It’s not really news that over the last ten years or so Melbourne has developed a reputation for its bar culture. We’re all aware by now that our city’s laneways are teeming with small bars hidden behind unmarked doors that have become the envy of cities overrun with chain pubs and poker machines. It’s even reached a point where other cities are rewriting their liquor licensing laws based on Melbourne’s more relaxed regulations, which are considered largely responsible for the variety, ingenuity and warmth of our better bars.
What might come as a surprise, however, is that Melbourne is now becoming known for some of the world’s most exciting and innovative cocktail bars. We now boast more than just a few bars that can rival any in London, Paris or New York. What’s more, these bars are starting to win major international awards.
Brunswick Street’s Polly, which opened its doors just under ten years ago, was one of the first serious cocktail bars in the city. Enzo Pollifroni, the bar’s co-director, believes it’s the passion of bar owners and staff that makes Melbourne’s cocktail scene so vibrant, and thinks that a new open-mindedness among the drinking public has been a crucial part of its success. “Our punters have accepted the prices of the cocktails and have given the mixologists their trust,” he says, emphasising his last point by adding that many drinkers are happy to simply tell staff they want ‘something sweet’ or ‘something sour’, leaving it to “the barperson to make that cocktail for them”.
It’s an important point, and it probably has something to do with what Pollifroni sees as the huge development in the expertise of bar staff since Polly’s early days. “When I opened Polly,” he explains, “I advertised for a head barman and I had something like 232 applicants, with a short list of three. When we interviewed those three applicants none of them were suitable; we had to bring in someone from overseas. Now, ten years later, we seem to have all of that expertise in this country … I think we've come a long way.”
This expertise means you won't find Fluffy Ducks and Piña Coladas on the menu anymore (at least not without an ironic wink, of course). These days it’s all about innovation and natural ingredients. Richmond’s Der Raum, notable for a unique and unorthodox approach to preparing, presenting and serving drinks (think a cocktail served in a medical jar, with an accompanying syringe full of Aperol), is the apotheosis; the strict practice here is to use only fresh fruit in its cocktails, also making any syrups and squeezing any juices required for the cocktails daily on site.
For Matthew Rees, assistant to Der Raum’s owner and executive bartender Matthew Bax, the strength of Melbourne’s cocktail culture is linked firmly to culinary culture. “We seem to take a lot of our cues from culinary rather than conventional drink trends. And it’s mirrored around the city as well. It’s being approached in a variety of venues rather than just cocktail bars; even restaurants seem to be doing better cocktails.”
One of the key trends we’re seeing coming out of this culinary link is molecular mixology, an offshoot of so-called molecular gastronomy. Last year Sebastian Reaburn and his bar 1806 were the winners of the Best Cocktail List in the World at the highly regarded Tales of the Cocktail festival in New Orleans. For Sebastian, molecular mixology is about delivering flavour, or “a flavour experience”, in different ways. “We do a relatively easy-to-make molecular cocktail, which is called the Margarita Custard. We deliver all the flavour and the alcohol of a margarita but we [serve] it in a custard. You have to eat it with a spoon. Molecular mixology also incorporates things like foams,” he adds, “but it’s also incorporating ideas about how service, music, atmosphere, the glass you serve the cocktail in and how the cocktail is garnished affects how you taste the drink.”
Seamstress, one of 2008’s most exciting new bars, also practises molecular mixology, and bar manager Adi Ruiz has nothing but enthusiasm for this and the even newer ideas coming through in Melbourne’s cocktail scene. “Melbourne cocktail bars are really innovative, and they’re really committed to using premium products, which is a fantastic combination,” he says. “They’re very uncompromising, I guess, in their approach to how they put the product together. This results in a lot of individuals having their own styles, but a healthier level of competition in the bar community also results in crazy concepts coming out … some very, very good drink-making and a lot of cutting edge stuff [is happening], which is fantastic.”
Of course, success attracts attention, and Melbourne’s cocktail culture is no different. The London based Match Bar Group has recently opened Match Bar and Grill in the QV. Stuart Langley, general manager at Match Melbourne, has worked for the Match Bar Group for seven years. “We learnt about what was happening in Melbourne from the number of Melburnian bartenders coming to work for us in our London sites,” he says. “We were meeting lots of enthusiastic bartenders who shared our passion for great ingredients and delivering excellence to the customer with every serve; and that’s what we see in Melbourne more than anything else.”
Match comes a serious cocktail pedigree. Dale DeGroff, widely considered one of the world’s top bartenders as well as being responsible for popularising the cosmopolitan, has written the cocktail list. Locals, however, seem to be taking a while to warm to Match; perhaps because, despite some pretty amazing drinks, the bar doesn’t fit into the mould that we’ve become used to in Melbourne. The bar features a couple of big rooms with high ceilings, a huge balcony overlooking Swanston Street and is clearly part of a chain.
Sebastian Reaburn might agree with this. “One of the things that sets Melbourne apart is the scale,” he says. “Small venues with owner/operators, like 1806, are able to try things and experiment with things that are simply impossible in a larger corporate environment. The fact that so often in Melbourne the people paying the bills are the people making the drinks, or cleaning the floor, gives us such a rare opportunity for experimentation and specialisation … We manage to limit the number of ‘investment’ bars, and maintain a huge amount of personality and vibrancy in the scene.”
With the skills, confidence and ideas that already abound in the Melbourne bar scene, we’re really looking forward to seeing how this culture develops and what’s yet to come.