When Ben Duval and Alex Schulz – general manager and wine guy, respectively, at exceptional Thornbury bottle shop and bar Carwyn Cellars – were teenagers, they went on exchange to Hamburg. They came to frequent a little shop called Zaubertrank, an appointment-only apothecary (of sorts) selling homemade liqueur, mead and, in Schulz’s words, “psychedelic things”.

“The venue name is a German word that means ‘magic potion’ or ‘magic drink’,” Schulz tells Broadsheet. “You would have to write a letter to the owner to be let in.”

During stints studying hospitality in Switzerland, running a restaurant in Kuala Lumpur and managing his family winery, Turkey Flat, in SA’s Barossa Valley, Schulz carried that memory with him. And it inspired his new Thornbury wine bar of the same name.

Old mates Schulz and Duval opened Zaubertrank alongside Ben Carwyn, the founder of Carwyn Cellars, which is only a few doors down on High Street.

Unlike its namesake, there are no illicit substances on the menu at Zaubertrank. But there is a slew of other “potions” – a rotating list of aromatic white wines from Germany and Austria, plus a smaller selection of medium-bodied reds like spätburgunder, a German-style pinot noir.

You won’t find any schnitzels or pretzels, though. Instead, Schulz borrows from his experiences in Kuala Lumpur, offering a small selection of Malaysian-inspired bar snacks.

“On paper, it looks a bit wack,” Schulz says. “But there is an idea behind it all.”

His menu riffs on dishes found at bars, hotels and country clubs around KL. “There’s a very specific style of bar food that I haven’t really seen replicated in this country,” he says.

A highlight is ikan bilis, a crisp, textural blend of fried anchovy, potato, onion, peanuts, curry leaves and chilli. Also: whole fried prawns blanketed in butter and egg floss; mutton varuval, a dry Malaysian-Indian-style curry; and deep-fried “boxing” chicken drumettes. Plus, one nod to Germany: curry knackwurst, a fried sausage served with mustardy, curry-spiked mayo.

At only 40 seats, the space is relatively snug. But like the concept itself, it’s got a big personality. The first thing you see when you approach is a giant “ZT” sign above the door, written in a German-style gothic font and guarded behind a metal cage.

The interior has pink- and green-accented feature walls, with line murals by local artist Roger Wilkie. There’s a long communal table down the middle of the room and a handful of bar seats, all of which offer views into the open kitchen, led by chef Michael Pyke.

On the side, Schulz and Duval are working on a small-scale natural-wine company. It’s being produced in collaboration with the fun, fermentation-forward Fin Wines – based in the Yarra Valley – with products landing behind the bar soon.

881 High Street, Thornbury

Wed to Sat 5.30pm–late
Sun 12pm–5pm