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Fred and Hannah for The New York Times The Australia Letter is a weekly newsletter from our Australia bureau. Sign up to get it by email. This week’s issue is written by Besha Rodell, a columnist for the Australia bureau. A couple of decades ago, I took the long […]
Fred and Hannah for The New York Times
A couple of decades ago, I took the long trip from New York to Queensland to visit my family for Christmas. My birthday falls in early January, and I told my brother that I’d like to go out for some cocktails to celebrate. He looked perplexed — there weren’t many cocktails to be found in Queensland back then.
We located a bar modeled on some kind of idea of New York. When I pushed my way to the counter through the beer-drinking throng and asked about cocktails, the bartender looked at me blankly. I ordered a gin and tonic. It came in a plastic cup with no ice.
What a difference 20 years makes. Back then, gin was considered a drink for your nana; these days, Australia is experiencing an incredible boom in craft distilling, especially with gin. The Times reported on the wonders of the Tasmanian craft gin movement just last year.
If I were to order a gin and tonic at today’s equivalent of that New York-themed bar in Queensland, I likely would be given my choice of gins, many of them distilled in Australia. The drink would be made with care and high quality tonic. And if you asked your gin-obsessed bartender who is responsible for this change in drinking culture in Australia, they almost certainly would credit Vernon Chalker.
In 1997, Vernon opened a bar called Gin Palace in a Melbourne laneway. Gin Palace was a serious cocktail bar that was seen as radical for its dedication to gin in the era of vodka, and in a country devoted to beer and wine. The lighting was dim, the seating was plush and the drinks were fantastic. It is still one of Melbourne’s best bars.
Vernon died this week. He was 55. A cause of death has not been released.
Longtime New York Times drinks writer Robert Simonson remembered Vernon on Instagram, saying, in part:
When Gin Palace opened in 1997 on one of Melbourne’s disused laneways, there was no independent bar scene in the city to speak of and no one drank gin. Chalker — flamboyant, mercurial and visionary — changed that. He went on to open more bars and lead a revolution in Melbourne nightlife. Vernon had the energy of a man half his age and an insatiable appetite and capacity for fun and adventure.
Beyond the influence of Gin Palace as a model for the modern Australian cocktail bar, Vernon was responsible for hiring and training many of the people who went on to lead our current drinking renaissance as bar owners, distillers, designers, restaurateurs, brand ambassadors for major drinks companies, and more.
Kate Hoskins, a friend and former employee of Vernon’s who now works for the Adelaide Hills Distillery, told me: “In truth you could probably look to all corners of the globe, in all of the arts, and find people who have worked for Vernon. He had a knack for bringing certain kinds of people together.”
Fancy cocktails and fancy cocktail bars are easy to dismiss as overpriced folly for wealthy dandies, and there are times when even I — a journalist who has spent her entire career covering food and drink — question the validity and importance of expending so much energy on the pursuit of ingestible pleasure. That is especially true right now, when the world seems to be crumbling around us.
But even in times like these, pleasure is important. People like Vernon helped to make our cities more fun, more attractive to international tourists, more recognized on the global stage. And he helped to turn what was once considered a menial job — bartending — into a respectable (and even celebrated) career for thousands and thousands of Australian workers.
Do you have a favorite Australian cocktail or distillery? Let us know at email@example.com.
Here are this week’s stories.
Celebrating the Great Australian Tradition of Meat in a Box While social distancing, Australians should unify under their love of a takeout classic, the halal snack pack.
Cardinal George Pell Knew of Clergy Sex Abuse, Australian Report Finds. The cardinal, whose sexual abuse conviction was overturned last month, knew decades ago that priests had victimized children but failed to take action, a government inquiry concluded.
China’s Military Is Tied to Debilitating New Cyberattack Tool. An Israeli security company said the hacking software, called Aria-body, had been deployed against governments and state-owned companies in Australia and Southeast Asia.
In Sydney, the Magic Hour Means Noise. It’s Heavenly to Hear. Five weeks into Australia’s coronavirus lockdown, the sound that bursts forth each afternoon of kids shouting, dogs barking and couples arguing is welcome relief from the quiet of isolation.
The First Signs of Travel’s Return? As Australia announces plans to revive tourism, we look at 10 top travel destinations and their timetables for reopening. The challenge: balancing safety with the need to reboot.
Justice Dept. Drops Case Against Michael Flynn.The extraordinary move came after the former national security adviser had fought the case in court for months, a reversal after pleading guilty twice and cooperating with investigators.
Irish Return an Old Favor, Helping Native Americans Battling the Virus.In 1847 the Choctaw people sent $170 to help during the potato famine. Irish donors are citing that gesture as they help two tribes during the Covid-19 pandemic.
One Bright Thing: Reader Edition. After 18 of our writers shared a silver lining during the pandemic, more than 300 people sent in submissions of their own luminous moments. Here’s a selection.
What Happened to Val Kilmer? He’s Just Starting to Figure It Out. Cancer has taken his voice, but the unlikeliest movie star in Hollywood history still has a lot he wants to say.
Two weeks ago, we wrote about gratitude for the relative safety of Australia, and asked about your feelings of gratitude during this time. Here’s one reader’s response:
There’s times in the past year I have not felt gratitude for being Australian — political obstinacy that prevent any sensible discussion of the underlying causes of our devastating summer of bushfires being prominent.
But I am grateful that putting aside that moral blind spot, I live in a country able to navigate the current pandemic crisis by mediating sensibly between collective responsibility and personal liberty.
I am grateful that Australians have elected politicians who are able to listen to experts and act on evidence.
And finally I am grateful that Australians are able to express their disagreements about how we handle to lockdown and societal choices other than by taking semiautomatic weapons into the streets.
— John Carruthers
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