Seasoned mixologist Nabin Shrestha shares the secret to making bespoke cocktails on the spot, and the best part of his job

Nabin Shrestha
Nabin Shrestha

As the assistant manager at Hilton Sydney’s Marble Bar, Nabin Shrestha knows a thing or two (or a hundred) about the art of mixology. Following a stint at the Waldorf Astoria Ras Al Khaimah in the UAE, Shrestha moved to Sydney to work as one of Marble Bar’s expert bartenders, and rapidly climbed the ranks to his current position.

For those who aren’t familiar, Marble Bar is an iconic heritage-listed underground bar with a 128-year-old legacy. With jazz music and warm candle lights on every table, the decor is strongly reminiscent of pre-prohibition era venues, when cocktail-making was just on the brink of ignition. For Shrestha, Marble provides a much-needed break from today’s technology and mobile phone-oriented world. “We need room for people to take a break from social media and socialize in real time,” he explains. “We are a community space where people gather to connect with other people.”

As a previous bartender and current manager, Shrestha knows the importance of keeping customers happy, which can be tricky when crafting an entirely new bespoke drink for someone. There is, however, a basic formula that Shrestha reveals: “All cocktails are based on a balance of three elements: spirits, sweetness, and sourness.” When devising a new concoction, Shrestha tries to understand a customer’s specific needs on that particular night and come up with something that caters to their favorite spirits, taste, and mood.

Starting young

Shrestha’s hardworking and compassionate attitude was instilled in him from his very first hospitality role, which he took on at the mature age of five (yes, really). Shrestha explains that his first hospitality experience started in his family’s teashop, where he used to help his mother pack breads and serve tea since he was young. “I remember waking up early in the morning and helping her in the shop and going to school, and now my experience in the hospitality sector spans more than 20 years.” To this day, when asked about his personal heroes, Shrestha still cites — who else — his mother as number one. “My mentor is my mom. She taught me how to be a good host and is my biggest inspiration.”

Another big inspiration throughout Shrestha’s career has been businessman and hotelier Conrad Hilton. When he was younger, Shrestha wrote about Hilton for a school assignment in which he had to present on “a great leader.” Why Hilton? Simply put, “The mission statement ‘to fill the earth with light and warmth of hospitality’ touched my heart.”

Although Marble’s old-school feel pays homage to its legacy — its mahogany bar and breathtaking marble archways were literally dismantled, transported, and reassembled from their previous home in the former Adams Hotel — Shrestha and his team are also constantly keeping up with new trends. Want to be surprised by something that’s not on the menu, or perhaps want to enjoy your night with a non-alcoholic beverage? The staff at Marble have you covered. As Shrestha declares, never say no to a guest.

Coconuts had the opportunity to pick Shrestha’s mind on all things cocktails, including the differences between working in bartending across two vastly different cultures, how Marble’s food and beverage teams coordinate with one another to provide the ultimate guest experience, and his personal go-to recipe when hosting a dinner party.

How has your cross-cultural exposure working in cosmopolitan cities influenced your craft? What are some differences in terms of customer preferences do you observe – and could you describe the transition moving from the UAE to Sydney?

Shrestha: It was not a difficult transition, it’s just a different experience. I was able to combine the different techniques to create cocktails and incorporate ingredients that are common in both the UAE and Australia. The drinking culture is great in Sydney and bartenders like myself love to work here as it has many bars considered to be some of the world’s best. Due to cultural and religious aspects, UAE cocktail culture depends heavily on tourists arriving from different parts of the world; this is an advantage as we can cater to various demographics. In Sydney, drinking culture is very well established and local bar communities are tight-knit, which offer many opportunities to gain the latest updates from across the industry.

How do you tailor your creations based on different personalities? For instance, do you read their moods, observe how they carry themselves, or work with them to figure out their preferences? From your experience, do most people approach you with a strong impression of what they would like – or do customers tend to rely on your expertise for recommendations?

Shrestha: It is always exciting when you are behind the bar because you get to meet different personalities and share banter. Most of our clientele are regulars and we are familiar with the demographic we serve, so we generally know what they wish to drink.

From my experience, I have met with two categories of guests: people who know what they want and people who need extra attention to discover what they want. In case a customer does need extra attention, we start with the basics and simply ask them what their choice of spirit is, followed by taste. From there, we work to create a tailored drink or recommend a drink for them. That’s the best part of being a bartender — you get to experiment with new drinks and let your customer be the judge.

How closely do you work with the kitchen for food and drink pairings? What is the creative protocol for coming up with bar snacks that complement your drinks menu – do the drinks lead the snacks or is it a reciprocal influence?

Shrestha: Food and beverage are two sides of the same coin; without balance, your menu loses its charm. In order to create balance in our menu, we work closely with our talented chefs, and whenever we create new cocktails, we consult with our executive chef to pair it with food. For example, we have a cheese board which complements Marble Bar’s lychee rose martini. The king fish tacos also pair nicely with house tommy’s margarita.

The hotel bar provides a great space for conversation. What are some of your best bar stories?

Shrestha: I met a 70-year-old man who used to bartend at Marble 45 years ago. Listening to his story made my day and I realized that I am working where stories are made. Once a month I meet with people that have come to Marble Bar in the past for a special occasion; they share their stories with us. I get to meet many people who have special memories attached to Marble Bar, and listening to those stories is one of the best parts of my job.

Share with us some insider tips on hosting a cocktail dinner party? What is your go-to recipe when you want to impress your guests at home?

Shrestha: Cocktail dinner parties are easy to organize when you know your guest preferences. I would choose the most popular spirits among my guest list. Create something simple to pre-batch and a drink that does not take too much time. To [really] impress your guests, make classic cocktails with your own twist. For example, you can make a margarita and replace sugar syrup with any seasonal, sweet fruit and make a delicious frozen margarita.

Most of my friends love whiskey so most of the time, I will make an old-fashioned, a whiskey sour, or a rusty nail. I love to experiment on them as well, so instead of sticking to the classic recipe, I’ll occasionally create something that makes my friends roll their eyes at me.

Marble Bar is located in Hilton Sydney, 488 George St, Sydney NSW 2000, Australia. 
For a moment at the bar, a relaxed brunch, or an unforgettable dining experience – indulge your senses with Hilton. Dine #LikeAMember at participating F&B establishments in Australia to enjoy exclusive members-only discounts and privileges.

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