Bars aren’t what they used to be. That’s the opinion of Jack Sotti, World Class Australia Bartender of the Year 2015 and manager at Melbourne’s Boilermaker House. “Back in the ’90s, when you wanted to open a venue, you’d think about the fit-out, the music, the crowd and how fancy the chandeliers were.”
These days, Sotti says, “People have much more discerning palates. They’re more interested in specialised bar offerings.” In short, a change in drinking culture means people want more niche, quality-focused venues. Sotti’s Boilermaker House serves more than 700 varieties of whisky (including some premium varieties like Johnnie Walker Blue Label Scotch whisky and Lagavulin 37-year-old Scotch whisky), and he says many of its customers are members of online whisky appreciation clubs and societies. “People read about whisky online and come to [a specialised whisky bar like] Boilermaker House or Whisky & Alement to taste the whiskies they've read about.”
The trend isn’t confined to whisky. Over the past five years, bars specialising in gin and rum have also popped up across the country. One of the latest is Moyas Juniper Lounge, a bar in Sydney’s Redfern that serves almost exclusively gin. Co-owner Charles Casben agrees that the appetite for something more specialised is much greater because, “people are way more educated these days about interesting food and drink than they were 15 years ago.” He also credits changes to bar licensing. “For a long time Sydney was dominated by a bigger-is-better mentality, but everything became a lot more accessible after the small-bar licensing changes [in 2007]. Then, lots of bars wanted to do something different,” he says.
Simon Audas from Sydney rum bar Lobo Plantation says it’s also about people wanting to step out of their comfort zones and try new things.
He cites the rising popularity of Lobo Plantation’s rum flight, a specialty rum experience that explores six varieties from a particular area, such as the Central American flight featuring Ron Zacapa 23 rum. Years ago it may have been one of the stranger and more unique bar experiences in Sydney, but now, “I’ve found people come for the flight to learn about and build their knowledge on rum.”
It’s also about the experience. “These bars don’t just sell whisky or rum or gin or rye,” says Audus. “People don’t just come into Lobo for the rum. They come to have fun and because they feel welcome.” Whether or not the scene will continue to become more specialised is anyone’s guess. Casben has high hopes. “I certainly don't think Sydney is near saturation point with bars. New ones are popping up all over the place and that's awesome.”
This article is presented in partnership with World Class.