Meet the 2024 Bar Awards judges

Presented by HUNTERhunter, Bar Awards are about recognising the bartenders, mixologists, brewers, and hospitality owners who are moving Newcastle's drink culture forward – both behind the bar and beyond it.

Bar Awards is a completely industry-led awards event, with owners and industry invited to nominate either themselves or others within the relevant 11 award categories

The final word will, however, be given to our judges, a group of industry leading professionals who have been given the unenviable task of deciding the best of the best across Newcastle's bar industry. Let us introduce you to the Bar Awards judges of 2024.

Mike Bennie

For those in the industry, Mike Bennie needs no introduction. A freelance wine and drinks writer, journalist, and presenter, Mike was also the co-founder and co-director of the now-retired artisan and sustainability-focused Rootstock Sydney food and wine festival.

In 2017, Mike launched P&V Wine + Liquor Merchants in Newtown, a groundbreaking liquor store and education space focused on artisan fermented, brewed, and distilled products which now has a second store in Paddington. Mike was also the co-founder of the wine, beer, spirit, and non-alcoholic beverage celebration that is the Drink Easy Awards.

In addition to all of this, Mike has long been a local and international wine and drinks judge.

Liam Gavin

If you've ever dropped into the Nashville-style honky-tonk bar Shady Pines Saloon in Darlinghurst, you may well be familiar with Liam Gavin.

Liam started his hospitality career in pubs throwing kegs as a cellar assistant straight out of high school, before moving onto nightclubs, restaurants, and cocktail bars. His resume details some of the best including Door Knock and now Shady Pines Saloon.

Ollie Margan

Ollie has spent his life in and around food, wine, and drink. Growing up in the Hunter Valley, it's no surprise wine was his first interest.

Completing a Bachelor of Viticulture & Oenology (wine science) at the University of Adelaide, Ollie has experienced vintages in Bordeaux and Central Otago. However, it was during his time in Adelaide that Ollie ventured into kitchens and behind bars, going on to become the driving force behind Adelaide's award-winning cocktail bar Maybe Mae.

Ollie has now returned to the Margan family business in Broke, to work on some creative projects which includes the release of his Breaking Ground range of wines.

Nigel Weisbaum

An industry stalwart, Nigel has been championing the Australian spirits industry since 2012, working with some of its most recognisable names including West Winds Gin, Archie Rose Distilling Co, 666 Vodka, Tromba Tequila, and more recently, Old Youngs from the Swan Valley. Nigel is also actively involved with the peak body for commercial Australian distillers, the ADA.

On the daily, Nigel's specialist subject is the sales and marketing of premium brands. Beyond his 9-to-5 endeavours (are they ever truly 9-5!), Nigel dedicates himself to fostering skills and community within the local hospitality industry. One of his passion projects is the Central Coast Cocktail Cup.

Kylie Sepos

Award-winning distiller and founder of The Farmer's Wife Distillery, Kylie's botanical-inspired gin flavours have been turning heads and palates all over Australia and across the globe, at the same time putting the little country town of Allworth on the map.

Kylie's dream to launch her own gin label was kickstarted following a trip to Tasmania in 2015. Leaving the corporate world behind to pursue her gin dream, Kylie's journey now includes a range of seasonal gins, a stunning gin distillery door complete with restaurant and bar, plus annual events – and there's much more to come.

Blake Nash

Born and raised in Newcastle, Blake graduated with a Bachelor of Business from Griffith University. It was, however, her strong family background in hospitality that drew her into the industry. When the opportunity came about to co-own and operate The Lucky Hotel with her sister, following an extensive multi-million dollar renovation, it was an offer too good to refuse.

After almost seven years of running the iconic venue, and numerous awards at both the state and national level, Blake passed the bat onto the new owners to focus on raising her young family and designing her next side project. 

Pat Hester

It was Pat's time spent working in London's hospitality scene, followed by a move to Tasmania, where he discovered his love of wine. Pat returned to Newcastle to complete his sommelier studies and co-own Newcastle's first dedicated wine venue, Reserve Wine Bar. You'll now find Pat with good mate Alexander at their award-winning Yellow Billy Restaurant in the Hunter Valley.

It's here Pat pushes the wine boundaries with this personality-infused wine list which is turning heads, taking out Drinks List of the Year in the 2024 Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide awards.

Jo Thomas

Jo is the Co-Founder of Buds & Beads, Australia's first low-sugar, low-calorie, alcohol-free, and premium quality sparkling beverage.  Jo launched Buds & Beads with her best friend and business partner, Karina Barry, in October 2022.

It was Jo's broad experience across the health and wellbeing, food, beverage, and tourism markets which gave her the insights necessary to launch the luxury, market-first product. Jo’s expertise in marketing and communications have not only contributed to the growth of some of Australia’s key brands, but the continued success of Buds & Beads.

Neil Richardson

Neil's passion for beer runs deep, growing up around his grandfather's renowned pubs, The Angel, in Islington, and The Little Driver, in Bow, London, along with his father's affiliation with Britain's CAMRA organisation (Campaign for Real Ale). In 2001, Neil relocated to Newcastle after marrying a Novocastrian, and it's here he explored his brewing skills by experimenting with home brews.

Neil soon realised his true talent lay in storytelling and pursued a Bachelor of Journalism from Monash University. Combining his expertise in beer and journalism, Neil now freelances for The Crafty Pint, Australia's leading craft beer news platform, where he covers the vibrant craft beer scene in the Hunter and Newcastle regions.