Raising the Bar at Herbert
He’s travelled the world exploring ancient tinctures and herbal potions; been employed as a flavour consultant by some of the world’s largest brands including Coca Cola and Nestlé; ran a very profitable bar in London where the drinks were free; and literally dreams up cocktails in his sleep. Deb Caruso discovers there’s more than meets the eye to this cool cocktail creator.
Alex McKechnie of Herbert mixes a bloody great drink but it’s his passion and background that is the secret ingredient to where he is today.
This boy from Boreen Point has lived a life of boardroom presentations to global CEOs; biking around Europe in search of mountaintop distillers; and working for (and owning) some of London’s hottest bars. His earliest career-defining memory was making a drink called Sugar Milk when he was seven.
“That’s the first time I remember being happy making drinks for other people,” he said. “I used to experiment with random concoctions and one time I took bicarb soda, citric acid and water and froze it and was like ‘wow, I’ve made fizzy ice’. And now here I am.”
Alex has always liked making things and being creative; from furniture and lights to drinks.
“It’s beautiful to create something and then move on and create something entirely different,” he said. “Bartending gives me freedom to build a concept, test it and be done with it,” he said.
Alex started working in drinks when he was 14 at Sails Noosa where he learnt the art of making coffee and tending bar.
At 18, he moved to London to learn more about cocktails and landed a job with Match, the leading bar group in the world. His side gig as a Flavour Consultant took off and he was scouted by Coca Cola and Nestlé to develop products for brands like Lipton, Nestea and Fanta.
Developing ideas and recipes for drinks owned by Unilever; Britvic, who are co-owned by PepsiCo; and a number of American beer companies followed. Chances are we have tasted the results of Alex’s flavour advice!
Presenting to global companies on the future of flavours; being involved in the research and development and marketing of drinks brands; reinventing Vanilla; innovating toothpaste; and more became his life before he realised that he really loved bartending.
He came back to it with a fresh attitude and opened a cocktail bar in London, The Guinea Pig Club.
“We didn’t have a liquor license, so everything was free and at the end of people’s experiences we gave them an envelope if they wanted to leave a tip, there were no obligations,” he said. “That freed us creatively to go for it.”
The club ran for 6 months and every week they would push the envelope, quite literally.
“By the end of it we were giving away a goodie bag with a vial of a cocktail and a postcard with a story about the drink,” Alex said. “Every ice cube was hand carved; every glass was crystal, it was a top-tier experience and we made more money by making it free than if we charged people.”
Alex had plans to move to New York to start his own drink project but needed further research with a year-long trip around Europe – not bar hopping but getting back to the basics of booze.
“The culture of homemade alcohol is strong in Europe, so we wanted to find who was making grappa, limoncello – grassroots stuff that you don’t normally get access to,” he said.
“We travelled 16,000 kms by bicycle, living in tents and meeting ‘friends of friends of friends’. We ended up in the mountains of Slovenia with this old lady who had shelves full of tinctures she made from herbs picked wild from the mountains; super interesting stuff.”
After that, Alex returned to Noosa for two years to get his Visa sorted for the States and found himself at Light Years Asian Diner working with Leon Johnston.
“Sometimes it was mayhem and pressure and all the things you don’t want; but it was actually great fun,” he said. “I’ve seen Leon under lots of pressure and he just steps up.”
Leon had the concept of opening a plant-centric restaurant that challenged the usual stereotypes and everything was ready for Alex’s project in New York.
Five days before he was supposed to leave, the borders closed, putting the project and his future on hold.
“I have this philosophy of life that you’re floating down a river and you can swim, but you’re mostly going with the river,” he said. “There were suddenly a lot of blocks around New York and then with Leon, ‘Herbert’ came up as a concept and everything around that flowed smoothly. There were lots of little moments that solidified this was the right path such as when I found the perfect font for our logo – and it was called Herbert! So here we are.”
‘Here’ is Herbert – Alex and Leon’s bistro in Noosa Junction that is raising the bar with its plant-centric menu and cocktails that stimulate the senses.
“Simple but well-executed,” Alex says “is the philosophy behind Herbert.”
“Our offer is based around veggies and sustainability and being hyper-local so we work with local farms and we employ a local forager; we make our own cola, tonics, sparkling water, lemonades; and are always looking at ways to minimise waste such as dehydrating leftover pulp from watermelon juice to use as a garnish; it’s the same with the kitchen.
“We want to make a statement in terms of our food, our drink and our concept with the goal of making sure that every single person is having the best possible experience.
“The drinks part of it, is interesting navigating what’s too far forward and what resonates with our guests.
“My life has been very liquid – I’ve spent time studying under a tea master; world champion barista and three masters of wine; I’ve learnt from people who brew different alcohols and learnt fermentation; I’ve distilled spirits and experimented with flavours and ingredients since I was a boy.
“But the most important thing is the customer. You can get caught up in making it interesting when it’s actually as primitive as ‘I like this’ – that’s it. It’s something that lasts for five minutes and if people aren’t enjoying it and connecting with it on an emotional level, then why bother.”
Alex said the most popular drink at Herbert was the Lychee Lemon Myrtle.
“That’s not a complex drink,” he said. “It’s basic and people love it; so it meets our objective of guests having a great time. We’re a restaurant and so are very food-orientated but what we’re doing right now with our Late Night Jazz, art commissions and building community and engaging on multiple levels; we want to be a hub of inspiration.
“The drinks scene in Australia is about five years behind London and the drinks we were making at The Guinea Pig Club were ahead of London. We have drinks on our menu like the Ron Burgundy that I made ten years ago when it was the only drink that Gourmet Traveller included in its ‘50 Greatest Creations’ alongside dishes from Rene Redzepi’s Noma.
“I want to bring more storytelling, fun and theatre to the drinks experience – something that’s not being done in Noosa; we want to stand out,” he said.
“I have all these ideas but we can’t be above our audience so it’s a journey. We’re here when they’re ready.”
I say, bring it on!