Tim Philips

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Originally from: Melbourne, Australia
Profession: Bar owner
At: Sydney

Tim Philips, for much of the international bar world, is the archetypal Australian bartender. He’s the go-to when people think of the scene, the bars and the drinks currently coming out of Sydney. And as World Class hits full stride each year, there he is, projected across global feeds with that salt of the earth personality and good-natured smile.

Tim’s international currency doesn’t just rest on the shoulders of Diageo’s annual competition though. Having spent two years at London’s Milk & Honey, four months at the New York original and a stint in France at The Clubhouse, all before winning World Class 2012, he’d earned his reputation through shifts on the bar rather than hosting in front of a camera.

Before the awards, the travel and the competitions however, Tim started his career off in his home city of Melbourne, in a bar that has produced a large chunk of the who’s-who in the bartending world; the Black Pearl.

“At the time it wasn’t renowned for its cocktails, it wasn’t even the best cocktail bar on the street. That was Ginger, up the road where Sam Ross was working. But we chipped away, made some good hires, and it became a brotherhood. I say brotherhood because at the time there were no women working at Black Pearl, something I’m really glad that’s changed,” says Tim.

Those good hires included the likes of Cristiano Beretta and Chris Hysted-Adams, meanwhile Tim’s first bar manager Rob Sloan is now his partner in Bulletin Place. Despite leaving for London in 2008, the ties between Tim and the Black Pearl haven’t completely been lost in the intervening decade. In fact there’s a direct migration route between the Melbourne bar and Bulletin Place with the current management team at the Black Pearl all having worked for Tim in Sydney.

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Milk & Honey, London

“I was confident going into London but not Milk & Honey,” says Tim of the move overseas. “It was regarded as one of the better bars in Europe and I was certainly the worst bartender there when I started – but that makes you hungry to get better and I think it brings out the best in people. I didn’t think it would be easy, but I knew it was going to be a great learning curve.”

At Milk & Honey London Tim would experience the legendary in-house training programme then running in all of Jonathan Downey’s bars. Staff were paid for their time at trainings, something that’s still a rarity in the industry, and monthly exams allowed top-scoring bartenders to win distillery trips to places such as Scotland. Growing your knowledge also meant growing your hourly rate.

Having already experienced what it was like to work as part of a talented and determined team at the Black Pearl, Tim once again was surrounded by the best and brightest of his generation in London.

“The fact we’re all stayed in touch after all these years shows that we were more than just colleagues and to be part of the family tree that extends from Milk & Honey is both humbling and wonderful,” says Tim. With short stints in France and America post-London, he returned home and shortly after entered World Class 2012.

Before the win of a lifetime however, there is one little blip on Tim’s CV which, he confesses, he normally leaves out.

That is a summer at the Ivy Pool Club, catapulting himself from a New York winter working under Sasha Petraske at Milk & Honey to a 35 degrees Sydney season, working in polo tops and slinging out drinks in plastic cups. In some ways it would be the least remarkable bar job Tim ever had. In another however, it was the most important, because it was here he would meet his future wife.

Call us a romantic but we’re leaving that job in the story. Now back to World Class.

On Being Relevant in 2012

“Winning a comp like that does change your life, and yet I was pretty additament I didn’t want it to be the person I am, the byline of my resume and social media,” says Tim. “I was so lucky to win that year and I’ve ridden the gravy train, it’s opened up a lot of doors, I’ve seen a lot of the world because I won a competition that a global spirits company invests millions of dollars into each year – but I certainly don’t think it makes me a better bartender than anyone else.

“What it did was introduce me to amazing people around the world, and it also injected PR into Bulletin Place which was fantastic. The family built from that experience is amazing, and I still pinch myself when I get invited back each year to talk about how I was relevant in 2012,” he says, rather self-depreciatingly.

In fact it’s right after his win, back in London, that I remember meeting Tim for the first time, in the London HQ of Difford’s Guide where we were photographing him for a book on that year’s competition. He had bright red socks on which peaked out of a sober suit and he was languishing against one of Simon’s chesterfields. The whole office (nearly entirely made of up of ex-Milk & Honey bartenders in those days) was clamoring to say hi and to congratulate their friend.

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A Bar of His Own

Once the dust had settled Tim returned home to his new bar, Bulletin Place, with Rob Sloan and Adi Ruiz. The single room above a café near Sydney’s Circular Quay started off, and continues to this day, as a stripped-back cocktail destination which heroes fresh produce and a bartender’s creativity.

As you’d expect from someone of Tim’s background, trainings and team bonding are paramount to the running of the venue, these days in the capable hands of GM Evan Stroeve. Instead of focusing on categories though Bulletin Place staff learn about their inhouse production methods, menu concepts and how to nurture creativity.

“We give new staff one thing to watch and one thing to read, both of which perfectly show what’s important to our business. When we first opened everyone came around to my flat to watch the film (Jiro Dreams of Sushi) but I don’t think we’d all fit anymore,” says Tim.

The book, if you’re wondering, is Danny Myer’s Setting the Table.

“We wanted to be the bosses we never had,” says Tim of his management style. “Not to say we all had bad bosses but anything that pissed us off, anything we hated in bars, we wanted to dispense of. I had gotten so sick of wearing braces and high-waisted pants, all I wanted to do was bartend in a t-shirt and shorts. I’ve tried to take the best of a lot of the people I worked under and to be empathetic to what my staff require to have a carefree shift, whether that’s more bar spoons to getting the aircon serviced.”

Beyond those measures the team have a ban on communication about work on a Sunday, have regular check-ins to chat about how they’re doing, and they try to ensure everyone gets two days off in a row. “Sustainability gets talked about a lot in bars but I’m more worried staff don’t burn out at 26 or aren’t just spending the standard two years with us.”

With Bulletin Place very much a steady powerhouse on the Sydney scene, Tim is lucky to still call his business partners’ friends.

“In hindsight I don’t know if I would open a business with my best friends again – you hear horror stories of best friends falling about but I guess we’re very privileged, our friendship has changed over the seven years yet we’re very good friends with Rob, and Adi who is no long part of the business, having left for Tassie.”

Maintaining those relationships involves dealing with any issues straight away and being what Tim described as ‘forthright’ in their critic of each other without taking it too personally. However he wasn’t done with friends and businesses just yet, and in 2015 Tim and David Hobbs (another Milk & Honey alumni) opened Dead Ringer, the casual neighbourhood restaurant and bar in Surry Hills that heroes Aussie produce.

“We smashed it, we’ve been printing money,” laughs Tim when asked about opening a restaurant. “A restaurant is an excellent way of losing money,” he says more honestly.

Dead Ringer wasn’t intended to be purely a restaurant, in so much as the team thought they were building a bar that did good food. Sydney’s patrons had other ideas however, and the space evolved to have a more food-first restaurant vibe. Over the four and half years that Dead Ringer has been open Tim says they’ve worked hard to build up a great set of customers.

“The food scene is tough, it’s fairly fickle, with fine margins and curve balls such as the culture of Netflix and uber eats. The costs are well written about but we believe staff deserve good wages so you will never hear me complain about rising staff costs, I would say we need to pay more for food and it’s up to restaurants to be smarter about this.”

One way Dead Ringer handles this is to have flagship nights, such as BYO Sundays meat-free Mondays. It’s their way of enticing people off the couch and allowing someone else to do the cooking.

2020: Sweet & Chilli

But you won’t find Tim slaving over hot pans, or even shaking tins behind either of his bars, these days. Having built up his businesses Tim is now four days a week with Sweet & Chilli, the spirits and bar consultancy company that have outposts in London, LA and Sydney. Under his remit falls anything from liquid development to brand strategy to cocktail lists for five-star venues or bowling alleys.

“We have great managers in both venues, so it’s allowed me to step back and work on other projects. But you don’t open a 45-seat bar to get rich so the plan was always, years on, to stop working nights and take on different work.”

So these days you won’t find Tim slaving over hot pans, or even shaking tins behind either of his bars. Having built up his businesses Tim is now four days a week with Sweet & Chilli, the spirits and bar consultancy company that have outposts in London, LA and Sydney. Under their remit falls anything from liquid development to brand strategy to cocktail lists for five-star venues or bowling alleys.

From his standpoint as a venue-owner and brand and drinks consultant, Tim sees the world of drinks as changing quickly, driven from customers. “The most important change in the last 10 years has been the enjoyment of bitterness in drinks. That and Australians, in particular, are becoming a lot more health conscience and concerned about alcohol. That doesn’t make me panic though, if anything I think it will hold my bars and my peers’ bars in good stead, because the message we’ve been promoting of drink less drink better has now become more aligned with mainstream attitudes.”

It’s an attitude Tim reflects in his personal life, one that now includes fatherhood alongside those day-walker hours. As to cocktails, he’s not shy about admitting he’d rather not touch them unless he knows they’re going to be great. “I don’t drink unless it’s worth it – if I’m going to drink cocktails it’s going to be at The Everleigh.”

A Sydney without lock-out-laws, and one that will host the 2020 World Class Competition is where the future lies for Tim.

“In people’s heads, this city is still pre-2000s where everyone wore polo shirts with their collars up, and we had big brash loud in-your-face venues. But there’s been an injection of subtly and culture, maybe one stifled by lockout laws yet I do think we’ll get back to the 2013 era where things were going well for Sydney, but World Class will bring a lot of influential people here. People who will be able to come and see just what the bartenders of this city can do. I guarantee there will be a spike in the way Australian bars spoken about – which is hugely important.”

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