Words by Jane Ryan
Matt Whiley is a bartender best known for turning parsnips into wine and feeding real pig's blood to the masses of Leicester Square – albeit in cocktail form. His lengthy career has seen his London bars such as Peg + Patriot and Scout exert enormous influence on the UK's drinks scene, and now, armed with a permanent residency visa, he's found a new home in Australia's coastal city of Sydney.
Setting up his new life near the idyllic Bondi Beach, Matt has taken on the role of beverage director for the Icebergs Group, overseeing Maurice Terzini's existing five venues and bringing to life a further two this year.
For a bartender as creatively renowned as he is, the current role may come as a surprise to those who are more used to seeing Matt in the small confines of Scout, or with his head stuck in a vat of fermenting strawberries. But as well as the day job, he's also busy working on his own projects which includes a new Sydney home for Scout and another venue that's T.B.C.
Of course, no one starts out fermenting root vegetables or working out how to incorporate pig plasma into a Bloody Mary. Matt's story starts where his life as a professional cricketer ended, an injury ensuring he'd never be at 100% on the pitch again. He often jokes that bartending was a natural progression from being a drunk sportsman, and for him that key moment came when a staff member failed to show up for shift at a friend's venue and Matt found himself with a fulltime job.
From his friend's bar Matt went on to manage another Nottingham venue for three years before eventually escaping to London. "I hated it for two years – I contemplated going home every single day. London feels so big for so long but when you figure it out, where you are and how to get around, it becomes small and then it becomes an amazing place to live. It became home for 11 years," he says.
After spending his first year in London at Mayfair venue Molton House, all the while slowly picking up more shifts making cocktails, his manager left to run the bar at Zuma, taking Matt with him. The renowned restaurant, still a prominent feature of Knightsbridge's dining scene, seats 140 people and bartenders are expected to know much more beyond the 60-strong drinks list. There Matt would experience regular tests on culture, food and cocktails as well as incentives to study hard and work harder.
"Up until Zuma all I cared about was having fun behind the bar. I wasn't serious. At Zuma, if you're not serious about coming to work you get chewed up and spat out."
Six months into working at Zuma one of Matt's good friends, a letting agent in Belgravia called Bryan Pietersen, wanted to set up an events company. Alongside Thomas Aske and Tristan Stephenson they did just that, founding Fluid Movement.
Fluid Movement (these days run by Thomas and Tristan and still a huge part of the global cocktail and spirits scene) revolutionised the drinks industry when it rose to prominence in the early 2010s, extending its reach far beyond London. When Matt was still involved its bars included Purl, Worship Street Whistling Shop and Dach + Sons alongside consultancy for the likes of Gymkhana in Mayfair and VOC in King's Cross while also becoming a breeding ground for young talent such as Ryan Chetiyawardana. But it was by no means an overnight success.
"We did one event in a shop near Claridge's during LFW and we got paid 400 pounds. No other work came in for at least five months until finally a chef Tom knew was heading up a restaurant in Azerbaijan asked would we be interested in doing the drinks," recalls Matt.
The money the group made from this project was indispensable, becoming the financial foundations of Purl. And what a bar Purl was, completely ahead of its time in 2010. It was a speakeasy that perfectly transported guests back in time, yet was also ultra-modern in its approach to cocktails with floating balloons garnishing drinks and dry ice creating spectacles for the Mayfair guests. It also completely broke them – all the money had been spent on the lease so the four founders rolled up their sleeves and created the everything from scratch.
"My dad did the plumbing, Tom's dad did the accounts and we employed an electrician. Everything else we did ourselves. It was an incredible time. We built it in five weeks and then opened and were empty. No one came in. It was before the craze of social media so getting the word out was harder. After three long weeks with barely a few customers each night Time Out came in – a reviewer called Guy Diamond – and we served him a drink with dry ice in a waxed sealed bottle, and he loved it. From that day on we were busy."
Talented Mr Fox
In 2013 Matt sold his shares in Fluid Movement and struck out on his own, fashioning the name Talent Mr Fox as his new moniker. He knew he'd need a fast injection of PR to get his name out there as a solo operator and so took on a month pop-up space in Leicester Square on the first floor of a hotel. In just one-week Talented Mr Fox made the same revenue as the space usually made in a month and he was asked to stay on.
Matt wasn't used to being the figurehead of a company, press-wise. That was always someone else's role, and to an extent, all these years later, he's still not the most forthcoming person to initially chat with. But his personality is all there, you just have to look for it. His wry sense of humour is easily spotted if you get the chance to pick up any of his cocktail menus. There's a silliness beneath all the ferments. He's direct about what tastes good and what makes sense to him, but when it comes to staff that only seems to endear more loyalty in them. He's competitive, to the point he gave up cricket because he could no longer give it his all. Most of all though, what comes across from Matt is a passion for the produce he works with.
As a bartender, Matt has developed a clear personal style. His drinks often read a little zany but are typically hyper-delicious with bright flavours and a clear emphasis on seasonal, fresh produce. He's mastered the science of fermentation and many of his 'homemade' wines, using local fruits, feature in his cocktails. The Talented Mr Fox pop-up was where this all began.
"Because we were only there for a month, I had the opportunity to be a bit daring, and make headlines. The Pigs Blood Bloody Mary I think is the drink that defined me as a bartender and is still one of my favourite drinks I ever made."
That drink (the vodka is distilled with pig bloods in a rotavap to give it an iron-tang, for those asking) was thought up and pitched to the press before Matt had even started working on how it would come together. "Lots of ideas are out there before they're perfected," he says.
"The first time I made it, it tasted really bad. But I tweaked it and people loved it. We were physically having to come in on our days off to make more."
Moving from pop-up to permanence involved a postcode shift to east London, when Matt was offered a three-year contract for the bar space in Bethnal Green's Town Hall Hotel. James Stevenson and Ally Martin who had worked at the pop-up came across to the new venue and Matt made a string of new hires to help them out, calling the bar Peg + Patriot.
Of all his alumni, it's Constança Cordeiro who he seems most proud of and who landed the job of bar manager within a week of working at Peg + Patriot. "She thought she wasn't ready. But she was. She was awesome – she made it her own and took it in her own direction," says Matt. When Constança left it was to return to Lisbon where she opened her first bar, Bar Toca da Raposa, with Matt's encouragement.
"You're never going to be ready to open your first bar, people will say you are but you never are, you are always learning on the job, figuring out solutions. She did it and has a really good bar."
Scout and Ferments
In the last 18 months of Peg + Patriot, Matt started working towards his new concept – Scout.
Opening up in Shoreditch in 2017, Scout made ferments out of local produce such as London's abundance of grapes, plums and figs. Matt had to work at stabilising the initial bar's prep temperature, thereby slowing down the fermentation, and figure out a workaround for traditional wine and beer yeasts, which were dominating the final liquid with a strong bread-like flavour. Instead, the bartenders at Scout allowed the fruit and vegetables' natural yeasts to develop for several days under muslin cloth before sealing the containers and monitoring the fermentation.
"I had worked on ferments back in 2013 at Talented Mr Fox with James. But we binned it, we didn't have good results. Once we tried it again and once you figure out how and why fermentation works it becomes easy – a really clean process and flavour."
Despite the undeniably fantastic drinks that Scout was putting out, there was something wrong with the bar itself. An Evening Standard review hit upon it perfectly, calling it a science lab not a bar.
"Shoreditch was never mean to be so sterile. It was partly us – we were imparting too much knowledge so people wanted to sit and be educated. We made errors getting our concept across rather than letting people discover it. But it's hard when you do something different, you have to communicate what's going on and the vibe changes."
Matt decided to shut shop on the Shoreditch bar and open in a new space in Hackney with Rich Woods, a talented bartender and operator with a penchant for unique flavour combinations, who had happily just left Duck and Waffle. They opened in September 2018, weeks before Matt headed to Australia to do a Scout pop-up in Sydney, leaving Rich in charge of all things London.
"I find at pop-ups people just want to try something difference because you're from a different city. We had a lot of fun, gave a lot of banter out, and had a few shots. But the owners liked the vibe we bought and offered the upstairs at The Dolphin as a residency."
Scout ended up living above The Dolphin for a year, during which time Matt decamped his whole life to Sydney and began working with the Icebergs Group, whose venues include The Dolphin, Icebergs Dining Room and Bar, CicciaBella, Hotel Harry, and Bondi Beach Public Bar.
"In some ways Scout was an easier sell here because natural wine is bigger. The Australian cocktail scene is so different though – splashes and elements are similar but as a whole it's very different. London is very diverse; you can challenge people a lot more, which is down to the size of population more than anything."
Reflecting on bringing the concept 10,000 miles away from its original location, Matt says he had to work hard at ensuring Sydney's Scout was representative of its location. And that's not all about the drinks, although they were markedly less challenging thanks to the bountiful produce available, "anything will be less challenging when you're not just working with potatoes in the winter," he quips, "and an added bonus was the array of natives I'd not experienced before." In fact it was the relaxed style of service that Sydneysiders seemed to demand, wanting to order at the bar for one, that changed the way Scout developed here.
While Scout may not technically exist in Sydney right now a new home is hopefully coming in time for Spring, after Matt opens his new concept in the winter, which is currently all very hush-hush. And that's all on top of the day job – a role Matt never envisaged himself in but one which is flexing his well-learned talents for adapting to different styles of service and different markets.
Overseeing all the drinks programmes also means, for the first time, he isn't just training staff who are directly working in his bar.
"Mentoring is different for everyone," Matt says, "I don't like telling people what to do. I might give them some ideas I'd like to see, or more likely flavours we need to work with. At Icebergs we change four drinks a season, I give them an idea of what works and then they come back to me. It's the parameters in which to be creative."
So how does it feel to have gone from a cricket pitch, to a Nottingham Nightclub, to the London bar scene, to having a skyrocketing career in Sydney?
"It's been a whirlwind, and I don't usually dwell on things, like a sportsman, if you win you win, lose you lose and you consider what you can learn and then move on. That's how I was trained from 15. But it's been pretty surreal and for the most part I have loved whatever I've been doing," he says.