Local bartenders are abuzz with talk of a new experimental bar in London, the White Lyan. Cocktails like the Bone Dry Martini, made with vodka and a tincture of roasted chicken bones dissolved in phosphoric acid, are mixed in batches, bottled and refrigerated. There are no ice or fruit garnishes, the cocktail is simply poured into a glass. The selling point: speed and consistency.
Forget about ambling up to the bar and ordering a generic rum and Coke here, too. Single-serve pre-bottled drinks are slowly infiltrating Melbourne. Bartenders are also hunting down spirits crafted for specific drinks, using old American Frontier-style techniques to preserve the tang of fruits and cellaring cocktails like fine wine. The humble glass of booze is being elevated to exalted heights.
The cynic would say these flourishes help justify $20 for a mixed drink. But some of Melbourne's bartending veterans maintain that a growing slice of the public is now drinking less and paying more for quality. Michael Madrusan, owner of Fitzroy's smart cocktail bar the Everleigh says people are now much more discerning. "We're turning into a more mature drinking culture," he says.
A contributing factor could be the sexy Mad Men styling of the Old Fashioned in a chunky cut-glass tumbler. It could also be the massive influx of spirits into Australia from small producers around the globe. At the Kodiak Club, the Fitzroy shrine to American whiskey, manager Nathan Taylor nods at dozens of unfamiliar bottles behind the bar. Ten years ago, he says, only about a tenth of that would have been available here.
On the shelf at stylish city bar Eau de Vie is Fords Gin from the 86 Co. in New York. Its prominent juniper and citrus oils (or, as the tasting notes say: "under tongue stays dry yet animated") has been developed with bartenders to specifically hold its own in mixed drinks. The bar has its own blend of whiskey that manager Greg Sanderson developed with Bakery Hill distillery for one cocktail, EDV Bobby Burns. With an emphasis on smoke and a high alcohol content, it's robust enough to be stirred down with fig-infused vermouth, a dash of D.O.M Benedictine and bitters.
The success of small-scale brewers has paved the way for quality cocktails too. "The craft beer scene has burgeoned into the craft spirit and cocktail scene," says Dave Kerr, owner of Carlton's Beaufort bar, where there's craft beer on tap and by the bottle.
It's all creating a perfect storm for the art of bartending. Tash Conte, owner of the award-winning Black Pearl in Fitzroy, suggests some of the increased interest in the trade is driven by alcohol companies offering huge sums of cash and prizes for bartending competitions.
The bartender who won the annual Diageo Reserve World Class competition, for instance, will visit distilleries in Scotland, Tennessee and Guatemala, and will make their own limited-edition batch of rum.
Still, prohibitive liquor-licensing laws in Melbourne are making it difficult for new businesses to get off the ground and established bars to stay open later. But for bars that are surviving in a competitive climate, winter is arguably the best time to sample their latest creations.
There's an evergreen emphasis on darker spirits, with epic rum and whiskey collections at places like Supernormal in the city and the Rum Diary in Fitzroy. Vodka and gin drinkers can still come out to play though, major bars will make an effort to offer heavier white-spirit cocktails in winter too.
If all of these options are too daunting, the beauty is that the best bars won't mind you ordering a generic rum and Coke - although at Eau de Vie they might offer you a house-made smoked cola reduction.
Check out some of the tipples Melbourne's leading bars are serving up during the cold months, adapted in some instances for budding home bartenders:
WHEN YOU JUST CAN'T WAIT FOR THE BAR TENDER TO MIX IT UP
During peak times, waiting 10 minutes or more for a Martini or an Old Fashioned can be a passion killer. Some bars are getting wise and bottling small batches of their own cocktails, which can be simply poured on ice and served immediately. Weeks can go into the preparation of these drinks to ensure the flavours are preserved, using age-old techniques to create natural flavours. Shrubs, for instance, are juices preserved in vinegar.
Black Pearl: Bulleit and Briar
Called a "Frontier Blackberry Punch", this lightly carbonated drink is served at the bar in a generous-sized glass over ice. The clean berry flavour is courtesy of the preserved blackberry shrub - big in the American Old West/frontier era - made with citrus peel and vanilla-infused sugar.
Eau de Vie: Small batch cocktails
The Melbourne and Sydney stalwart has it own range of three ready-made cocktails that can be stored in the fridge until they're ready to be served on ice. The Cold Drip Negroni's kick of coffee works well with the dry gin and tart Campari. okThere's also a well-balanced Coconut and Banana Rum Old Fashioned and a Smoked Bacon and Maple Manhattan.
The Beaufort: Old Fashioned
To make the most of table service, the Beaufort chills individual bottles of Old Fashioneds, made with bourbon, sugar, bitters and water. Upon ordering, the bottle is shaken, opened and brought to the table for the customer to gradually pour over ice as they sip the drink.