The beauty of Operation Dagger is that it’s hard to find. If you give directions you’d have to be very specific, and even then, if someone’s not familiar with the Ann Siang/Club Street axis, they’re bound to miss the no-signboard, no-neon, no-number nondescriptive glass door that leads to the basement that is OD. There is a sort of True Detective-type creepy chalk scribbling on a wall somewhere, but it’s likely you’ll miss it.
When you enter the bunker-like space, your first and lasting impression of the decor is the complete absence of branded booze bottles that blight some many bars. In its place are apothecary-like containers and appurtenances of cocktail art. As we have since learned, Dagger ferments, brews, meads and ages a lot of their own spirits – which of course takes bespoke to the next level. We chatted with Luke Whearty, the head bartender and instigator of Operation Dagger – currently one of our favourite hangs – about life lessons, good service and learning about meads.
What’s the idea behind Operation Dagger? What’s the impetus, what triggered it?
“I suppose I just wanted to provide something different. I’ve been working in bars for many years now and I guess I get a little tired of seeing the same thing over and over. Being specific to cocktails, I find it interesting that you go to London, New York, Paris, Melbourne, Singapore and a lot of the bars are essentially serving the sane drinks.
Whereas in the restaurant world, you don’t go to a restaurant in South Africa and you have the same thing as you have in Sweden. So I wanted to get a bit of that sense of time and place, a sense of uniqueness. For example, even for a basic gin – we distil our own gin – we sat down (me and the guys) and we worked out what flavour profile we want. So the drinks we make at Dagger are quite experimental, quite left-of-centre. But in saying that we still wanna make the right classics.
If someone orders a negroni or Manhattan or a martini, they can still, but it will have some element of difference because we’ve taken the time to dissect it, and we’ve made something unique. So pretty much in a nutshell, any drink you experience here you’re not gonna get anywhere else.”
When you say “unique”, we get it, but it’s pretty ambitious, right?
“Going back to the idea of concept, a lot of it has to do with my boredom, really. I feel like if I’m entertaining myself, and producing drinks that I’m proud of, and really getting a kick out of serving people, then hopefully the feelings will be reflected. And thankfully it has been since we’ve been doing it. It has been a big risk in terms of doing something different, it’s much easier to follow the mold, down that path that’s already been travelled, but the rewards are a lot greater if you go down a different path. If someone asked me to open Operation Dagger five years ago – when I was with Tippling Club – I’d have said, ‘no, you’re crazy it wouldn’t work’. But the bar scene in Singapore has grown a lot, and there’s much more awareness and customers are much more educated, and they’re out to have something different.”
Are you also big on local ingredients and big on localising the flavours?
“I’m a huge fan of that, massively. I don’t think you’ll find someone in the bar world as passionate about that as me. There are challenges in doing that in Singapore: there’s not a lot of agriculture here, there’s not a lot of native ingredients, everything’s imported. I’m used to having seasonal menus back home in Melbourne: blackberries growing up the road; we’ll pick jasmine and distil it, that’s what really excites me. In Singapore there’s not a lot of opportunities to do that, so we’ve had to adapt a little.
For instance we do a lot of fermentation here. A simple form of that is mead – honey wine. I wasn’t really familiar with that at all, which is quite surprisingly since for the majority of my life I’ve been working in bars, and I’m not familiar with one of the world’s oldest beverages.
Out of that challenge came something new, we experimented, we used wines that would normally go to waste – other bars would turn them into vinegar wine – we turn them into kombuchas, or mead at the moment. One that I’m really excited about is a drink called “tepache”, a South American drink with fermented pineapple and beer.
We grow some stuff on our rooftop, at the moment we’ve got a chocolate mint drink, a menu based on the chocolate mint that we grow. Or rosemary as well, as much stuff as we can grow ourselves.”
I just found out that your negroni is slightly different – it’s got a pinch of salt in them.
“Yeah, yeah. To be honest a lot of our drinks have a bit of salt in them, it’s not on the menu. Just like when you’re cooking, you add salt and it just heightens all the flavours, especially on a drink like the negroni where it’s bitter and sweet. So sometimes you zest the drink and lift the flavours up a little, a pinch of salt would do the same thing, sort of lift and heathen the high notes, and make it a little bit more exciting.”
What’s the most important thing you teach your staff?
“I’d like to think the most important thing I’ve taught them is, no matter what we’re doing, drink-wise, technical-wise, no matter how much hard work we put into it, and how different it is, at the end of the day, if we’re not welcoming to people, they’re not gonna have a good experience. Let’s be honest, we’re not saving lives, so what makes it the best bar in the world is sometimes the guy standing behind the bar who makes you welcomed, remembers your name, remembers your face – continues the conversation you had the last time you were in, little things like that can go a long way.”
Give us a good tip, like when the bar is really busy, how does someone get your attention? Like waving dollar bills is just obnoxious.
Laughs. “[If someone did that…] I’d walk to the other side of the bar! To be honest, if they’re patient, if they sit there and show us enough respect, they’ll get served eventually. No one gets favouritism in the bar, but our whole service is structured around minimising those wait times and making sure people are comfortable. Just sit back and relax we’ll get to you.”
What life lessons have you learned, working behind the bar?
“Life lessons?! You’re getting really deep on me! [Laughs]. Every day I learn life lessons. Back to what I said before, I’m not saving lives here, sometimes, just try not to take yourself so seriously. Enjoy what you’re doing, I learnt that quite early in life, whatever you do for a living, you have to enjoy it. My parents really instilled that in me. In Singapore there’s a huge pressure on being successful, pressure from family or friends, to be a banker or lawyer – if you’re miserable then what’s it worth? I like working with local guys who have a passion, and I can help them to realise that it is a career, they can push forward. And also another life lesson I’ve learned is – you can’t please everyone. Don’t try to be all things to everyone. Just stick to what you do, along the way you’re gonna get haters, but if you truly believe in it, stick to it and eventually you’ll have people come around and appreciate what you do.”
Do you believe in competitions? Do you encourage your staff to take part?
“VJ (one of his crew) has entered a few competitions and been quite successful. I don’t myself, it’s not that I have a problem with them, I’ve been in them before, I’ve judged quite a lot of them. I appreciate them for what they do for the industry, and for a lot of young bartender it gives them a kickstart to their career, but maybe a lot of the time there’s too much emphasis put on competitions and the bartender who win it get a lot of accolades, but at the end of the day, what do we do this job for? It’s hospitality.
Competition is sorta like feeding your own ego, making it all about me, me, me, I don’t agree with it. If it was a competition for the most hospitable guy, then maybe! I have mixed feelings about it, but I’m not gonna discourage my staff, but, hopefully I’d like to get them to realise that there’s a lot more to this career than competitions, you can be successful without it.”
Recommend a few great bars in Melbourne.
“One would be The Everleigh, same owners as Milk & Honey in New York – it’s a really well done classic cocktail bar. Then, there’s the Black Pearl. Nathan Beasley who runs it, he’s probably the most hospitable guy to run a bar. You get there, doesn’t matter what you’re drinking he’ll make sure you have a good time. Then another I just went to recently is Los Barbudos, which is like a South American rum bar. You walk in there and you feel like you’re in Havana, Cuba. They’re got old Cuban baseball matches playing on old black and white tvs, and they only serve rum.”
More info at Operation Dagger. (Somewhere in Ann Siang – ask Rust Cohle and Marty Hart).