How Ellery Low won the Australian final of The Vero Bartender 2024

Nostalgia is a powerful thing (when done right).

How Ellery Low won the Australian final of The Vero Bartender 2024

I’ve written before that Amaro Montenegro is something of a bartender favourite — Monte, as it’s affectionately known, is an accessible amaro; it’s bitterness is tempered by a lick of sweetness, yet it still offers enough complexity to please both amari fiends and novices alike.

Put simply? It’s tasty stuff.

And on Monday night here in Melbourne, at Nick & Nora’s, eight bartenders came together from across the country to contest the title of The Vero Bartender 2024.

The Vero Bartender is Amaro Montenegro’s global cocktail competition, with the Italian word vero translating to true, and the judges — Spirits Academy national education and program manager, Mark Hickey, 2023 Australian winner Tom Opie, and myself — were treated to some impressive performances and drinks.

The finalists in Melbourne. Photo: Supplied
The finalists in Melbourne. Photo: Supplied

The prize? Up for grabs was a residency in Italy in April, to take part in the global final and walk the streets of Bologna, the home of Amaro Montenegro.

Each of the drinks were inspired by some element of the 1990s — a theme that was equal parts fun (because I remember the 90s well) and bittersweet (because I remember the 90s well, and, you know, the march of time).

That’s the thing with nostalgia: as Don Draper said, it’s delicate, but potent. “It’s a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone,” the Mad Men character says.

That’s how Ellery Low won the Australian final. The bartender, who runs Maker in Brisbane, knows how to put together a delicious drink (after all, the bar did land at number two on the 2023 Boothby Best Bars in Queensland list), and he didn’t disappoint: Ellery made us a tasty drink.

But that’s not what put Ellery over the top.

Ellery Low in Melbourne last night. Photo: Supplied
Ellery Low in Melbourne last night. Photo: Supplied

He made us feel something with that drink.

Creating a drink inspired by memories of yesteryear isn’t a new thing. But it is hard to do well — often in a cocktail competition the ‘inspiration’ feels like it has been tacked on to a drink, retrofitted to tick the scoring sheet boxes. There’s a lot of inauthentic drinks parading as inspired artistic inventions.

But you didn’t even need to hear Ellery’s presentation to be pulled into the story he was weaving — you could taste it.

Here’s what Ellery did.

His winning drink was called Choc Top, inspired by the ice cream of the same name you’d get in the cinemas in the 1990s (man, I miss going to the movies at 1998 prices). Ellery used 60ml of Amaro Montenegro — more than the minimum 30ml, which when you’re judged on how the drink showcases a brand, is a smart move — vanilla bean vodka, cinnamon syrup, waffle cone milk. But as he got his presentation underway (he came in under the 7 minute time limit, by the way — another smart move), Ellery pulled an atomiser out and performed a theatrical spray above our heads, filling the air with the aroma of popcorn, the smell of the cinemas of my youth. Once the drink was made — it was batched, but he added a little Amaro Montenegro to it live on stage in another smart move for a brand competition — we stuck our noses in the glass, and the drink nailed that choc top smell. My brain fired up with sense memories, I was back in the foyer of the movies in the 90s. The drink itself was delicious, too: it made me wonder why Amaro Montenegro isn’t in everything all the time.

There are lots of little pieces to Ellery’s win. He presented well — though the best and most captivating talks, I think, came from Alessandro Nardini and Vincenzo Sidari (Maybe Sammy) — and the recipe for his drink, I imagine, is very involved. There was the atomiser. The cacao butter-washed chocolate bitters on top of the drink. A waffle cone garnish. A precisely balanced, moreish, delicious drink.

There are many elements to the win, but they’re all in service of one thing: he made us feel something joyful and wondrous.

That’s a very rare thing to do.