Meet Your Mixologist: Melbourne's Matt Brooke of Circa
A string of café jobs influenced Matt Brooke's love of wine and spirits, and ten years ago the Canberra-born drink expert began turning his passion into his profession. In 2003, he found himself tending the bar at Melbourne eatery Circa, and in 2006 he joined the restaurant's sommelier team. Brooke bolstered his wine knowledge during a three-year stint at Brisbane's Ortiga (formerly Isis Brasserie) and rejoined Circa two years ago as head sommelier.
As skilled in crafting cocktails as he is in curating reds and whites, Brooke is unabashed in his enthusiasm for connecting with customers. "I think I'm drawn to the nightlife, but also love creating experiences for people," he says. "Seeing their enjoyment gives me a buzz." Fresh markets, Essendon Football and the Athletes of Wine vineyard he runs with business partner business partner Liam O'Brien also make his buzzworthy list. Here's more on his ascent to the top of the Australian beverage scene, and a few things he's learned along the way.
Tell us about your first job working at a bar?
Matt Brooke: My first full-time job was at café in Melbourne's Crown Casino called Automatic. Back then it was pumping and fully rock star — the bartenders were kings. It was great seeing the bar filled with people who couldn't get enough of your drinks and attitude.
What does your role at Circa entail?
I do the buying for the wine list and manage the wines by the glass, which involves liaising very closely with our chefs. We host a lot of wine events at Circa but really the most important part for me is educating the staff, including three assistant sommeliers. I'm also on the floor for up to eight services a week so I see plenty of action.
You competed in Australia’s Best Sommelier competition? What was that experience like?
One of the best experiences of my career. There were a lot of different components in the competition, some of which I did well in and others that were a great learning experience. Just watching the finalists on stage on the final day was incredible. The bar has been set pretty high in my opinion, and I'm honored to be considered among some of these great sommeliers.
How does one create a great wine list?
It's all very well to have a big impressive wine list — and believe me, they're fun to work with — but great lists can also be small. I think greatness is found whenever a list achieves appropriateness to the cuisine, has some good value and benchmark wines, and engages you with choice and interest.
What do you enjoy about mixology that you don’t get to do as a sommelier?
I suppose the element of creating a drink yourself when you mix cocktails that you don't necessarily get as a sommelier. For me, making a cocktail list is as fun as creating a wine by the glass list. You get to work with chefs, new ingredients, and seasonal produce. What wine can't really do is be different every time you serve it, so it's fun when you can influence each cocktail yourself when you're behind the bar.
What are your favorite cocktail ingredients?
Probably lime and lemon juices. Sommeliers are acid hounds and I love my sours.
Are there any mixology trends that you’re excited about?
I'm enjoying the excitement of young mixologists and the use of ice in different ways. An ice pick/chisel was never a bar tool in my day, but I absolutely love the influence of different ice on drinks. How cool is sipping a Negroni from a full glass because there's a tennis ball-size chunk of ice in it?