Two bartenders, a $20,000 grant, one great idea: The Cocktail Lab
What would you do if you won a $20,000 grant? How would you boost your local community?
Bartenders Orion Leppan Taylor and Mitch Bloomfield know what they would do — and they’re doing it. Last year the duo entered the IDEA LAB, by The Blend, winning a $20,000 grant to establish their dream The Cocktail Lab.
“The room is centred around an open top, U-shaped bar that will comfortably seat at least 15,” Leppan Taylor says.
That’s where the duo — who run things at Wollongong’s Breakout Bar & Escape Rooms — will soon realise their dream of an R&D space, designed for local bartenders to experiment, research and push the envelope. The big aim? To see the Wollongong bar scene grow together.
“There’s been a ton of growth over the last few years,” says Leppan Taylor.
But as you might expect in a city often overlooked for its larger northern neighbour, there’s a desire among Wollongong’s bartenders to keep improving.
“Being so close to Sydney has given us a bit of an underdog complex, and so there’s a big push for everyone to work together and make the scene the best it can be,” he says.
Along with a space for personal creative exploration, there will be trade trainings, tastings, and consumer events, The Cocktail Lab will have some fancy kit to play with when it opens in April.
“We’re also investing in some high-end pieces of lab equipment, so that other bars can rent time to use [it], allowing them to incorporate it into their bar programs without having to invest thousands of dollars themselves,” he says.
Proving that passion can be just as powerful as many years behind the stick, The Wollongong Cocktail Lab is an impressive achievement for Leppan Taylor just three years into his bartending career.
“There’s always more to learn, more to explore, more to do,” he says.
Designed to help support the Australian bartending community rebuild and innovate after the bin fire of 2020, the IDEA LAB put $80,000 in grants up for grabs to bartenders around the country. Nearly 50 entries from individuals, teams and venues were received, before narrowing them down to the 20 best across the country. Each entry underwent a Shark Tank-style pitching process, with six winners announced late last year.
“[The Blend] have been incredibly supportive every step of the way,” says Leppan Taylor, “and are always willing and available to help with anything they can.”
Below, Leppan Taylor shares why he does what he does, why he’ll probably be a hospitality lifer, and what he hopes The Cocktail Lab will do for local bartenders.
Why do you do what you do? (i.e., what makes you go to work each day — why do you love the gig?)
I’ve always been interested in food, drink and flavour, I’m a passionate home cook and have been ever since I moved out of home. What draws me to bartending in particular is that there’s the perfect amount of variables to control. Your ingredients, your technique, your service, the atmosphere, I feel like I have a lot of control over these when I’m behind the bar, which gives me the opportunity to create a perfect experience for someone; The right drink, the right way, at the right time. And then tomorrow, I get to wake up and do it all over again.
What’s your current role and where do you work?
I work as the bar manager over at Breakout Bar and Escape rooms. I oversee our bar program there while Mitch, the general manager, handles the escape rooms, karaoke, marketing and staffing. When we first opened we had a single general manager overseeing everything, but the specialisation has allowed us to really elevate our program over the last few years.
Can you explain your IDEA LAB initiative in a way that say, one’s grandma would understand? (Simplify it down for me!)
A mini Questacon but for cocktails is probably the best description. The room is centred around an open top, U shape bar that will comfortably seat at least 15. From there, we hope to run industry training, competitions, masterclasses, and events for the public. We’re also investing in some high-end pieces of lab equipment, so that other bars can rent time to use equipment, allowing them to incorporate it into their bar programs without having to invest thousands of dollars themselves.
Where is the Wollongong craft cocktail scene at right now? How will your initiative help?
In one word: hungry. There’s been a ton of growth over the last few years, ourselves included, and almost everyone just wants to keep reaching. Being so close to Sydney has given us a bit of an underdog complex, and so there’s a big push for everyone to work together and make the scene the best it can be. The Cocktail Lab is our way of helping that effort, from both an industry and consumer perspective. For the industry side of things, not only is the Lab a great place to host trainings, tastings and masterclass events, but the aforementioned access to high end equipment unlocks many possibilities for bars in the area. From a consumer perspective, the masterclasses and tastings we’ll be running will have the express aim of educating the public about craft cocktails, so when they see terms like “amaro” “milk clarified” and “fat washed” on a menu, they’ll be excited and curious, rather than intimidated.
How long have you been working in bars, how did you get into it? Are you a ‘lifer’?
I’m pretty young in my career, just over three years now, all of which has been at Breakout. Once I started to become more and more involved with our bar program, I took it upon myself to learn as much as I could, and could then take what I’d learned and put it into practice. I think I’ll probably be in the industry in some form or another for the rest of my life. There’s always more to learn, more to explore, more to do.
Do you think your initiative will give confidence and a better outlook to bartenders in the Gong? Why?
I think Wollongong has been relatively lucky, compared with places like Melbourne or Sydney, and especially compared to some places overseas. The sense of community and collaboration has held us strong, even when we had everything on lockdown and were transforming our premises into bottle shops and livestream studios. I think we’re to the stage now where everyone is looking to the future again, starting to plan for a time when we can put all this mess completely behind us. I hope that the Cocktail Lab will help in allowing teams to think about where the Gong will be in five, 10 years’ time, and what new and exciting things we can do.
Tell us how you feel about winning the grant and the opportunity it provides?
It’s very exciting to be able to give back to the community, and the sense of support and anticipation has been amazing. It makes me feel really hopeful for the future of the Wollongong bar scene. I still don’t know if it has fully sunk in yet, but I think as soon as I’m able to get behind the bar and start sharing my passion and excitement for spirits and cocktails with our guests and my peers, that’s when it’ll all really hit.
What’s it like to collaborate on this with The Blend team?
We’ve had nothing but good experiences. They’ve been incredibly supportive every step of the way, and are always willing and available to help with anything they can. Very much looking forward to our continued collaboration In the future.
Watch this space, soon to be opening The Cocktail Lab Wollongong.