During his visit to Sydney for the Operation Dagger X PS40 pop up, we spoke with Luke Whearty, Owner & Executive Bartender of Operation Dagger about his creative process and innovative approach to cocktails.
“When we opened Operation Dagger, I simply wanted to get back to what grabbed me about bartending from the start which is the pure creative side of it,” Luke explains. “We wanted to create a space that was conducive to being creative not only for us but our staff also. We also wanted to give birth to a place that made it easier for the guest to open themselves up to a unique experience.”
Operation Dagger is known for experimental cocktails and a back bar lined with unbranded apothecary style bottles with symbols on labels. Around 90 per cent of the liquids are made in house. Commercial spirits are still used but often these are redistilled to introduce new flavours or blended with other spirits of the same category to create a unique flavour that isn’t replicated anywhere else.
“The reason we do this was we simply wanted to create a new experience for the guest so even if they ordered a simple classic like a Manhattan or Old Fashioned, it would still have a sense of familiarity to it but at the same time be completely new. In terms of liqueurs, we also make the majority in house. The exception to this would be something like Campari which I consider to be good the way it is and unless I think I can make it better I won’t touch it. A “don’t try and fix it if its not broken” kind of approach I guess.”
Operation Dagger’s cocktail menu lists the ingredients of each drink with no mention of the base spirit. The decision to remove the spirit categories from the menu stemmed from his desire to remove any bias a customer might have towards a certain spirit. “By removing them and listing just the flavours of the drink, this persuades the customer to choose their cocktail based on flavours they like rather than being bamboozled by the latest triple distilled, barrel-aged, overproof aquavit which the general public have no idea about or even have a basis for comparison,” Luke says. His guests generally find it much easier and they are often surprised that they end up liking a drink with certain spirits that they would not normally choose.
Unusual ingredients often make their way into cocktails such as sea urchin, lardo, toasted avocado seed, pigs blood and ants. “You name it, I’ll try it.” As such, most of Operation Dagger’s creations can be called “left of centre” such as the Man vs Pig cocktail with green strawberries, lardo, walnut oil and sorrel. “The idea came from a dish I had that blew my mind in London at a restaurant called The Typing Room by Lee Westcott. The idea was to make use of green unripe strawberries and sorrel juice for a crisp aperitif style drink. The lardo (pig fat) was used to balance out the acidity in the drink and give a texture and silky mouthfeel. We then compressed walnut oil into the strawberries which is then served on top of the ice to give a nutty finish.”
His inspiration comes from anywhere and everywhere. “I really try and open myself up to everything around me as you never know where that light bulb moment will come from. Sometimes its a song, sometimes a movie, other times its something you eat or even something someone says in a late night drunken conversation.”
In terms of current trends, he cites a shift towards sustainability and minimising waste, following the lead of bars like White Lyan in London. “A noticeable move towards low ABV and aperitif type cocktails is also very apparent and something that I think creates a lot of diversity to the bar scene. And speaking of diversity, I really love that there are bars specialising in one thing and not trying to be all things to all people. This I feel is the real future of bartending and making drinks. I love going to a place and not really even have to look at a menu because I trust that they are going to deliver something unique that they specialise in. After all, there’s only so many Manhattan variations you can drink made by someone with a pineapple tattoo, a moustache and suspenders.”
And the next big thing? “More bars specialising in one area but also following in the lead of restaurants like Noma where they only use native seasonal ingredients. This approach creates such a unique experience and sense of time and place and enables people to really showcase the produce and culture of the place that they live.”
Operation Dagger is featured in Best Singapore Bars.
Photo Credit: Supplied