All Cam Birt and Stephanie Canfell wanted was somewhere to drink. But from such small beginnings, great things can grow. “We wanted a cocktail bar that we wanted to go to. That’s all,” says Birt. The year was 2003. Birt had been working in bars in Japan and Canfell had just moved back to Brisbane from New York, and they were sick of muddled drinks, infused spirits “and everyone doing all these ‘wowee’, faddy drinks that I was really bored with making”. They got to talking about opening a place in something of a more classical vein. “A bit more about sitting down and having a whisky or an Old Fashioned at the bar. A bar you could go to for a fantastic drink and a great conversation without being blasted with ‘doof-doof’ music, which was the trend at the time in Brisbane.”
The Bowery opened its doors in Fortitude Valley in October 2003, and Brisbane’s bar scene has changed dramatically in the five years since. It’s no overstatement to say The Bowery became a catalyst. “I don’t want to sound like I’m blowing our trumpet here,” Birt says, “but it seems as though many of the things The Bowery did are par for the course now, but they weren’t at the time.” More than two-thirds of the drinks on the first cocktail list were based on brown spirits – something unheard of at the time in Queensland. The bar has been blessed with great staff along the way. Perry Scott, now owner of The Lark (and a Bar of the Year nominee in this year’s Guide, in association with Electrolux) was the first head bartender, and, with Anthony Friel, Mat Hewitt and Barry Chalmers, among others, there’s been a blossoming of talent in The Bowery hothouse.
“Everyone was drinking fluffy variations on vodka, lemon, soda, limes or caprioskas. That was the way forward as far as people up here saw it, but we didn’t see it that way, so we implemented this classic list.” Birt says drinks such as the Negroni weren’t on lists at all in Brisbane back in the day, whereas now you’d be hard-pressed to find a top bar where they wouldn’t know how to make a really good one. “That’s fantastic, and I think our team helped pioneer that a little bit, and I think Brisbane has matured a lot in terms of its palate and taste along the way.”
It’s not just The Bowery, of course. “There are lots of great places that have opened over the past five years, and it’s been a collective effort that has shaped the city’s night-life.” Birt reckons trends have been easier to change in the Sunshine State because people aren’t so set in their ways as they are in Sydney and Melbourne. “Melbourne’s fantastic, but the cocktail scene here is so dynamic – I think it’s the best in Australia.”
With extravagant plans for two new ventures under the working titles of The Buffalo Club and The Palms, you could be forgiven for thinking that The Bowery could well become the forgotten child. Birt, though, is adamant that it will remain a player. His pick from today’s list says it all. “I’ll still go in and have a Manhattan. It’s the little things that we do at The Bowery that other places don’t get – we make our own maraschino cherries, and bourbon-soaked cherries… I like drinking old drinks made very well.”
The Bowery, 676 Ann St, Fortitude Valley, Qld, (07) 3252 0202, thebowery.com.au
WORDS PAT NOURSE PHOTOGRAPHY VINCENT LONG
This article appeared in the September 2008 issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller.