Credit: Kimberley Low

There are pineapples on Jimmy Irvine’s pocket square. His cufflinks? They’re pineapples. His lapel pin? A pineapple. His nostalgic ice cream of choice? A pine-lime Splice. In case you hadn’t already gathered, Irvine has strong feelings regarding pineapples. As a child, he says he “ate a pineapple a day”.

Seriously? “I love pineapple. Maybe I was destined for hospitality.”

As the international symbol of hospitality in Tiki culture, the fruit, Irvine explains, is also a token of “health and prosperity” that, despite its appearances, speaks volumes to how Irvine has approached his role as the cocktail program manager at the Swillhouse Group for almost three years now. “Historically it’s a symbol of affluence in Western culture, however I take the avenue that it’s just good hospitality.”

During that time, the group has grown from a coterie of esoteric watering holes (The Baxter Inn, Shady Pines Saloon, Frankie’s) into a lauded portfolio of some of Sydney’s best small bars with international credentials to boot. Last year, they opened Restaurant Hubert, a dazzling Francophile anachronism where today Irvine is holding court behind one of two dine-in bars, cultivating what he calls “a moon tan that is better than most”.

A self-professed “renowned insomniac”, Irvine fell into (and fell in love with) hospitality while studying anthropology, cutting his teeth at first on short-handed Saturday nights before making his first tentative forays into mixing cocktails (first up, an entry level amaretto sour) and putting into practice by night the theories he studied by day. It’s no secret, however, which of his two passions won out. “I have diaries that I’ve kept over the years,” he recalls, a sly grin announcing itself with the memory. “I probably wrote more notes on drinks than I did on content at university.”

Those notes have put him in good stead for almost seven years now, during which time he has both represented Australia at international competitions in Trinidad, London and Berlin (it was at Tales of the Cocktail, an annual industry summit in New Orleans, that Irvine had a fortuitous first encounter with Jason Scott and Anton Forte, co-owners of the Swillhouse Group) and witnessed the country’s small bar scene flourish. The latter part can be attributed to bartenders meeting what Irvine considers the challenge set by our kitchens not just to have “what we like to call presence” but to connect with the arsenal of expertise and technique available on the other side of the pass.

“There’s no such thing as a one-person bar,” he declares with the confidence of an old-hand. “Some of the smartest people I’ve met throughout my life have been in the hospitality industry, whether they be bartenders or operators. Distillers? Oh, they’re crazy. I think we all have a hint of craziness, but I think that’s real – you get to see people for who they are.”

Witness Irvine in action behind the bar as part of the first instalment in our Hot Shots series

Tile and cover image: Kimberley Low