either financially or creatively.

Home Comforts is one of Rob's favourite drinks from the new llist. Photo: Supplied
Home Comforts is one of Rob's favourite drinks from the new llist. Photo: Supplied

Could you describe one of the drinks on the list that you love, and tell us a bit about how it came to be? What makes it special?

I absolutely adore the Sgroppino. Our little homage to that is the Home Comforts. Homemade limoncello, passionfruit sorbet and a local sparkling cuvee. It’s light, tropical and perfect for a hot day.

Most importantly: why is your Guinness so damn good?

Clean lines, short lines, sell a lot, taste it as much as you can.

If it was easy, everyone would do it.

You can find Caretaker's Cottage online here, on Instagram at @caretakers.cottage, and in the real world behind Wesley Place Church at 139-141 Little Lonsdale St, Melbourne.