Fanatics: Tom Gibbs, the colour of flavour

Tom Gibbs cares a lot about sustainability and experimentation. At Bar Clara, where he is Head Bartender, he produces a dried brown puck which he nibbles at before passing it over the bar. “Tastes like vegemite” he says thoughtfully. The puck, which does indeed taste like vegemite, is a future cocktail garnish made from The Gospel whiskey fermented mash (also known as wash). He has centrifuged (read: spun the mash at high speed to separate the liquids from solids) and dried this murky pre-whiskey to create something quite ugly but with nice umami flavours.

On the shelves behind him are jars of his experiments; things infusing, ageing or pickling. As with any true experiment, these creations don’t always work out. “A couple of months ago when we were doing oleo-saccharum* I basically didn’t think about the consequences of leaving it unattended throughout a lockdown - and that was a fluffy mistake. I came in and looked at one of the oleo-saccharum and I swear to god it looked right back at me”.

Tom was supposed to be a chemist. He was midway through a chemistry degree when, due to life circumstances, he dropped out and wound-up tending bar full-time. Turned out he was pretty good at it and he worked his way through the Melbourne bar scene. After being scouted by a series of bars and winning a couple of competitions his work slowly became an obsession. Through elaborate home experimentations in flavour he gradually developed his palate. One of his secret weapons is his synesthesia - a phenomena where senses are experienced simultaneously and flavour has colour. This allows him to put things together that others might not see as standard pairings. He says it was a while before he realised that not everyone had this experience.

Bar Clara Head Bartender Tom Gibbs experiments with The Gospel whiskey fermented mash The results of Tom Gibbs experiments with The Gospel whiskey fermented mash 

“One day you’ll just be talking to someone and they’ll ask ‘How did you know those flavours would work well together?’ and I’ll respond ‘Of course mustard and asparagus work together, they’re both blue’.” 

These days, in making his ambitious concoctions Tom says he is as much inspired by chemistry as by what’s on special at the supermarket. Anyone can make an incredible drink on an unlimited budget, he argues, but the real trick is to make an amazing drink that’s also economical.

“If I can make you a delicious drink for $2 or $4, that you’ll sit down and happily drink all night, then that’s a win in my book. It’s an attitude I take to our relationships with other bars. Give us your trash! The things that are unwanted, give us your beer run off, as long as it doesn’t cost us anything but time."

Bar Clara has developed a reputation as a go-to venue for hospo folk, and Tom is proud to be part of a community of passionate bartenders. It’s a tight-knit scene, and he’s even toyed with the idea of starting a bartender book club, where nerds can nerd out over their latest concoctions.

Although the last couple of years have been difficult for the Melbourne bar scene, Tom has managed to keep the creative juices flowing and is more than ready to be back out in the world. There’s a sense that the city is very ready to bounce back when it can. “If you want to go out on a Tuesday and have a night out that’s going to continue until the next Tuesday, the only place to do that in Australia is Melbourne. It ranges from the classy to the debaucherous to the downright disgusting.”

As well as the dried brown vegemite wash-puck, Tom is planning more creative experiments with samples taken from the different stages of our whiskey production. With the liquid centrifuged from the fermented mash he is contemplating some kind of milk punch, or a whiskey-based gin fizz. With the tails cut (the liquid that runs off the still after the good stuff is captured) he plans to make an amaro using long-term maceration with orange, coriander seed, bay leaf and star anise.

Bar Clara Head Bartender Tom GibbsBar Clara Head Bartender Tom Gibbs

The new make (unaged whiskey) is perhaps most ambitious experiment of all, some of which will be subject to accelerated ageing with toasted cherrywood, orange oil, cardamom, pistachio, sugar syrup and hot cross bitters, creating a drier Old Fashioned that still retains a classically sweet flavour profile. The rest of the new make will be made into bitters using oak chips and cinchona bark, to be used in martinis to simulate a whiskey wash without the need to add whiskey.

Hot cross bitters? Tom also makes this in-house using vanilla, cardamom, cloves, star anise and dried muscatel grapes. He ages it for “quite a while” and then strains it off with Pedro Ximénez sherry through blowtorched charcoal hot cross buns.

“I’m really passionate about sustainability because it has a cost effect. I work in a small bar and if I want this place to thrive, I need to cut corners like it’s crunch time at the circle factory.”

Evidently, another one of Tom’s passions is excellent Dad jokes.

*Oleo-saccharum is an ingredient that was commonly used in 19th-century bartending as a way to provide an elegant citrus flavour and aroma to cocktails. The word translates to ‘oily sugar’, also referred to as sugared oil.


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