Sydney is lucky enough to be home to four Society partner bars — the largest number of any city ‘down under’. The latest venue to be able to name itself an official partner bar of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society is Websters – a three-storey powerhouse that quite literally has something for everyone, as Adam Ioannidis reports
Ray Daniel (left) with Matt Bailey from The Scotch Malt Whisky Society (centre)
“You still get to come to a pub and enjoy a parmy, a cold schooner and plenty of tap options – three levels of a vast offering,” Ray Daniel, venue manager at Websters, tells me. “But you can also still find rare drams that are so hard to come by.”
I asked Ray about the bar’s inception and why he decided a partnership with the SMWS was a direction worth pursuing. As it turns out, Websters Bar’s lineage goes back a fair bit and had a direct hand in Ray’s decision to open up and essentially transform what was previously Zanzibar into the expansive venue it is today.
“The idea of Websters was born one morning at 6am — when coming to I noticed a plaque on the side of the building that read: ‘Newtown took its name from the grocery store opened on this site by John and Eliza Webster in 1832. The Websters placed a sign on top of their store that read “New Town Store”. The first recorded official use of the place name of Newtown was made in Sydney Gazette on 24 November, 1832.’
Websters Bar was not completed overnight, though, with Ray saying his first thoughts upon entering the space were ‘fixer upper’. “It was a great space, but it had been neglected in a lot of ways. There didn’t seem to be scope for what it would have cost to make the whole venue ‘one’. However, it was made possible.”
Ray has spent a fair chunk of his life in the realm of hospitality, starting off at a country pub “affectionately called Tatt’s” when he was 18; when it came time to tackle what would become Websters Bar, he was already a veteran of the trade. “At 23 I went to the Hotel Bondi, The Clarendon (now called the Dove & Olive), then Tea Gardens Hotel, then up to Erina to the Woodport Inn (now the Sunkin Monkey) and lastly to The KB Hotel (now called the Keg & Brew) – we all miss that little pub. Looking back at that list it pretty much looks like I mess up the name of the pub and move on!”
Websters Bar is many things, one of which is a whisky bar. Ray’s love for bourbon and rye played a big part in the spirit having such a prominence in the venue; what started off as 138 whiskies behind the bar quickly escalated, however.
“The scope of over 1,000 whiskies on the bar was never something that was conceivable really,” he says. “We were happy with every bottle number we went up. Getting to 300 and 400 was exciting enough. It developed from requests of customers and looking into the industry.
“Building Websters into a ‘Whisky Bar’ took a lot of support from the industry. You guys, obviously Matt Bailey in particular, have been a massive help in supporting that. Adding the quality of Society whisky to our bar was a no-brainer, and we are humbled that you have given us that respect. Oh, and Society whisky is a damn fine selection, that never hurts.
“There have been a lot of customers, who I now call very good mates, that have helped with their passion for Society whisky. I’m certainly still a ‘noob’ to it and I’m enjoying the road so far. It’s an in-depth list of distilleries and whisky knowledge the Society holds, the most important part of that to me is everyone involved has been completely open-armed and inviting. You could easily be daunted approaching such a catalogue, however, it has never felt like that at any moment.”
Websters is building its offering of SMWS bottlings
BACK TO ITS ROOTS
So, what can patrons find upon entering Websters Bar? Well, everything. The ground floor (or King St Bar, as it is called) is adorned with ample steampunk décor to provide an industrial-era aesthetic and is a great place to get a classic Aussie pub feed and cold schooner. Climb the stairs to the second level and you’ll find yourself a few decades in the future — the 1920s — with a sultry speakeasy atmosphere and a delicious grill menu, local wine varietals and, of course, over 1,000 whiskies to choose from, including a range of Society casks to sample and enjoy.
The top floor harks back to what Ray describes as a “dad’s shed” appeal, bringing 1950s Aussie backyard aesthetic to Newtown, Sydney. The balcony offers a variety of modern bar meals with long wooden tables and turf flooring. It’s a great way to end a day while the sun sets over the city. “Websters Bar is five years old,” says Ray.
“However, the building has been a venue since 1863, when it was called the Daniel Webster Hotel. It went on to become the Oxford Tavern, then Zanzibar, and now back to its roots – Websters Bar.”