Dark and sophisticated with an always evolving beverage list
When The Koutetsu first hit an undisclosed number on Hunter Street in December 2014, it brought a new kind of drinking experience to the Newcastle bar scene. Hard to find, dark and moody inside, The Koutetsu has never been about appealing to the masses, instead, the extensive and unique liquor menu has drawn in those who are up for something a bit out of the ordinary when it comes to their beverages.
The Koutetsu’s leading man, Chris (Wilso) Wilson’s extensive knowledge of spirits has largely been down to his nomadic lifestyle of working hard and holidaying even harder.
On a recent visit we sat down to hear how it all came to be, what’s changed in four years and for the uninitiated what they can expect.
Has your life always revolved around spirits and cocktails?
I actually started out as a pastry chef at a bakery in East Maitland and I’ve had a multitude of jobs over the years, but since my early twenties I’ve always had a bar gig either in Newcastle or Sydney. But it wasn’t until I started working at a bar in the Eastern suburbs of Sydney that my eyes were really opened to the world of cocktails and what a good drink can taste like.
What was the original concept for TK?
The Koutetsu wasn’t originally meant to be a high volume cocktail bar, more just a mix of beer, spirits and cocktails. But we launched with a bit of a wild cocktail on the menu and it took off, then we added a few more, and then that’s when the cocktail side of things really grew.
For those not familiar, how do you describe The Koutetsu?
Even now I don’t like to say we specialise in one particular thing, we’ve just got a good spread of everything. We have around 18 Japanese Whisky’s on the shelf at the moment, but we don’t like to call ourselves a Japanese Whisky bar and we’ve got around 30 or 40 gins, most of these being Australian Gins, which I consider to be some of the best in the world.
People don’t come in here to drink loads, they come in here to try something new, have an experience and a good time, it’s about drinking better not more. We don’t have tvs in here so the bar is our form of entertainment.
You’re about to crack four years in business, what’s been your secret to keeping people coming back?
We’ve got a really strong team behind the bar. Jake’s been here from the start, Jared and Wil have been here for 12 months now, so we’ve got a good core team and the guys love booze, and love making drinks.
But what I’ve found is that Newcastle’s starting to get the phone calls from suppliers about new products, not just your generic brands, but limited releases and some unique products, which hasn’t always been the case, they’re starting to think about us. Which has allowed us to offer our guests something new and keep the drinks menu interesting which is really important for a bar like us.
In July of this year, Chris was chosen, along with 15 other bartenders from Australia, to travel to the States for a ten-day Brown-Forman bar trip. Learning, tasting and experiencing all things liquor.
For ten days I toured the distilleries and barrelhouses of Brown-Forman brands, they have brands like Jack Daniel’s and Woodford Reserve, and I also went to Mexico to their tequila distillery. It was my first proper work trip where they paid for everything, it was amazing I met some great people, such a great experience.
So do your travels usually revolving around booze and bar hopping?
I’ve done a lot of travelling over the years, mostly for surfing, but more recently it’s been about exploring the overseas bar scene. I went to New York at Christmas last year purely for a bar tour - I proposed to Sheree as well, I used that as an excuse to go [Chris laughs] - but New York’s got a lot of the best bars in the world so we visited all different styles to see how they’re being run, see what products they’re serving, without geeking it up too much.
So how do Newcastle bars stack up against New York bars?
People say the service in America is always better because they're working for tips, but in the cocktail bars where you’re working one-on-one like you are in here, I think our service is definitely on a similar level. I think our techniques are also up there, but I would say the major thing would be access to different products.
We went into one bar and there were no shaken drinks, only stirred, the cocktail list said ‘Bitter’ with an arrow pointing up, and ‘More Bitter’ with an arrow pointing down, just all Amaros and Vermouths, there were three hundred Amaros on the back bar.
It was the most amazing space, a little Italian style bar with no seats run by this incredible guy. He was working on his own and there were 30 or 40 customers in there and he was just crushing it. So you can be more niche and selective because of the products you have access to, which you just wouldn’t physically be able to get here.
So what’s next for The Koutetsu?
I plan on doing a bit of remodel early next year, I am also about to change up the list of drinks and introduce quite a few new products, more so than just generic spirits, as well as continuing to offer up quality service that puts a smile on people's faces.