Melbourne Cocktail Festival celebrates city's bar scene. Here's a quick history and what's shaking this week

1806 cocktail bar in Melbourne
1806 cocktail bar in Melbourne Photo: Supplied

Twenty-five years ago, cocktails in Melbourne meant something basic like gin and tonic, or sweet concoctions with names more lurid than their colour schemes. Now, ordering a Cocksucking Cowboy would be like an actual cowboy demanding water in a Wild West-era saloon.

With dozens of bars today dedicated to quality cocktails, and countless other establishments – including restaurants – maintaining high standards of shaking and stirring, Melbourne's cocktail scene has come of age. This week, there's a five-day party to celebrate: the inaugural Melbourne Cocktail Festival.

It was conceived by Orlando Marzo, an Italian who came to Melbourne six years ago via acclaimed cocktail bars such as London's Milk & Honey. After he was crowned 2018 Global Bartender of the Year, Marzo's experience extended further to international cocktail festivals. "I looked back at what we have at home" in Melbourne, he recalls. "There was nothing like that."

As beverage director at Worksmith, a collaborative hub for Melbourne's hospitality industry, Marzo quickly gained enthusiastic support for his festival idea. It begins with an industry symposium, but what he describes as a fun, interactive and educational festival is otherwise aimed at everyone who likes a good drink – including those seeking cocktails without alcohol.

Some of the 24 bars making special festival cocktails are offering booze-free options, and the events program includes a masterclass in what's known as low- and no-ABV (alcohol by volume) cocktails. For the most part, however, the festival is stylishly liquored up, with everything from an absinthe masterclass to Splash, a meet-the-maker marketplace for niche cocktail ingredients.

Orlando Marzo, founder of the Melbourne Cocktail Festival.
Orlando Marzo, founder of the Melbourne Cocktail Festival. Photo: Supplied

Ciaran Duffy, an Irishman who worked in London bars before moving here in 2018, agrees Melbourne's cocktail bars are very well-respected worldwide. "After London and New York, Melbourne sits pretty close in the grand scheme of high-calibre cocktails," he says.

Now manager at festival-partner bar 1806, Duffy believes it's high time for the festival. "People are already aware that Melbourne is probably the best place for cocktails in Australia, but we're showcasing it."

We are focusing on five festival-partner bars to tell Melbourne's rags-to-riches cocktail story – and perhaps inspire you to make the most of it.

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Gin Palace: The pioneer

While Meyers Place famously started Melbourne's bar renaissance in 1993, cocktails only joined the party when Gin Palace opened in another laneway in 1997. Named after a gold-rush-era Melbourne establishment, it stood out then because of its classy cocktails and decor, table service, and for having more than a few gins on the shelf.

Even a decade ago, when former Gin Palace bartender Ben Luzz returned as managing director, "we didn't have this huge craft-spirits boom," he recalls. "I was importing small amounts of gin from overseas wherever I could get it." Healesville's now-ubiquitous Four Pillars was still an experiment "out the back of a winery".

Luzz says lots of other things besides gin were on the bar's menu before he returned to the fold. His determination to make it "the Mecca for gin in Australia … coincided with this craft-spirits boom, so it's helped us for sure." He now oversees a wall of gin bottles from near and far, and Gin Palace regularly presents events in collaboration with local distillers.

During the festival, in addition to serving two limited-edition drinks, it's hosting several events including an Australian botanicals masterclass, a high-tea-style bottomless gin-punch party, and a session combining cocktails and barbering services.

10 Russell Place, Melbourne, 9654 0533, ginpalace.com.au

Festival specials: Cell Reviver No. 3, a non-alcoholic mix of celery and fennel juice, white-pepper syrup and soda; and Sake Sider, which combines Melbourne Gin Company dry gin, sparkling sake and lemon (pictured).

1806: The next generation

A new wave of bars emerged in the new millennium, most notably those focused on classic cocktails not only from the first half of the 20th century, as Gin Palace was already doing, but also the 19th. They revived time-honoured recipes and often finessed them – sometimes with gels, foams and other modern ‘molecular mixology' flourishes. They also became renowned for fresh juices and quality spirits, ice and bitters.

Richmond's Der Raum led the charge, opening in 2001. While it closed 12 years later, others among that handful of second-generation, cocktail-centred bars are still in the mix, despite ever-increasing competition. Black Pearl, for example, and 1806, which opened in 2007, named for the year that the word "cocktail" in its modern, alcoholic sense was first recorded.

According to Duffy, the reputation of Melbourne's bars, when he was in London, was such that "people applying for jobs with 1806 on their resume" were considered favourably.

Duffy praises the high standard of service and positive atmosphere that's partly driven by the quiet theatre of cocktail making. Appropriately, 1806's bar is showcased by a gilded proscenium arch, preserved from the building's theatre days. Essentially, however, it's about what's in the glass. "We play around with a lot of things," says Duffy, but "acknowledge and deliver on the fundamentals of what cocktails are all about … It's a timeless approach."

During the festival, his team is offering a cocktail named after the Princess Theatre's resident ghost, and also hosting cocktail masterclasses.

169 Exhibition Street, Melbourne, 9663 7722, 1806.com.au

Festival special: Federici's Fortune, a blend of Starward two-fold whisky, Adelaide Hills Distillery Rosso vermouth, muscat, chocolate and aromatic bitters, and clarified Milo.

The Age , News, 13/12/2019, photo by Justin McManus.
Bad Frankie Bar.
Nikki making a Pavlova Spritz.

Bad Frankie bartender Nikki making a Pavlova Spritz. Photo: Justin McManus

Bad Frankie: The all-Australian

During a 2011 holiday that included Tennessee-beef burgers in Nashville and tequila in the Mexican town of Tequila, Sebastian Costello concluded that "everything tastes better in the place that it's made". Back in Australia, he noticed the emergence of locally-crafted spirits and the idea for a bar only serving homegrown drinks began.

Bad Frankie opened in 2014, stocked with every Australian-made spirit available – just 80 back then, sourced from 20 pioneering distilleries such as Bass & Flinders on the Mornington Peninsula and Tasmania's Lark. "There was no real source of information" to guide his search, says Costello. "It was mostly just word-of-mouth … within this little community that had this single goal of boosting Australian spirits."

Distilleries have since proliferated so much that Bad Frankie now offers about 500 spirits from 200 Australian producers. Available gins alone have "gone from 20 to 295 in the space of five years". "We used to pride ourselves on stocking everything, but we can't do that now," says Costello.

His bar was the first in the country with an all-Australian focus, from spirits and other cocktail ingredients like wattleseed honey, to jaffles with local fillings including Vegemite. Recently, the homegrown booze boom has also inspired Sydney's Rosenbaum & Fuller and Rosella's in Queensland, as well as numerous other bars with strong Australian credentials such as Melbourne's Byrdi and New Gold Mountain.

141 Greeves Street, Fitzroy, 9078 3866, badfrankie.com

Festival special: A Niece Called Peach, made from Reed & Co's Remedy gin, peach and aniseed-myrtle syrup, Bress 'Bressecco' and soda.

The downstairs bar at Mjolner Melbourne.

The downstairs bar at Mjolner Melbourne. Photo: Simon Schluter

Mjolner: The themed bar

As Melbourne's bar scene has grown, some have chosen to stand out with stylistic themes. This famously began with second-generation bar The Croft Institute's science-lab look (plus a less well-known high school-gym vibe upstairs). Others daring drinkers into niche experiences include Berlin Bar, Storyville and LuWow, the former Fitzroy tropical tiki den recently reborn in the CBD.

Mjolner joined this sophisticated playgroup in 2018. A basement bar (and upstairs restaurant) named after Norse god Thor's mighty hammer, it boasts Viking-style shields, wooden tables carved with runes, and cocktails such as Odin's Brew. Beer is served in drinking horns on request.

"We really hate the word 'theme'," says general manager Nick Winter. With a smile peeping from his bushy black beard, he explains that at Mjolner the preferred term is 'inspired'. "We don't want to be too typecast, and we don't want people thinking we're over-the-top gimmicky."

So while this bar may appeal to World of Warcraft fanboys, it's a mixed crowd-pulling up the cowhide-covered stools, perhaps drawn by Mjolner's thoughtfully curated, 400-strong whisky selection.

106 Hardware Street, Melbourne, 8393 9367, mjolner.com.au

Festival specials: Blunt Axe, a non-alcoholic combo of pineapple, passionfruit, lime and orgeat syrup; and Thor's Stein, featuring Glenlivet Founders Reserve whisky, amaro, mead reduction, lemon and egg white.

The tiny room  Little Lon Distilling Co. 26th July 2019 The Age News Picture by JOE ARMAO

Inside tiny CBD distillery bar Little Lon Distilling Co. Photo: Joe Armao

Little Lon Distilling Co: The distillery-bar

Finding an Australian distillery may have required insider tips when Bad Frankie opened, but these days numerous spirit-makers have welcome mats out for on-site tastings. A handful are going further with fully-fledged bars, including Port Melbourne's Starward and Patient Wolf, which recently relocated to larger Southbank digs.

Perhaps the most distinctive, and surely the smallest example of this new bar niche, is Little Lon Distilling Co. Since 2018, it's squeezed into a 26-square-metre, heritage-listed remnant of the CBD's all-but-erased Little Lon slum. One of the three rooms of this 1877 worker's cottage houses the copper still producing small batches of four gins (a fifth is coming), each named after people from the district's notorious past.

"We're quite proud of mixing our gin with a side of history," says business development executive Dean Jarvis. The lemongrass-and-lychee Little Miss Yoko gin, for example, is named in honour of a Hong Kong woman who ran a brothel in the cottage. The gold rush brought many Chinese to Melbourne, so "she used to sell herself as being Japanese to be a little bit more exotic," says Jarvis.

Given the limited space, this distillery only operates as a bar Thursday-Saturday evenings. Pull up a stool and ponder Little Lon's sly-grog days in a tiny room with original fireplace and panelled window, or in the equally petite bluestone yard, complete with outhouse. "It's small but mighty in terms of charm," says Jarvis.

During the festival, Little Lon Distilling Co is hosting History of Booze, Gin and Cocktails in Melbourne walking tours, and also serving a cocktail-inspired by that enterprising woman who wasn't from Yokohama.

17 Casselden Place, Melbourne, 0403 500 302, littlelondistillingco.com

Festival special: Feng Shui, a mix of Little Miss Yoko gin, sake, lychee and lemon.

The Melbourne Cocktail Festival is on February 26 to March 1, melbournecocktailfestival.io

More festival cocktails and mocktails

Discover the other venues making a special drink (or two) for the Melbourne Cocktail Festival, and get up to 40 per cent off with the festival's $20 Bar Safari pass.

Tetto di Carolina
Highline Highball: Star of Bombay gin, elderflower and chamomile cordial, pink-grapefruit tonic.

Bar Ampere
Adults Only: Marionette mure liqueur, Rabarbaro Sfumato digestif, bourbon, celery bitters.
Pom-Zu Soda: pomegranate, grapefruit, orgeat, soda.

The Elysian
Rita's Delight: Nikka whisky, Umeshu liqueur, bitters, tonic.

Above Board
H.S.L. Special: Amaro Montenegro, creme de mure, absinthe, lime.

Black Pearl
Florentino: Starward Two-fold whisky, Maurin Quina aperitif, rhubarb cordial, mirin, soda.

Bomba
Pith and Roses: yuzu, honey, rosemary, grapefruit.

Byrdi
Big Banana: Starward whisky, Oloroso sherry, clarified banana, banana skin, banana-whey soda.

Capitano
Montenegro Sour: Amaro Montenegro, gomme syrup, lemon, passionfruit, habanero tincture, egg white.

Beneath Driver Lane
Lightenin' Hopkins Fix: Mr Black coffee liqueur, coconut rum, cold-drip coffee, vanilla-raisin tisane.

Cutler & Co.
Green Thumb: Four Pillars gin, Prosecco, syrup verde, lemon.

Lui Bar
Myrtle Collins: Tanqueray gin, verjuice, lemon-myrtle syrup, soda.

Eau de Vie
Yuzu Mule: apple, lime, orange, honey water, yuzu curd, ginger beer.

Lume
Native Myrtle: Applewood gin, St Germain liqueur, lemon myrtle, wattleseed.

Peaches
Peach and Pout: sour peach and marshmallow soda.

Romeo Lane
Velvet Rope: fino sherry, apricot brandy, sparkling wine, lemon.

Union Electric
Hotline Sling: Widges dry gin, Plantation old rum, falernum syrup, pineapple, ginger, lime, tiki bitters.

Whitehart
Four Seasons in a Day: Tromba tequila, Antagonist Half Cut gin, lime, pineapple, grapefruit, bitters.

Bar Liberty
The Great Divide: Empirical habanero spirit, Marionette orange curacao, verdita, lemon-and-basil soda.

The Everleigh
First Time Caller: lemon, syrup, pineapple, dry vermouth.