At new CBD bar Byrdi, ingredients are pushed to their limit. And the cocktails aren’t just made in front of you; they’re built with care and precision over time, with some components conceived months in advance.
Elements of your drink arrive fermented, smoked, reconstituted, centrifuged or a combination of the above. In a drink called Now & Then, last spring’s fermented berries are combined with a sort-of “wine” made from new-season yellow wattle. Next year, that wattle wine becomes the base of a new drink.
Another, called Not Mezcal, uses poached Yarra Valley pears which are dehydrated, then rehydrated with a little smoke before being distilled into a spirit. That spirit is then diluted with water from the initial poaching and topped with pear soda. It’s served in a tall glass with a long piece of clear ice and a pear garnish so thin it’s translucent.
The menu doesn’t explain these processes – only ingredients, flavours and a few hints. For some drinks, you’ll be left guessing which are the boozy elements. And the presentation belies the complexity of the drinks, too.
“We want to steer away from bias in alcohol. When someone says, ‘I don’t drink gin because it makes me cry’, all that ends up doing is stopping people trying something new,” says owner Luke Whearty. One cocktail, named In Bloom, blends gin with jasmine, plum blossom and lilly pilly. It moves the gin into a fresh, more floral zone than we often see in cocktails here, but it’ll only be on the menu while all the ingredients are in season – a matter of weeks. “It’s basically spring right now in Melbourne – in a glass,” says Whearty.
Byrdi was created by Whearty and Aki Nishikura, the couple behind celebrated Singapore bar Operation Dagger – so lauded for its innovative techniques it reached 23 on The World’s 50 Best Bars list in 2018 (it was number 30 this year). Since having a son just over a year ago, Whearty and Nishikura returned to Australia for a change of pace.
Operation Dagger, like many cocktail bars, is hidden behind a secret door. Byrdi is not.
It’s in Melbourne Central, part of Ella, a new upscale food precinct and co-working space. Step past the fluorescent mall lighting through a nondescript entrance, beyond which soft lighting and curved surfaces are a calming invitation. The space, by Collingwood architectural and interior design practice DesignOffice, features locally grown grey ironbark and sustainable materials such as coconut husk.
“I’m big on sequence of service,” Whearty says. “From the moment we say hi, to the moment of putting a menu down, to water, to the amuse-bouche – when you follow that sequence everything else becomes easy.”
After you’re greeted by staff dressed in beige linen aprons, the Byrdi experience begins. The amuse-bouche (“mouth amuser” in French) is an ever-changing small bite or drink designed to keep you occupied while you wait to order or for your first drink. On our visit: smoked meringue, a strawberry-half soaked in fermented berry liqueur, and a single pink peppercorn. The amuse-bouche has dual benefits. “[It’s about] making people feel comfortable a little longer – while buying the staff a bit of time,” Whearty tells me.
The ethos here is built around taking time. That first cocktail, Now & Then, plays on seasonality across years. And the pressure – so often associated with high-end cocktail bars – of traipsing down a dark laneway or finding a hidden door in the middle of the night doesn’t exist here. Instead, Byrdi is easy to find and open for service from an ultra-relaxed 10am until a respectable 1am.
In the morning there’s brunch, too, such as house-made sourdough crumpets and fermented oat porridge with seasonal fruit, all prepared by the bar team. And coffee doesn’t come from the loud blast and crunch of an espresso machine but the quieter (and more leisurely) V60 pour-over. Beans are grown near Byron Bay by Nat’s Coffee, and roasted in Melbourne by Genovese’s Ben Toovey.
At night there’s a menu of small plates, which includes grilled prawns with garlic butter and finger lime cooked on a hibachi grill; flatbread topped with mixed herbs and seeds, smoked yoghurt and fermented chilli oil; tempura salt-and-vinegar green beans; charred asparagus with salted egg yolk; or cheese – maybe Riverine Blue with Yarra Valley honeycomb – selected by fromage-maven Anthony Femia of Maker & Monger.
Many ingredients are wild-harvested with help from companies such as Spurrell Foraging or Outback Chef. Fermentation is completed in house, using skills picked up in Singapore where local ingredients were hard to find. And there’s no processed sugar in the bar; instead drinks are sweetened with honey from Steels Creek in the Yarra Valley.
In small a lab off to the side of the bar, the team plans to host pop-ups with visiting bartenders and chefs. There’s talk of kickstarting a training program, too, covering fermentation, carbonation and more. And you can also pick up Byrdi’s bottled cocktails – a Lamington Negroni or a Bee Pollen Old-Fashioned – at Blackhearts & Sparrows next door.
There are layers to Byrdi. For many it’ll be a short visit for a coffee or a nice cocktail and a small bite. For others it’ll be nerding out about distillation and foraging and all the work that goes into the drink in your hand. Whichever it is, this bar is about more than drinking just for the hell of it.
“Come at any time of the day, and you can have some sort of experience,” Whearty says. “It’s more than just getting drunk. If it was just about getting drunk, I wouldn’t do it.”
Mon to Sun 10am–1am