Words by: Theodora Sutcliffe
“It's a really rewarding thing for us and the guys who work in the bar,” says Sven Almenning of the Eau-de-Vie cocktail book, which won Best Cocktail Book in the World at the prestigious Gourmand awards this summer. “We're not going to get rich off it, but the staff enjoyed being part of it, seeing their drinks and their work in print. We're hoping to do another one next year.”
Despite his Norwegian birth and accent, Almenning is probably the individual most associated with Australia's craft cocktail movement. Yet, books aside, business hasn't been the easiest of late. In January 2014, 18-year-old Daniel Christie became Australia's fifteenth one-punch fatality in six years. He was attacked only metres from the Kings Cross spot where another 18-year-old, Thomas Kelly, was fatally struck in 2012. Amid media hysteria, Sydney introduced stringent “lockout laws” the next month.
“In the lockout zones you're not allowed to let people into your venue after 1.30am, you're not allowed to stay open after 3am, you're not allowed to serve shots or single serves of spirits after midnight,” Almenning explains. “Eau-de-Vie is a cocktail and whisky bar so we had to go through quite a long process to be allowed to serve single malt whiskies after midnight. And 85% of foot traffic has left Darlinghurst at this moment.”
While Eau-de-Vie Sydney continues to trade on its reputation, Sydney isn't the friendliest environment for bar operators at the moment. Apothecary, the dégustation cocktail space Sven opened in front of Eau-de-Vie just in time for the lockout laws, shut within a year. And, while Almenning loves Sydney's climate and lifestyle, he's focused more on Melbourne from a business perspective. His latest opening, in partnership with Greg Sanderson, who's also co-owner of Eau-de-Vie Melbourne, is Boilermaker House, surfing the growing global trend for whiskies and beer.
“It's hard to have a venue that just focuses on whisky. The whisky-drinking public isn't huge, but by pairing it with beer it becomes a much larger market,” Almenning explains. “We rotate our beers almost on a monthly basis and with 700 whiskies there are loads of things you can make. It's a different way to be creative. It allows our bartenders to be passionate, to be interested, to display their knowledge and their creativity.”
All Almenning's businesses are run in teamwork with his wife, Amber. The pair met when he was studying in Australia, have been married for 13 years, and are proud parents of “crazy” 5-year-old twin boys. “Amber looks after mostly back end stuff – accounts, pay – I get to be the more creative front man, I suppose,” Sven says.
And the businesses are legion: Sven cites the “7-year itch” as a very real factor in entrepreneurship. Although Behind Bars, the drinks consultancy the pair ran for years, closed after losing a high-value contract with Diageo Australia, their latest venture, the Experimental Spirits Company, is in the process of being 50% acquired. And there are other projects in the works.
“We're currently working on a new tech business in the hospitality space,” Almenning says. “So we're hoping to go live with that ideally before January. Because it's been a while since we opened the bars, and it's time to try something different again, just to stay focused and motivated.”
Underpinning this motivation and focus is a rigorous military training. Born in the small town of Florø, Norway, Almenning was one of few candidates to make it through the Royal Norwegian Navy's hardcore officer training. “It gives you a good insight into what your strengths and weakness are as a person, because you get driven to the edge so often and so intensely,” he says. “I'm in touch with my weaknesses a lot more than if I hadn't been put through all that hell.”
Because, after all, when you've spent your young adulthood subjected to military mind-games, being woken up with tear gas, forced to do press-ups in your underpants in Norway's chilly climate, or marched through the mountains erecting and disassembling camp after camp, a little matter of lockout laws is really nothing to write home about.
“I'd recommend the armed forces for anyone, just for discipline and growing up and all that stuff,” says Almenning. “Although it was a little too regimented for my liking, I scored very well on a lot of things, apart from military behaviour and attitude.” Colour us surprised!
Bar owner and entrepreneur