How social media is shaking up Melbourne's cocktail culture

Flaming Zombies at Jungle Boy.
Flaming Zombies at Jungle Boy. Photo: Supplied

There's a scene in Mad Men in which Don Draper – the debonair, philandering ad man and Antichrist to reformed alcoholics and smokers – slinks off from a work party at a country club.

In the club's back bar, Don encounters a Southern silver fox whom we later learns is Conrad Hilton, and, as sharp, world-weary dialogue ensues, he fixes an Old Fashioned with the ingredients to hand.

While cocktail purists have denounced the legitimacy of the concoction that Hilton trumps as a "hell of a cocktail", the series' booze-soaked modishness has led to many eschewing production-line pours – and ho-hum bars – for a grab at experiences portrayed by Draper, Roger "Don't let me see the bottom of this glass!" Sterling and co.

"The Old Fashioned, along with other classics like the Negroni and the Manhattan, has certainly seen a resurgence," says Felix Allsop, bar manager at The Everleigh, a popular Fitzroy drink den that lends itself exuberantly to Hollywood-style elegance.

"It's similar to how Sex and the City made the Cosmopolitan so popular, this kind of media had a very powerful influence," Albert Chan, bar manager at the Brunswick Mess Hall, adds.

Om Nom dessert bar's vaporised mojito.
Om Nom dessert bar's vaporised mojito. Photo: Meagan Harding

But Sex and the City is so, well, early-noughties, and while television still has some clout, it's been usurped by another form of media: the social kind. And in the world of cocktails and fine spirits, it's fed a boom pursued with elan by the look-at-me generation.

There they are, clogging your Facebook and Instagram feeds: bright, flamboyant drinks; next-level bars; your somewhat smug – and, probably, duck-faced – friend.

Bartenders, too, are getting on in the act, showcasing their theatrical wares, dressing gorgeous-looking drinks with fire, smoke, gold, dust; anything that catches the eye – or leaps off a smartphone screen.

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But while social media is a boon for those eager to share anything, especially high-end adventures featuring high-end sips ("it's a visual feast when done properly … and soon enough you'll have a full bar", comments Travis Baker, co-founder of American bartender collective and Instagram enthusiasts Just Make Me Something), the digital sphere is favourably impacting everyone in the hospitality game.

"Information is at our fingertips now," Chan says. "It makes it very easy for customers, brands, venues and bartenders to communicate. The amount of cocktail-related exposure we get through these channels is huge and it influences customers, bars, and brands to grow and expand. People will now sit at the bar and research on their phones the bottles on the back bar, or the craft beers on the menu; I've done it myself."

Hospitality consultant and venue owner Marcus Mooney says increased customer knowledge is driving competition and creativity among bartenders. "People are asking for something different now, and are not simply accepting the 'first-pour spirits'," he says.

It's all go at 1806, Exhibition Street, Melbourne.
It's all go at 1806, Exhibition Street, Melbourne.  Photo: Arsineh Houspian

"They are talking to the bartender, being educated, sharing ideas. We are definitely seeing a shift in the way consumers are looking at spirits and cocktails; it's a positive move and one that is keeping everyone on their toes."

Baker agrees that social media is ensuring industry integrity. "If a product is suddenly using inferior juice or using additives, you can be damn sure the entire bartending world is going to know about it in about a day. And if suddenly an entire community is against your product for whatever reason, I'm sure you can imagine what that does to sales," he says.

Baker believes it's not difficult to see why cocktails and social media are a match made in (online) heaven. "There's an old adage in the restaurant world that people eat with their eyes. They also drink with their eyes," he says. "Cocktails fit in a photo really well. It's easier to take a picture of a sexy-looking drink or two than it is to fit in several entrees. You can really zoom in on the details with cocktails."

The digital sphere is favourably impacting everyone in the hospitality game.
The digital sphere is favourably impacting everyone in the hospitality game. Photo: Supplied

Mooney concurs. "It is all about everything being 'Instagrammable'. A small bar can now have presence all over the world. A single pic can change the way a venue is viewed in every sense, and the exposure for any brand, venue or person is enormous through the right channels and social networks."

Paul Wootton, group publisher of the Intermedia Group, a publishing and event management firm which is managing the upcoming Australian Drinks Festival, agrees that the digital age has opened up all manner of possibilities for smaller players. "It's certainly helped bars that don't have huge budgets to reach a very relevant and targeted audience," he says. "Word-of-mouth is a powerful tool and when you combine that with a beautiful picture of a cocktail, emojis to explain how you feel about the experience, a check-in button so people can see where you are, and your own personal recommendation – you make a big impact on all of your connections," he says.

While Melbourne has long boasted a reputation for being at the pulse of global drink trends – even as far back as the 1860s when the city's Cafe de Paris was an international cocktail hotspot – Australian bartenders now have far easier access to trends in countries such as America, Asia and the UK. "This has really shaped the type of bars that have opened and the type of drinks that they're serving; for example, Boilermakers or bottled cocktails," Wootton says.

Top Shelf cocktail festival.
Top Shelf cocktail festival. Photo: Supplied

Such bars – cosy, silken, vibrant, dimmed nightspots of varied influence – have sprouted, one by one, across Melbourne since the turn of the century, cushioned by evolving licencing laws and the digital revolution. It's a fair roll call. The Everleigh, Bad Frankie and Black Pearl in Fitzroy. 1806, Bar Americano, Gin Palace and Heartbreaker in the city. The Kilburn in Hawthorn. Joe Taylor in North Melbourne. The Woods Bar and Kitchen in Windsor. And that's just some of the bigger names. All kissed with old-world glamour, all boasting barkeeps of immense knowledge and devilish flair, shaking and pouring into crystalline of all shapes and sizes anything that a cocktail lover could hope for; from faithful takes on the classics and prohibition-era riffs, to quirky and suggestively-titled concoctions and the seasonal: rum tikis and mojitos in the summer; toddies, rich sours and smoky mezcal numbers in the winter.

But while the classics remain true to the hearts of drinkers and bartenders, adventure hums in Melbourne's ever-evolving air. "Melbourne is constantly pushing boundaries, and its consumers accept changes and challenges very quickly," Mooney says.

Chan adds: "People here love culture, the arts and creativity. Cocktails are artisanal and a creative expression, so it's natural to attract like-minded people together to want to add to the city's culture."

Allsop says the industry has been in rebuild, which has added to the thrill. "There was a few decades of dead zone between the last cocktail era and the current one, so we've all had to start from scratch, with nearly all the former wisdom lost to time. Sharing ideas is a big part of the boom."

He says the energy and excitement being felt in bars is also extending into homes. "We saw it with food, with wine, with coffee; spirits and cocktails are the obvious next step."

Mooney agrees, arguing that food-reality programs such as MasterChef have led the charge. "Consumers are self-educated in all areas of food and beverage, and have become obsessed with understanding flavour profiles, and the ingredients and methods behind our amazing dishes and cocktails."

This is backed by official sales data. According to IBISWorld, demand for bottled spirits has increased 15 per cent over the past five years, and this upward trend is expected to continue through to at least 2020. The report notes that with the increased excise on "ready-to- drink" products, alongside the rise in globally-awarded- and-lauded Australian brands – led by Tasmania's Sullivans Cove whisky and 666 vodka, and gin distillers.

Four Pillars and West Winds, of Victoria and WA respectively – more and more drinkers are opting for boutique spirits and mixing their own cocktails.

"Although wine producers and beer manufacturers have struggled over the past five years, there are some positive signs for spirit manufacturing," notes Andrew Ledovskikh, IBISWorld senior industry analyst. Ledovskikh notes that of spirits' 20 per cent market share in alcohol sales (beer and wine are at 37 and 25 per cent respectively) gin is the leading spirit in terms of growth, followed closely by whiskey – which has seen "a strong demand for Tasmanian whiskey".

"These positive signs come despite the challenge to revenue growth posed by falling per capita alcohol consumption and increased health consciousness," he adds. Like with craft beer, an increasingly competitive market adds a layer of seriousness to the product, not least to the makers' creative process. Agonising over one-percenters; mixing this with that; dabbling with subtleties that might gain an edge over their (friendly) rivals.

But in an age where so many are clamouring to be heard, the end product, as far is the consumer goes, is all about one thing only: fun. "That, first and foremost, is what draws people to cocktails," says Allsop. "We're precious and geeky behind the scenes so that you don't have to be when you're at the bar. A round of six different drinks is also a great way to bring people together, with glasses swapping back and forth across the table."

Deon Warner, of Cocktails By Design, an outfit that brings the cocktail experience to private and corporate functions, theorises: "[You're at] a party where all guests are drinking beer, wine, champagne, or basic spirits. Sure, everybody is having a good time but let's change just one thing: let's swap everyone's drink for a cocktail of their choice, and the atmosphere in the same space will immediately become elevated by as much as 60-70 per cent. That's got nothing to do with the volume of consumption, it's actually about a drink that has been crafted especially for you, and you will drink that drink with such satisfaction, splendour and due gratitude."

Wootton offers a bigger-picture view: "In these times of economic uncertainty, there's this idea of consumers being 'weekend millionaires'. We might not be able to afford to buy a new house or car but we can find the cash to drink a couple of top-quality cocktails in a beautiful bar."

The Australian Drinks Festival, Royal Exhibition Building, 9 Nicholson Street, Carlton, Saturday, July 16, noon-7pm; Sunday, July 17 noon-6pm. Tickets are $45 online before July 16; $50 on the door, australiandrinksfestival.com.au