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Speakeasy: Mixologist Benny Roff discusses the art and spirit of underground cocktails

Antonina Mtanu

Wed Aug 19 2015


INSPIRED by the boozing party culture of the 1920s, mixologist Benny Roff’s passion for mixing drinks has lead the former chef to an interesting and varied career. Antonina Mtanu caught up with Roff to talk about his new book, Speakeasy, and the career he has had in mixology.  


When people mention the 1920s, images of grand parties akin to that of The Great Gatsby immediately come to mind. It’s an era where underground cocktails thrived; finding their way into the hearts of boozing partygoers all across America.

And it’s this very gin-soaked, gangster-frolicking period which served as inspiration for mixologist Benny Roff, whose career in the business of alcohol has taken him to interesting places.

“For a mixologist, there’s always a romance around that time,” Roff reveals.

The allure of the dangerous yet hedonistic time period mixed with Roff’s passion for alcohol led him to conduct extensive research on vodka during his time managing Melbourne institution, Borsch Vodka and Tears.

“It was interesting to find out that vodka was an unknown spirit in America during the 1920s. It took about 20 years for it to become a popular and well-known spirit,” Roff said.

“I approached cocktails like a chef, I had no idea of how to mix drinks so I tasted all the ingredients I had on the table, mixed them and experimented a lot.”

Before pursuing career as a mixologist, Roff worked as chef in kitchens across the United States as well as in London. Using his skills in the kitchen as a stepping stone, Roff’s transition into mixology began with experimentation.

“I approached cocktails like a chef, I had no idea of how to mix drinks so I tasted all the ingredients I had on the table, mixed them and experimented a lot,” the mixologist explained.

Over time, his skill and finesse in the cocktails creation eventually led him to branch out into other areas within the world of wines and spirits. Writing, is one of those areas he never expected would tie into his passion for drinks.

“I wrote guidelines for other people when I visited restaurants. It was sort of an accident when I discovered this. One night I was writing down everything at a restaurant and someone suggested that I take on writing!”

His new book, Speakeasy, celebrates and pays homage to the era that inspired Roff and, in turn, gave birth to the modern cocktail. Before penning this guide book to creating 200 classic cocktails from the comfort of your own home, Roff had previously released the Gourmand award-winning guide and recipe book, Borsch, Vodka and Tears (also named after his previous workplace).

Speaking about his new book, Roff says “almost half the cocktails in the book are [his] own creations but [that] a lot of them are [also] made in the style that was made back in the day.”

Despite having come up with new kinds of cocktails as he further pushes his mixology passion, Roff still finds himself preferring to make or enjoy a classic drink.

“My favourite cocktail is the Corpse Reviver #2,” Roff explains.

“I didn’t do anything to the classic cocktail, it was very unusual when I discovered it but it’s one that I’ve made a lot of times.”

For those wishing to keep the spirit of the roaring twenties alive, Roff recommends people try out Bar Americano for that old-fashioned aesthetic.

“Its setting even resembles the classic bars of the 1920s, as [do] its cocktails. It’s like a shrine to the old-fashioned way of things, even the way they dress.”

When Roff isn’t writing new books or coming up with new drinks, he manages to find a way to sneak alcohol into almost everything he does. Surprisingly, the mixologist is also a marriage celebrant and is able to get his love for drinks incorporated into every wedding he delivers.

“I mix a drink for couples at a wedding and they drink the cocktail together before I pronounce them husband and wife,” Roff said.

For those looking to enter the world of mixology and the wider world of wines and spirits, Benny advises for people to “taste as much as [they] can and remember to be humble.”

“And above all, enjoy what you do with a passion. Enthusiasm for your craft will get you further.”

Benny Roff’s Speakeasy book is now available for purchase at your nearest bookstore.