I've just returned to the freezing Northern Hemisphere after 10 warm and sunny days in the antipodean metropolis of Melbourne, Australia, where I had the opportunity and pleasure of imbibing at several of their finer cocktail bars. Thanks to liberal licensing laws, Melbourne is chockablock with boutique drinking establishments tucked away in dark laneways (alleys) and leafy suburban side-streets. These bars may be small and relatively unknown outside of Australia, but they're stocked with a community of seriously creative mixologists who approach drink making as the art it is, rather than settling for being mere purveyors of alco-pop energy drinks for incoherent teenagers.
When planning for my trip, I had no idea such a wealth of fine drinking establishments awaited me at my destination. Through an online forum, I'd heard there was a Tiki bar near my hotel, and contacted the chief bartender, Kevin, to find out if they would be open during my visit. He informed that unfortunately, they'd be closed for renovation in January, but proceeded to point me towards several other bars he felt I might be interested in. His advice turned out to be sage, as I will relate in the rest of this post.
After work on Tuesday, I hopped aboard a tram and made my way into downtown Melbourne, my destination, 1806, so named for the year the word "cocktail" first appeared in print. Head mixologist, Sebastian Reaburn, has developed a drink menu that reproduces authentic classic cocktail recipes from every decade between 1806 and the present. Sebastian was absent on my visit, but as the joint was lightly attended that evening, I had no trouble striking up a friendly and informative conversation with the bartenders. The room itself is dominated by a giant mirrored case filled with bottles, with a row of cocktail books hidden behind, that Sebastian uses for his historical research.
My curiosity piqued previously by Chuck's Sazerac post, I decided to order one of these 1836 New Orleans classics to start the evening. As a tropical-cocktail enthusiast, I rarely drink anything sans mixers, but I was pleasantly surprised by the smooth way the bourbon, cognac, Peychaud bitters, and pastis combined straight up. However, I was slightly disappointed to discover they'd used Pernod for the rinse, rather than a genuine Absinthe. Still, it was an excellent (and very powerful) libation. Following that all-booze/no mixer assault, I felt I should lighten things up a bit with an 1856 Fish House Punch, a legendary drink served at the Fish House Club on the Schuykill River near Philadelphia, and reputedly created by none other than the Father of Our Country, George Washington. I can't vouch for the veracity of its provenance, but its combination of Jamaican rum, peach brandy, cognac, and lime juice was indeed light, refreshing, and deceivingly potent.
After getting much-needed directions from the helpful bartenders, I left 1806 and headed off in search of a Cuban-themed bar called Murmur, which I found after a short walk, tucked away in a laneway dominated by a huge light sculpture/chandelier. Once again, I pretty much had the place to myself, and struck up a conversation with the lone bartender on duty, Olivia. I was delighted by her enthusiasm and knowledge of mixology; such a refreshing change from the knuckleheaded "flair" types that tend to dominate bartending in the US, most of whom can't even make a simple gin and tonic, or anything without the word "sex", “orgasm”, or "beach" in the name. Olivia started me out with a Papa Doble: Pampero Blanco Venezuelan rum, Luxardo Maraschino liqueur, lime and grapefruit juice, with simple syrup, served in a tall glass hidden inside a whimsical version of the wino's paper bag. One sip and I was overwhelmed by the funky, musky aftertaste of the grapefruit and Luxardo. It was like a mule kick. The strong flavor took some getting used to, but by the time I'd sucked half of it down, I was really starting to like it.
Being outside the US, with its inane embargo of all things Cuban, my attention was drawn to the large number of Havana Club rum bottles that lined the bar, so I inquired as to whether Olivia could whip me up something containing a healthy dose of Añejo 7 Años. She responded by making me a rum Old Fashioned that was, quite frankly, exquisite. To be honest, she probably could've muddled dog poo with Havana Club, and I would've proclaimed it at least drinkable, but this was really very good: just a lump of sugar, a couple of dashes of bitters, a jigger of HC, and a twist of lemon on top. Probably too much ice for you purists, but I was very impressed at the simplicity and skill on display. At this point, I felt that it was time to call it a night, so I bid farewell to Murmur, and found some nosh at a nearby Mediterranean restaurant, then returned to my hotel.
The following evening, I was ready to tackle Melbourne's, Der Raum, which several people had described to me as the "El Bulli of molecular mixology“. I walked the mile or so from my hotel through the leafy boulevards of Richmond, to its rather drab, unassuming entrance. Once inside, I was immediately taken aback by the vast array of bottles dangling from the ceiling on bungee cords, and owner/chief bartender Matt Bax's fine abstract paintings lining the walls. At that point, I knew that I was in for a total sensory experience rather than just great mixology.
I took my seat at the bar and chatted with the bartenders for a while about this and that, while poring over the drink menu. I finally settled on the Latin Threesome: Pitú Cachaça from Brazil, Capel Alto de Carmen Chilean Pisco grape brandy, and Havana Club Añejo Reserva, with crushed pineapple, fresh lime juice, and brown sugar served in a double old-fashioned glass. Combining the Cachaça and Pisco, typically rather harsh liquors, together with the other ingredients resulted in an elegant, smooth tropical libation that I will definitely be attempting to duplicate down in my Tiki bar during the next couple of weeks.
Next up, a Jamaican Blackstrap: Myer's Dark rum, pomegranate molasses, lime juice, orange bitters, gomme syrup, and a couple of splashes of Bundaberg Ginger Beer, strained into what appeared to be a cough-syrup bottle, and served in a brown-paper bag. The result was exceptionally smooth (probably due to the addition of the gomme) and appropriately medicinal, but oddly flat. I would've expected the ginger beer to give it a bit more fizz. Still, it was a worthy tipple.
Finally, my expense account stretched to the breaking point, I felt I should wind things up, so I decided to once again take advantage of being outside the US, and asked the staff to recommend something with Absinthe. After much stirring, pouring, and spritzing, they delivered unto me Hemingway's "Death in the Afternoon" adapted from a humorous 1935 celebrity cocktail book titled, So Red the Nose, or Breath in the Afternoon. "Death" arrived in the form of a champagne coupe filled with a mix of Mr. Jekyll German Absinthe and champagne. Floating in the center of the glass was an Absinthe-tinted ball of ice with a sprig of rosemary embedded inside. A spritz of extra-virgin olive oil completed the presentation. Words fail me at this point, quite possibly because I was getting so drunk that my synapses weren't firing properly any longer, but suffice it to say that when I die, this cocktail is what I want to see floating at the end of that long, dark tunnel.
I found myself returning to Der Raum on Friday night, and in the interest of not taking up the entire Cocktailian front page, I'll limit myself to listing the drinks consumed, along with a brief description:
Bizzy Izzy Fix: a cobbler named after 1920s G-Man, Izzy Einstein: small-batch bourbon, tawny port, muddled pineapple and lemon, and dark brown sugar. If there's one thing that I've learned on this trip, it's not to overlook bourbon as a potential ingredient in tropical drinks.
Wie Bitte Cocktail: one of Matt Bax's original creations: Amaro Montenegro Liqueur, cardamom, sweet vermouth, and orange bitters combined to produce an exceptionally smooth and well-balanced drink, with a nice bitter edge, and a lovely cardamom aftertaste.
Prohibition Long Island Ice Tea: I was surprised to learn that Melbourne had its own Prohibition during the early 20th century. During that period, many coffee and tea shops took to serving alcoholic drinks disguised as caffeinated bevvies. Appropriately, Der Raum's version comes in an oversized coffee mug, with a creamer full of Coca Cola on the side to add as desired. This was quite good, both with and without the cola.
Well, jet-lag beckons me now towards the arms of Morpheus, so I'll wrap up my narrative. Hopefully, I'll be able to return to Melbourne later in the year, and pick up my barhopping where I left off, as I haven't even scratched the surface of what’s there to be imbibed.
Images courtesy of John Laurie, official photographer of Der Raum.