Matthew Bax, Melbourne bartender, a flavour fiend out to ignite your sixth sense
Bartenders are often philosophers, and may consider themselves artists, but are seldom intellectuals.
Matthew Bax, who was in town recently to teach a master class for Hong Kong and Macau's entrants in the Diageo World Class international cocktail competition, is different.
Bax is an accountant by training, a painter by vocation, and a mixologist by accident.
Before he opened Melbourne's acclaimed Der Raum in 2001 he freely admits he knew little about cocktails other than he liked to drink them, and he thought a bar would be an easy business to run. His intention was not to mix drinks, but to come in late in the evening and count the money.
It didn't quite work out that way. "It was one of those scenarios where it's actually a really good thing not knowing anything," he says. "I had no idea what I was doing. Like most bars, at the start it was a real struggle. Just out of pure necessity I had to learn how to tend bar. Because I didn't know what I was doing, we were open to experimentation."
Bax's cocktails at Der Raum, which became one of the most acclaimed bars in Australia, often involved then relatively new molecular mixology techniques, including the use of foams, gelatin, liquid nitrogen, and smoke - although he says what many people principally remember about the bar was the bottles hanging from the ceiling.
"Probably the most famous thing about it was the back bar which used to hang above our heads. A few bartenders who worked there at various times have a few dents in their heads from banging into bottles," he says.
Bax closed Der Raum in 2013, opening another watering hole, Bar Economico, on the same site, but with a different concept.
"People loved Der Raum, but it was expensive and the drinks were out of reach for a lot of people. The new idea was a bar where instead of just having a beer you could have a cocktail for a similar kind of price," he says.
Another aspect of Bar Economico, which he calls "a rum brothel", modelled on rum bars in the Caribbean, was that he didn't have to be there to run it. Bax had decided to move to Munich with his German fiancée. There he opened another bar, Gamsei, based on Der Raum, but, unfortunately, after three months the romance went awry, and he returned to Australia.
He now operates three outlets in Melbourne - Bar Economico, Bar Americano and the newly opened Bar Exuberante, a hidden room entered through Bar Economico, which serves among other things some of the old Der Raum drinks.
Bax was also a founding partner of Singapore's Tippling Club, a pioneer in food and cocktail pairing, but has not been involved in that business since 2011.
The common thread through all these bars is Bax's preoccupation with flavour - a word he uses in an almost metaphysical sense.
"There is a sixth sense. Something beyond, that can't really be described with the five senses," he says. "Things have a flavour. Books have a flavour beyond the words. There is certainly flavour in art. Films have a flavour. Beyond the plot and the story there's something more."
With cocktails his aim is to get to that sixth sense by fully engaging the other five.
A constant frustration, he says, is that the need for cocktails to be cold makes it difficult to highlight their aromas, and tends to anaesthetise the palate: "As soon as you reduce the temperature you reduce the flavour."
He is also critical of the use of straws. "If you drink a glass of wine you swirl it around the mouth and make the most of that experience. If you drink through a straw it goes straight down your throat. You have a very limited experience of what's going on," he says.
Warm cocktails, which are naturally more aromatic, interest him, but they are generally a hard sell.
"Hot cocktails are not super popular, but what they do offer is a completely different spectrum in terms of flavour. You can also get some of the experience of the aroma while the drink is actually being made," he says.
Although Bax's reputation is that of an innovator, he has some surprisingly conservative views. An openness to new ideas combined with a respect for the tested and true may in part explain the durability of his bars' appeal.
"If you can't make a drink taste better with liquid nitrogen there's no reason to use it. Some of that old-school bartending may be getting lost in some of the noise we've made. A friendly smile and a decent conversation are important, and I hope that doesn't get lost in chasing fame and flashy techniques," he says.
He still has time for his other art, and continues to exhibit paintings, photography and installations. The two areas of creativity, he believes, to some extent inform each other, and keep him open to new ideas.
"I think any kind of creative activity - painting, writing, playing music - helps," he says. "It is important to keep an open mind."