The Bourbon going, going, but not ‘gawn’ yet

The Bourbon going, going, but not ‘gawn’ yet
Image: The pre-renovation Sydney icon Bourbon and Beefsteak. Photo:


A new game is afoot in Kings Cross and it involves guessing when The Bourbon is closing to make way for Iris Capital’s development of 18-32A Darlinghurst Road. 

The development will take out the landmark Bourbon, its bottle shop, two chemists, a medical centre, a yoga studio, a 44 roomed low cost tenement building, a tobacconist and the Empire Hotel. 

The guessing game began in April when staff at the Iris Hotel Group’s establishments were given a month’s notice and were to be deployed across the group’s other licensed premises. 

Since April there have been numerous reissues of the notices to quit, with the latest being that the Empire will close at the end of October and the Bourbon will shut its doors at the end of the year. 

All of this would be of little interest except that it is typical of Iris Capital’s lack of community consultation through the course of its two development applications for the site since 2017. 

The first was overturned and the second application was approved in 2021. 

“The whole way through this development we haven’t had any person to person contact with anyone from Iris at all,” Martin Denny, Chairperson of the Kingsley Hall Strata Committee, said. 

“They keep running out of alcohol and there was an indication that something was happening but that is the only communication there has been.” 

At the heart of the development are the premises of the famed Bourbon and Beefsteak, one of Sydney’s true landmark destinations. 

Despite Iris Capital’s owner Sam Arnoaut’s many references to the heritage of the Bourbon, it is all horse manure as the legacy of the Bourbon faded years ago, denuded by two unsympathetic ‘on trend’ makeovers that never got what the original space was about. 

And we cannot expect that the upcoming development will be any more sympathetic except for token nods from copywriters in their glossy brochures and websites. 

The Bourbon
The Bourbon development will return the arches only. Photo: John Moyle.

In 1967 a former CIA agent arrived in the Cross and with a flash of his broad brimmed hat and a “Howdy pardner” he opened the Bourbon to take advantage of the estimated $9 million a month pouring into the area from American troops on R&R from the Vietnam War. 

And so begins the story of one of Sydney’s greatest combinations of a physical establishment and its host that lasted for 33 years and left an indelible mark on Sydney’s growth as an international entertainment centre. 

“He stocked it with an astonishing array of schlock, Marilyn Monroe statuettes, tacky paintings, red curtains, blue carpets, sports trophies, stuffed animals, it was like a bloke’s shed away from home,” Peter Head, resident pianist 1988 to 1995, said. 

“But Bernie was also gay, and there was always a different atmosphere there, as it became a home to people like Carlotta from Les Girls, and also the strippers, hookers, bouncers and bar workers from all the clubs nearby.” 

Bernie Houghton Bust
Bust of Bourbon founder Bernie Houghton in Fitzroy Gardens. Photo: John Moyle.

The Bourbon claimed that its doors never closed, and was the place to go for a breakfast of bloody mary’s followed by pancakes and maple syrup or a steak any day of the year. 

When the Bourbon opened John Broeder was living and working in Melbourne and used to come to Sydney four times a year to visit the Bourbon. 

“The acts were great, the beer was good and Bernie was a great guy,” John Broeder said. 

“Joe’s Bar was a quiet bar away from the music, and when I was there the police would come in and have drinks there and money would change hands. 

“Roger Rogerson was a regular.” 

In its heyday, helped by one of the first 24 hour licenses, the Bourbon quickly became one of NSW’s top outlets for alcohol sales. 

The evening’s entertainment from Peter Head gave way to musicians catering to the demands of the US soldiers who preferred the soul, blues jazz and funk inspired music that they enjoyed in the war zones of Vietnam. 

This brought in many of Sydney’s top players like Jackie Orszacsky and Sherbet’s Tony Mitchell and guitarist Jim Gannon. 

“We started to develop a reputation for this sort of music and a few players started to get more prominence,” Head said. 

“I started to play Randy Newman, which Bernie hated, and it was only because Lee Lin Chin liked it that I continued.” 

The Shocking Trio at the Bourbon – Peter Head (left), John Swanton (centre), Chris Bailey (right).

Overseeing all of this was a brigade of tuxedoed doormen and bouncers, including Colin Stephens who worked the door from 1986 to 2002. 

Immediately recognisable by his lapels being festooned with badges, Colin was on duty the night that Australian cricketer in waiting, Ricky Ponting was photographed exiting the Bourbon with one and a half black eyes. 

It was just after England had beaten Australia in the one day match. 

It was widely reported at the time that Ponting had tried to pick up Carlotta, but Stephens now sets the story straight. 

“What happened was a group of Pacific Islanders had come in from the Rocks and Ponting was drunk and jumping around, and he bumped into one of these big guys,” Stephens said. 

“He then bumped into him a second time and after he did it again the big guy whacked him. 

“Carlotta was not involved, she wasn’t there.” 

Houghton died in 2000 and the venue continued, being operated by a couple of ex-managers and consultants. 

When superannuation money owed to the staff went missing and a flood ruined the top floors, the place was sold in 2004 for $53 million to ING Real Estate Entertainment, who, after much wrangling of insurance money, did a complete and utterly soulless makeover. 

In 2010 Chris Cheung’s bought both the Bourbon and the neighbouring Swans Club for the fire sale price of $22 million, less than half of what ING had paid a few years earlier. 

The once glorious Sydney institution was on life support when Arnaout bought it from Cheung for $24 million, proclaiming in PUBtic that the Bourbon was a “legacy hotel for the group”. 

“We all miss the Bourbon now,” said Head. 

“But it was a special set of circumstances, a special group of people and a special time that can never be repeated.” 

Lee Lin Chin said that the current development will rip the heart out of the Cross and was a “cynical disregard for the history of and the role the original establishment played in the community, and true to the developers’ credo of doing society a favour by putting a broom though familiar landmarks, all in the service of the perpetuation fo the capitalist system.” 

With the demise of the original Bourbon Sydney and the area lost something that cannot be manufactured or developed, and that is soul. 

The Bourbon
Lunchtime at the Bourbon this week. Photo: John Moyle.

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