Words by Jane Ryan
Photography by Parker Blain
Darren Leaney has tried just about every style of bartending there is. He's done five-star hotels, fine-dining establishments, speakeasy cocktail bars and neighbourhood restaurants. He's most comfortable, however, when he's allowed to wear a t-shirt to work and get on with the business of making tasty drinks.
It's an easy truth to say that Darren is currently in charge of one of the best cocktail lists in Australia, and he's starting to pique a lot of people's interest with his ability to elevate classics as well as create new combinations, textures and flavours from fresh produce.
Darren's other asset is that he's an extremely likeable, humble guy. While his CV ticks off some of the most important bars of the last decade – we're talking The Player, Milk & Honey London, Dandelyan and Dinner by Heston – he doesn't carry an ounce of cocky I-know-better-than-you swagger in his stride. In fact he's the first person to put his hands up and say he's stressed about an event or a drink, that he's got a back-catalogue of ideas that didn't work and that sometimes this whole career feels like it's fallen into his lap (it hasn't).
In December last year (2019) Darren moved from bar to venue manager of Capitano, the much-lauded Italian restaurant he's been working at since its opening in 2018. There he's created a bar programme that stands up against a strong wine list and some of the city's best carb-heavy pastas and pizzas – which is no easy task.
Darren's drinks are hyper-delicious. You take a sip and dive right back in for another, wide-eyed and full of awe.
"I think everyone has in their palate a place they reach where it's simply just delicious, it's so tasty, like when you bite into a great apple or a really well-cooked steak and all you can think is: that is so good. You know when you've hit upon that mark, and I can't pinpoint exactly how I think about that, maybe in the perfect balance of sweet, sour, mouthfeel, a bit of effervescence and contrast, but that's what I'm going for every time we make a drink," says Darren.
Capitano's bar programme shows off the happy marriage of Darren's experience. There's techniques he learnt at Dandelyan, there's the precision of Dinner by Heston as well as a chef's perspective on mouthfeel and flavour, and most importantly there's the structural, foundational knowledge and round-building of Milk & Honey.
Darren began his bartending career in his home city of Adelaide in 2006 where he worked in night clubs and at Botanic Bar. He describes everything he did before the move to London in 2013 as useful but his time at The Player, Milk & Honey and Dandelyan as "the most formative years of my life learning the craft of bartending, hosting and hospitality in general."
From learning classics with the Rushmore group (the umbrella over The Player and Milk & Honey) who valued training like none before, and which produced a litany of successful bartenders such as Tim Philips (SYD), Kevin Armstrong (LDN) and Nathan O'Neill (NYC), Darren moved to the newly-opened Dandelyan on London's Southbank where he would experience the Ryan Chetiyawardana-school of bartending. Innovation, creativity and sustainability reigned supreme with a healthy dose of cowboy techniques.
When asked where he would recommend an aspiring bartender apply to in Australia to receive that same essential level of education he experienced at Rushmore and Dandelyan, Darren pauses to think. Is there anywhere?
"I think it's probably Bulletin Place, for that structure and the rigid way they break down their drinks – everything belongs to a family. At Bulletin they'll say 'I need a swizzle glass' but in any other bar you'd just be asking for a highball and that's just one example of how they approach their back of house training. Tim Phillips has an iron barspoon approach to how people execute his vision – and I say that with the utmost respect because breaking old habits is painful but once you start to get it, once you get good at it, those practices become what you love about it, and it's a new skill."
It's taken Darren some time to move Capitano's training into something resembling structure, but they're now conducting R&D session on Friday afternoons where the team test out new ideas together and feedback on each other's creations.
There aren't such hard and fast rules at the restaurant though, which Darren says is down to it being a small business with room to free style if necessary. "If bad fruit comes in or there's a delay in deliveries you have to be able to cowboy but that's still all based off knowledge and training. I still look at classics as a way of breaking down flavours."
Capitano's cocktails are very much driven by Darren's thought-processes but, seeing as he's now venue manager, his bar team of Lewis Baldwin and Luigi Mazzarella are starting to step up and work hard to get their drinks listed. "I've given a lot of my knowledge over, you can only take something so far anyway, but it's great to see how they're using that, looking at techniques of past Capitano recipes, and exploiting and executing new techniques.
"I'm not much of an inspirational person, but to see a bit of my ideology of bartending – that love of new ingredients and researching everything meticulously – being picked up by others, plus them bringing their own touch and vision to the drinks programme, is really rewarding."
For the record, we happen to think Darren is very much an inspirational person.
On Kitchen Techniques
You wouldn't think it from perching yourself at Capitano's bar, unless you've very keen eyes, but there's an intense amount of prep happening behind the scenes in this Carlton restaurant.
At Dandelyan, Darren was introduced to culinary ideas such as fermentation to create vinegars and kombucha, but never anything alcoholic. Once he was back in Australia and had moved to Melbourne's Dinner by Heston he picked up the skills to make tepache and sours, but never progressed to making anything super tasty. And besides, when the chefs found out the bar staff were fermenting at uncontrolled temperatures they weren't best pleased, he recalls.
Nowadays, based on plenty of research, Darren has mastered alcoholic fermentation.
"I use fermentation to harness flavours at low temperatures. Dinner by Heston had a rotavap to do this but Capitano doesn't exactly have a spare $25k lying around so we had to work out how to extract the maximum flavour and lengthen the lifespan of ingredients using other techniques. If you take strawberries or peaches and add acid and sugar to turn it into a wine, it'll be stable for months. It's pure flavour preservation so long as you don't let it go nasty or funky or turn it into a vinegar."
Dinner by Heston also gave Darren the ability to look at a drink from more than a bartender's perspective with the chefs and sommeliers weighing in. "I still think about what they looked for in a drink," he says, "and I still refer to Dave Arnold's Liquid Intelligence to this day."
Taking on the position of venue manager at Capitano was not initially a direction that appealed to Darren. "Apprehensive would be my best description of how I felt," he says.
Instead the safer option would have been managing a cocktail bar, because, as Darren points out, looking after a venue so heavily focused on food is far outside his comfort zone. That reasoning is exactly why he ended up taking the role on though, and says it's been a hugely rewarding but challenging few months.
"Michael (Bascetta) got me over the line, he could sense the uncertainty. It's not blind faith, but a big part of me sticking around for it was his belief what we can do it together with a strong manager and owner relationship. His belief in my ability to lead made me think I am ready to do this."
Capitano's owners aren't pulling shifts too often but when they are there, Darren says they bring an enormous presence to the space, just as when Ryan steps behind the bar at what is now called Lyaness, "the room has that bit of extra magic about it."
So now he's at the helm, where is Darren intent on driving the good ship Capitano?
"I want to see it become a sustainable, profitable venue, that has truly become a part of the neighbourhood; a refuge and solace to the people of Carlton and the Inner North," he says. "When you take on a role in a well-established neighbourhood you need to be there for them, be good at what you do, be welcoming, be nice and most importantly not too up yourself."
Managing the venue is very much another stepping stone to Darren's eventual desire to own something, as he puts it, one day. It's a paid education on learning how to run a sizable restaurant with a strong bar and the kind of lessons he's encountering will be invaluable when that 'one day' becomes a reality.
On Running, Martinis and Melbourne
Darren is a runner, and like everything he seems to touch, he's made sure he's the best at it. As this is being written he flew to LA and ran a marathon.
"I'm really easily persuaded in some ways. If someone offers me a great job I hesitate and need convincing but ask if I want to pay to fly to LA and trash my body as I run a marathon, then sure," he laughs.
Darren says it wasn't just his fitness that improved when he started lacing up his shoes though, it was also his mental health – I don't remember the last time I felt so good is how he describes incorporating running into his life.
"I just wish someone had told me this earlier - don't go out drinking and smoking, go for a jog, you'll de-stress, de-clutter and you'll approach social situations better."
Calling Melbourne home was an inadvertent action for Darren. He never intended to settle there but now has what he expresses as a great life. There's just one small, niggling problem. The Martinis just aren't up to scratch for Darren, who states he can't seem to get a good one. "I did have a good Martini at Above Board," he corrects himself, "Hayden makes great classic cocktails. But I haven't ever had a Martini like I drank when I was in London six months ago. Sorry Australian bartenders."
His go-to venues in the city are The Everleigh and Above Board which Darren described as exceptionally warm and welcoming places to go and socialise and drink in. Capitano's sister venue also makes the cut, Bar Liberty is his favourite restaurant to sit down, order some wine and eat simple, delicious food. He labels it quintessential Melbourne hospitality.
"I can't see myself moving on unless a dream job comes along, and that would entail one city only – New York. I'd just like to do it for a year, to see if I could cut it there. I love the idea picking up and moving my life one more time."
As for the success Darren is currently enjoying? It doesn't seem to sit too naturally on his shoulders, despite the hard work he's put in and the foundations he's laid for himself.
"I have been surprised – big time. I just wanted to make drinks that I thought were tasty, to go back to working in a neighbourhood venue, wear a t-shirt to work and be friendly and happy. Everyone started talking about the drinks and then a lot of people I knew from the periphery started wanting to say hi and how much they enjoyed Capitano. It's super humbling. I am amazed people want to drink the drinks we make. I don't take it lightly what we're doing and it's a great reason to keep going."