Samuel Thornhill created the Drink of the Year in 2023 (here’s how he did it)

The Byrdi head bartender talks about the year-long process of creating the drink, and removing the distinction between bar and kitchen.

Samuel Thornhill created the Drink of the Year in 2023 (here’s how he did it)
Samuel Thornhill winning the Drink of the Year presented by Patrón. Photo: Christopher Pearce

The Bad Apple is a drink with a complex, five part recipe, is garnished with an oligosporus fermented apple — yep — and won the title of Drink of the Year presented by Patrón at the 2023 Drink of the Year Awards.

The bartender behind the drink? That’s Samuel Thornhill, the head bartender at Byrdi in Melbourne and our guest on this week’s episode of Drinks At Work — it’s a good one.

I talk to Samuel about the creative process, how bartenders at Byrdi go about getting drinks on the list, and making the time for R&D and creativity.

And interestingly, we talk about how very few bars open without some sort of a food offering these days. Whilst that’s a topic I wrote about in Monday’s newsletter — you can read more about it here — what I find interesting is Byrdi’s approach to this new reality.

Yes, they offer food — I love the prawn toast there, even if, as he says in this episode, Samuel has made so many serves of it that he wants the dish to be axed — but it’s the approach to hiring and staffing that is unique.

I remember in the mid-2010s, there was a general move towards dissolving the distinction between the floor and bar staff, with bartenders being encouraged to serve tables, and floor staff trained on the bar. Sometimes it worked, sometimes — well, some bartenders should stay behind the bar and get on dispense.

The best example of this, however, was at Bulletin Place, where on some nights you could find some of the world’s best bartenders on the floor waiting tables — and absolutely loving it. They worked the bar some nights, other nights they worked the tables.

But at Byrdi? Well, they’ve gone one step further, Samuel says.

“There’s no real distinction here between kitchen and bar, everybody is cross-trained,” he says.

“The idea is that we don’t really see a difference between cooking and bartending.”

Some shifts they’ll be in the kitchen, some shifts on the bar — that’s about as blurred a line between kitchen and bar as you’ll find.

I think it’s amazing. I’ve met too many bar owners to count who, over the years, have said they don’t want to do food because they don’t want to deal with a kitchen, and hiring a chef.

Maybe Byrdi has the answer.

Give the episode a listen in the player here, and below, I’ve got a couple of additional takeaways from the chat.

You can listen to Drinks At Work on Apple PodcastsSpotifyAmazon Music and on Android.

“A hear-me-out option.”

That’s what the Bad Apple is — a hear-me-out option. It’s a spot on each Byrdi menu for a drink that’s a little more boundary-pushing than the other.

The Bad Apple, which is served with a mouldy, fermented apple as garnish, certainly fits the bill.

But the story behind the development of the drink, as Samuel explains in this episode, shows just how detail-oriented and motivated you need to be to be executing at this level. It took him around a year to get the drink from idea to delicious execution, with multiple experiments and iterations.

“It was actually one I got pretty fed-up with after a while,” Samuel says.

Samuel Thornhill at the 2023 Drink of the Year Awards. Photo: Christopher Pearce
Samuel Thornhill at the 2023 Drink of the Year Awards. Photo: Christopher Pearce

“It’s about creating moments for us. Everything’s based around time and place.”

People — particularly the younger generation of adults — are going out less, spending less in bars, and drinking less. And drinks are getting expensive, right?

But when people are more inclined to stay in, what are you going to do to pull them out of the comfort of their home and their bottle-shop canned cocktails?

You have to offer them something they can’t get delivered at home, something that isn’t easily available elsewhere — something that can’t be commodified.

“Every time you come back should be a different experience,” Samuel says. The focus at Byrdi is on eating and drinking Victorian produce that is the very best it can be at that moment; on subsequent visits, there will be different drinks, different dishes.

And an experience you can only get at Byrdi.

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