Bespoke cocktails are going stir-crazy in the coolest bars across the country.
If there’s one thing you won’t find in Matt Whiley’s cocktail bar, it’s a bright paper umbrella. Re, the 86-seat bar in a former locomotive factory in Sydney’s South Eveleigh, is run by Whiley and restaurant supremo Maurice Terzini and even though it’s all for fun, cocktails are a serious business here.
The drinks menu is Wonka-esque, with just as many twists, turns and dips down rabbit holes into magical places. Take Whiley’s Messina cocktail. Made with fruit leftover from a nearby Gelato Messina factory, it’s a vivid concoction of pandan pulp, Don Julio tequila, white chocolate, pink peppercorn and strawberry tops frozen in liquid nitrogen. Put together, it’s a thing of wonder: long, fizzy and absolutely delicious.
“We’re trying to think outside the box,” says Whiley, who puts food waste reduction – and collaboration with other leading businesses – at the centre of his practice. So much so that Re recently won The World’s 50 Best Bars 2021 Sustainable Bar award. “We want to be innovative and to change things.”
Other cocktails on his list include the Brickfields – named for the Sydney bakery and inspired by the classic Vietnamese roll, the banh mi. Sour in style, it features Don Julio Blanco tequila, notes of toasted (leftover) Brickfields sourdough, lime and Asian aromatics. The result is a drink that’s recognisably a cocktail, albeit one that tastes like a sandwich. “It has very distinct herbaceous and fresh flavours,” says Whiley.
The new breed of bartender is elevating the cocktail experience to an art form. Sexy, specialist bars are springing up nationwide and in good restaurants, a dazzling cocktail program is considered as important as a brilliant wine list. “When I started as a bartender, you’d arrive 15 minutes before work, get dressed, go out and mix some drinks,” says Whiley with a wry smile. “Now we prep like chefs. It’s four days’ work to get the bar open.”
For Michael Madrusan, the brains behind Melbourne favourites The Everleigh in Fitzroy and the CBD’s Bar Margaux, a well-considered cocktail list is an essential component of any hospitality experience. “If you don’t have a good, dedicated cocktail program as part of your food and beverage offering in Australia now, you don’t have credibility,” says Madrusan, who learnt his trade in the early 2000s at legendary New York speakeasy-style bar Milk & Honey. “If you’re paying $25 for a Negroni and you’re getting ice that you could buy at a service station, then you’re not getting what you paid for.”
While Madrusan is enthusiastic about creative lists, he also has a deep love for classic drinks. “Cocktails are like time travel,” he says. “Some date back to the 1800s and we are still using pretty much the same recipes. A cocktail is about storytelling. You have one and you’re transported somewhere else. There’s a romance to that.”
Sydney bartender James Irvine, who runs Eileen’s Bar at the Four Pillars Laboratory in Surry Hills, says great cocktails are primarily about two things: deliciousness and fun. “When someone orders a round of frozen Margarita slushies for the whole room,” he laughs, “you know that party is going to be heard around Australia.”
Irvine says he is getting a lot of requests for lighter, less sugary drinks, a trend informed by a growing interest in the European custom of aperitivo hour. He says low-alcohol, wine-based cocktails and spritzers are in fashion, as are non-alcoholic cocktails built on quality zero-proof spirits from brands such as Seedlip and Lyre’s.
Like Madrusan, he notes there’s nothing wrong with the classics. “Punch was the first cocktail and it dates back to the 17th century,” he says. “These days, those recipes are there to guide us. It’s great to be inventive but the classics will never go out of style.”
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Shaken or stirred
Matt Whiley is an environmental crusader who is passionate about reducing food waste. At Re, he collaborates with leading Sydney hospitality businesses to transform their unused food into inventive drinks. Go with an open mind to experience cocktails such as the Saint Peter, which uses Murray cod fat salvaged from Josh Niland’s famous Paddington seafood restaurant. The drink is comprised of burnt lime, Ketel One vodka, fig leaf gin, Murray cod-fat salted caramel and, improbably, passionfruit. Trust us on this one.
Widely regarded as the best bar in Melbourne (and possibly Australia), Fitzroy’s first-floor temple of sophistication is the brainchild of cocktail master Michael Madrusan. Fanatical about the history of the cocktail, Madrusan’s list reads like a paean to the bars of yore. Start with a Falconet containing gin, lime, cucumber, anise and sparkling wine, and stay for an Old Fashioned with Starward Fortis whisky, sugar and bitters. Look out, too, for The Everleigh Bottling Co.’s packaged drinks to take something home for later.
The Gresham Bar
Nestled in one of the city’s most glorious colonial sandstone buildings, this grand cocktail lounge has atmosphere in spades. Sink into a chesterfield in clubby surrounds (the joinery is original cedar and the walls New Zealand limestone) and sip on inventive mixes that include the Sunnyboy – Absolut Elyx vodka infused with coconut and butter, made tropical thanks to pineapple, passionfruit and vanilla – and the Golden Hour, a zesty concoction of Patron Silver tequila, pomegranate, lemon, honey, pink grapefruit and a dash of prosecco. It’s like a step back in time made cool.
One of Melbourne’s favourite chefs, Andrew McConnell, has named his latest restaurant after a cocktail that transcends time. The Gimlet, a 1920s classic of gin, lime juice and sugar syrup, is given a contemporary freshen-up via moscato, citrus cordial and Geraldton wax blended with Tanqueray. It’s the perfect match for the Art Deco lines of this CBD restaurant in Cavendish House. Also try a Smash, a Collins, a Sidecar or a White Negroni. But please, don’t forsake the namesake.
Eileen’s Bar at the Four
Pillars Laboratory Bartender James Irvine is partial to a Daiquiri but at Eileen’s Bar, a Surry Hills outlet that’s essentially the front bar of Four Pillars Gin, he employs a range of cutting-edge technologies to deliver next-gen gin-inspired cocktails. Try Eileen’s twist on a Negroni with Four Pillars Spiced Negroni gin, Campari and Oscar 697 Rosso vermouth or something a bit more obscure: a Collard Greens with Four Pillars Olive Leaf gin, Old Bay-seasoned warrigal greens, salted pomelo and pickled chilli.
Dimitri Rtshiladze is a legend of the Australian bartending scene and at his clubby Perth bar, the drinks lean towards the playful. Try a Fingerlime Breakfast Martini with Swan Valley gin, lemon, orange, finger lime and thyme or a Graceland Spritz with Hendricks gin, citrus and myrtle sherbet and soda. Either way, enjoy it in the 130-year-old basement space furnished with chesterfields and vintage maps.