Originally published in Unfiltered #73
Through two rebrands and a pandemic, Sydney’s latest Partner Bar, The Captain’s Balcony, is now home to a staple SMWS experience and a fast-growing collection of bottles, local Unfiltered Editor Adam Ioannidis writes.
The Captain’s Balcony hints at being one of those bars you’d expect to find in Singapore whilst getting lost exploring the side streets. Nestled in the banking section of the Sydney CBD, the ground floor is narrow, but by no means cramped; a cosy, perfect environment to explore the dazzling array of whiskies and other spirits on display behind the bar, or, sitting on the bar, as just under a dozen SMWS bottles tend to do. From the moment you walk in, the nautical theme is present — from the gorgeous mural on the right wall of a Kraken reaching up from the depths of the ocean to capture a vessel, to the old-school diver’s bonnet on the whisky barrel greeting you at the entrance.
Keep going forward past the bar and you’ll find the kitchen on your left and a staircase in front of you. If you ascend, you’ll find a second bar within a wider space where you can sit and relax by the fireplace, as well as a balcony that’s perfect for a dram or two. During winter, the upstairs space is an ideal spot to relax; the exposed-brick walls impart a rustic vibe that hearkens back to a simpler time, it’s a space where one can enjoy a nice dram and not have to worry about much else.
“We opened in 2015 with ‘The Balcony Bar’, and then we changed the name again (Balcony Erskine Street), and then we changed the name again. So in three years we changed the name three times”, tells Akash Deep, the bar’s owner, manager, bartender — you name it, Akash handles it.
“We came in, stripped things down, kept what we needed to keep, and then re-did it, opened in two months. It was eight weeks. And then we ran it for six months and then we just said like “oh, it’s not hitting the spot” and then we re-did the refurb again in what, I think less than a year’s time? And then got it ready and since then, yeah, a bit of this and a bit of that. But I think this is the end product and we were pretty happy with it in terms of getting the name, place and what we do together.”
Akash was no stranger to the industry, having worked in India for several years handling brand activations and promoting new whiskies whenever they would enter the local market; organising large-scale tastings and introducing new audiences to a whisky is something Akash has some experience with, the latter of which is a continuing mission at The Captain’s Balcony. Akash’s first brush with The SMWS came well before even The Balcony Bar had opened.
“My sales team rang me and said “Akash, there’s a tasting on, you love your whisky, you want to come down?” And then I went down and was like “what is going on here?” And it was all these green bottles lined up and I was like “I’d never seen this before”. I think I tried like six, man, out of I don’t know how many were there, and I was drunk. It was in 2012 or 2013. There was so much flavour, but it was full-on — cask strength stuff. “Man this is good”.” — Akash Deep
Over 900 products with some 500 whiskies and a full kitchen — need I say more? The Captain’s Balcony is first and foremost a whisky bar. If you ask Akash or anyone behind the bar for a recommendation, they’ll probably recommend you a whisky. Of course, if you’re in the mood for another spirit or refreshing ale then you won’t be disappointed. The whisky offering, the sheer number of bottles behind the bar and the passion radiating from those serving you is where the bar really shines, though.
If you’re big into your Japanese whisky or are looking to explore the territory, then you’ll be in good hands as the region makes up one of their largest selections.
“My wife, the other owner of this place, she likes Japan. So, she took me to Japan in 2015, the year we opened, and I went there, sitting in a bar, and I was like “can I have a whisky and a soda” and that was what we used to drink. When I had a Yamazaki, man, that changed my mind. I was like “this stuff is good”. Since then, until now, we buy Japanese stock. We’ve never stopped.”
As mentioned earlier the bar also runs a full kitchen service during the day and evening, so whether you’re dropping in for a lunchtime dram or after-work knock-off, you won’t have to worry about finding anywhere to dine afterwards.
A fast-growing part of the bar’s offering would be The Society drams; the bar is quickly becoming a Society beacon in the Sydney CBD.
There is a dedicated SMWS menu pinned from the ceiling to the bar with every cask on offer along with the dram and half-dram price, not to mention the staple introductory Society tasting board, which gives newcomers a chance to sample the diversity of SMWS drams.
“We have the special flight, we set aside those bottles that can’t be purchased separate, or the profiles can’t be purchased separate, they must buy the flight and therefore experience a flight of whisky as opposed to one. And it goes back to that problem of “a Macallan is not a Macallan in Society” well this is how different it is and look at them for what their uniqueness is and don’t come in next month and ask for another 24 because it’s not going to taste the same. It’s nothing like the same. You have to try a Dalmore and then you have to try a Society Dalmore, and then you know what’s going on.” — Matt Wooler
The Outturn Tastings
One of the unique aspects of The Captain’s Balcony is their monthly Outturn preview tastings; every month the bar receives a selection of bottles from the upcoming Outturn and hosts a tasting before the Outturn releases to give members (and non-members) a chance to sample the casks before they commit to purchasing anything. Led by long-time member and part-time contributor to The Society (and events manager/Wednesday night bartender at The Captain’s Balcony) Matt Wooler, the initiative has been met with positive reviews so far.
“We were actually looking to get this started last year,” Matt Wooler recalls, “around this time last year, but then the second wave of
COVID came through and we shut down again, so we literally had an advertisement, we were selling and we were promoting and then we ended up having to cancel it because it all shut down again. And so we got started again earlier this year officially as a Partner Bar, and so then we said “we need to do an Outturn tasting every month, at least for the rest of the year, see how the Sydney audience responds to that concept”. And it’s been working out well.”
Each tasting seats around 24 people in the upstairs bar. The exposed brick and frosted window also provide a rather private experience even if the bar is right in the middle of the CBD. Akash and Matt place a massive emphasis on inclusivity for the tastings and beyond, it doesn’t matter who you are, where you come from, if you’re a member or have never heard of The SMWS, the tastings are made to be as accessible as possible — one price for members and non-members. The goal is always to educate.
Tickets tend to go on sale pretty early on in the month so it’s worth keeping an eye out on SMWS Australia’s socials or The Captain’s Balcony’s socials for the latest updates and Eventbrite ticket link.
“We also have one price, whether it’s members or public, it’s the same deal; you’re here to experience and discover it.” — Matt Wooler
Your New Local
The Captain’s Balcony is a superb spot for all things SMWS and if you’re looking to explore the wonderful and flavoursome realm of whisky. The bar is located at 46 Erskine Street, Sydney NSW 2000 and is open from Monday – Friday, 12pm until late, and from 5pm until late on Saturdays (closed on Sunday). Be sure to pop in and say hi to Akash and the team (and Matt if you’re dropping past on a Wednesday night) and have a bite to eat with your dram.
A big thank you to Akash and Matt for taking the time to sit down and have a chat about the bar, and a big thank you to SMWS Global Ambassador John McCheyne who was kind enough to sit in on the interview.
Unfiltered Magazine is The Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s premium whisky knowledge magazine delivering quality content exclusively to members in an immersive multimedia format monthly. To view Unfiltered #71 in its entirety (as well as all back issues), log in and access the members’ portal or join The SMWS today — the world’s most colourful whisky club.