Shaun Byrne: from bartender to vermouth-maker and award-winning liqueur producer

The bar proved a great training ground for this award-winning entrepreneur and author. He makes ace vermouth, and a world-beating cassis.

Shaun Byrne: from bartender to vermouth-maker and award-winning liqueur producer
Shaun Byrne. Photo: Supplied

You can listen to the latest episode here, in the Apple Podcasts app, on Spotify, or your podcast player of preference.

My career behind the stick wasn’t particularly distinguished – I was a serviceable bartender, pretty good on dispense, but never really pushed myself to work in the best bars in town. The truth is I didn’t think I was good enough.

But I did make a few in-house vermouths for one of the places I worked, back in early 2010. I was proud of those. They were something that ended up getting my face into Bartender magazine for a shoot in their How To section — thank you Simon McGoram for the call-up — which in many ways led me to where I am now.

I made a rosso vermouth with red wine (most traditional rosso vermouths got their reddish hue from the botanicals they used; flabby white wines were the base), and I made one with kombu and an Islay whisky caramel that was smoky with a whack of umami. I made a dry vermouth that, looking back, sucked. I made a sake vermouth which I loved.

I pieced a base recipe together from snippets across the internet and experimented with different botanicals and used good wine to do so. It was fun, something that at the time was a little different, I hadn’t seen done before and a way to make classic recipes my own. You can still find the base recipe on the Bartender website.

My vermouths were pretty tasty, but at no point did I ever think about commercialising them and taking them beyond our little bar. I couldn’t even conceive of a market for vermouth because there was none.

What I didn’t know at the time was that Shaun Byrne had also been tinkering around with making vermouth — and making really tasty stuff. He worked at Melbourne icon Gin Palace for eight years, running the bar for its charismatic and much-missed owner, Vernon Chalker.

“It was wonderful,” Shaun says in the latest episode of Drinks At Work. “There’s a reason I stayed there for eight years. It was the environment. It was a great place to work, [I was] very well supported from the late Vernon Chalker to move up the ranks.

“If you wanted time off, you could get time off. If you wanted more training, you got more training. If you wanted to do anything, really, it was wonderful. I consequently started a vermouth brand out of working at Gin Palace because I wanted to make vermouth. Vernon supported that.”

It was from these early experiments behind the bar at Gin Palace that Maidenii was born when Vernon introduced Shaun to winemaker Gilles Lapalus. Shaun and company would make and launch their own Australian vermouth to the world — and you know what? There was a market for vermouth. It was small, but it’s growing. Around that time, Mark Ward’s Aussie vermouth brand Regal Rogue also launched — as Shaun says on the podcast, who launched first is a matter of who is telling the story. (I’ll be chatting to Mark for his side of the story in a couple weeks.)

Maidenii has since gone from strength to strength, and Shaun went on to start Marionette Liqueurs with fellow Gin Palace alums Nick Tesar and Hugh Leech, and designer Lauren Bonkowski. Marionette is doing well, so well in fact that they’re currently building their own distillery.

It has been quite the journey already, and this episode is worth a listen because it shows what sort of career can be possible for passionate bartenders with big ideas. In this episode, Shaun also talks about the role that awards show results play for producers, as he’s been the beneficiary of that advice in the past and is now the head judge for the Australian Distilled Spirits Awards.

You can listen to the episode here, in the Apple Podcasts app, on Spotify, or your podcast player of preference.

Do you want to take better photographs of drinks? Christopher Pearce is one of the country’s best photographers — you may know him from this podcast — and on September 2nd he’s hosting a very cool Cocktails & Cameras drinks photography workshop in Newtown at Earl’s Juke Joint. It’s $99, you get three cocktails included — it’ll be a great afternoon.