Behind the Bar with James Connolly

Behind the Bar with James Connolly

By Jamie Burnett

What’s your favourite cocktail?

I figure that’s either the best of worst question you can ask one of Australia’s best bartenders. There’s a long pause, and I start to sweat thinking it’s the latter.

“For me the Margarita is the perfect drink and it’s something I will always love. I love salt, it’s an ingredient that’s used a lot in cocktails right now. I mean if you think about it, when you cook it’s all about seasoning. And drinks are a bit the same. You put salt into cocktails and it makes them more savoury and moreish, ties all the flavours together and helps carry the flavour over the pallet.”

In a scene where things can be over-refined and complicated, James Connolly likes to keep it simple. But that’s not to say he doesn’t push the boundaries. He’s been at the forefront of bartending since he left his grey-skied UK home in 2007, trading it for the sun and blues skies of Western Australia. Taking a look through his CV is like reminiscing about your favourite Perth bars and restaurants of the past decade. He’s spent time at Must Winebar, Rockpool, el Publico, Enriques School for to Bullfighting and even worked to open Long Chim in a number of cities.

“I worked there for three years and opened Long Chim Perth, Sydney, Melbourne, Seoul and then we opened a bar in Hong Kong as well. We were opening bars in different parts of the world which was interesting and diving into new cultures. In South Korea for example, obviously it’s a different culture to Australia. You just have to be aware of that, but overall it was an amazing experience. It was one of the best parts of my career.”

Before all that, James says it was a focus on the classics that gave him the grounding to grow his skills and knowledge behind the bar.

“I probably spent my first two years learning and perfecting as many classics as I could. A lot of these classic cocktails are three or four ingredients max, and they’ve stood the test of time. There’s a reason for that. Simplicity is best and sometimes drinks can be over-refined which can make them too complicated and unmanageable. There are some pretty interesting drinks out there but at the end of the day people love classics for a reason.”

While a love and dedication for classics gave a strong grounding, James credits the competition scene for helping to build his reputation. Along with his success in helping create unique and popular venues, it’s led to being voted in the top 25 bartenders in Australia for three years running, while also being recognised as one the country’s top ten most influential bar personalities. 

“There are plenty of good bartenders out there, but in terms of competitions back in the early days, that’s what you were measured by. Doing well in competitions meant people were taking more notice of what I was doing, so it was good. Back then it was quite intense.

“But you need to remember that in the bar, one of the most important things is looking after people and taking pride in everything you put down on the bar top and making sure it tastes and looks great. You need to make sure all staff are well trained and the product is consistent. The number one thing is looking after people and giving them a good product and value.

“There are many factors that go into making good drinks – the venue, the brief, who are your clientele and what is the mix of the other drinks on the menu. You need to have something sweet, or sour or creamy, so when someone comes in, all bases are covered. I mean all bartenders love a Negroni but you can’t just have a menu full of them.”

James Connolly is the Group Bar Manager for The ARK Group, which includes some of Perth’s most popular venues including Market Grounds, The Peach Pit, Scarborough Beach Bar, Generous Squire, Durty Nelly's and The Galway Hooker.