You have to be careful when you’re joking about with Shannon Bennett – he might just take you seriously.
The Illuminator – the world’s first Dom Pérignon vending machine – was born out of a light-hearted conversation held with guests leaving Bennett’s Melbourne fine diner Vue de Monde, housed on the 55th floor of the Rialto.
“It all came about around five years ago,” Bennett explains. “I was travelling in the lift down with some patrons from the restaurant – they had been celebrating a business deal and wanted to party on, and said it was a shame they couldn’t take a bottle of Champagne with them.
“So I took the lift back up, got them a bottle of Champagne and said – ‘look, you know this is a human vending machine’ and we had a good laugh. Afterwards I said, ‘vending machine? Good idea'.”
Bennett approached Bruce Nancarrow, senior brand manager for Dom Pérignon in Australia, to gauge the likelihood of his joke becoming a reality. Nancarrow contacted Moet Hennessy (which owns Dom Pérignon) in Champagne, France, "and they freaked out when they heard the word vending machine" Bennett explains. "Bruce came up with the word 'illuminator' after seeing all the robotics-work that we put into it."
Bennett enlisted Will Colhoun of Big Kahuna Imagineering with a simple brief: to create an opulent vending machine that dispenses Champagne, without blowing it up.
“The reason that Dom Pérignon or any Champagne can never be put into a vending machine is there’s a slight chance that the bottle will explode when it drops out, so we turned that on its head – instead of dropping the Champagne out, how about lifting it out?” Bennett says.
Anyone who dines or drinks at Vue de Monde and its connected Lui Bar is entitled to purchase a hefty Dom Pérignon branded brass token, which is the Illuminator’s only accepted currency.
The Illuminator lives inside Vue’s new designer lobby on the ground floor of the Rialto. It’s a large obsidian machine with a simple facade – there’s an opening for the brass token shaped exactly like it, and a square glass door, behind which is a glowing cavity into which the champagne will arrive. (As a side note, we never realised before now that the Dom logo shares a striking resemblance to the head of the Batman light signal – which feels appropriate given this is all very Bruce Wayne).
You insert your token, then step back and watch as the Illuminator fades to black for several seconds, then lights back up with a 2006 vintage bottle of Dom having appeared, seemingly from nowhere.
The 2006 vintage is priced at retail cost – rather than the mark-up you’ll find at a restaurant. This is thanks to the lack of overheads.
“It’ll put a smile on your face in the fact that it’s still a very, very expensive bottle of wine at $290 but at the same time, it’s one of the cheapest bottles of Dom Pérignon you can buy in Melbourne,” Bennett says.
There are no plans for any more Illuminators, although work has begun on a high-end sneaker vending machine – conceived as a response to the amounts of visitors who fail to meet the dress code – to sit alongside it. (Apparently, some people still turn up in thongs.)
Ultimately, Bennett views the Illuminator as an inventive means of extending a special night out.
“Dom Pérignon ages very well and Vue de Monde is somewhere you experience milestones when you go, you’re celebrating and this continues the celebration,” says Bennett.
Bennett’s relationship with the Champagne-maker reaches back 17 years, and the Illuminator’s arrival coincides with Vue’s new private Dom Pérignon Dining Suite, where Melburnians can try the P2 Experience – a special degustation paired with Dom Pérignon, including the 1998 vintage. The multi-course meal first launched in Versailles, with a degustation created by Alain Ducasse. Apart from Vue, the only other restaurant in the world that offers the meal is Stellar in Singapore.
A reward for being the host of one of these dinners? You get a token for the Illuminator.