If you thought we'd reached peak booze nerdery when the prohibition cocktail craze met the rise of craft distilling, you hadn't reckoned on 2018: a true vintage for the thinking drinker.
This is the year we stopped fetishising America and were all about Oz, but thankfully not in a tinnies-crushed-on-the-forehead way. Our home-spun spirits and glasses couldn't have been more stuffed with native ingredients. Aussie gins crammed with botanicals reached almost plague proportions and new bars such as Galah ditched citrus twists and salt rims for lemon aspen and mountain pepper pep.
Sustainability also got sexy. If you're looking for love in a bar yet sucking on a single-use straw, you're doomed. Plastic is out. But pips, peels and all other perishables are in. Cocktails were all about getting your daily five as wellness met wild nights in fruit-and-veg-driven drinks, part of a trend towards lower-booze cocktails that also saw a spike in sherries and vermouths. A zero-waste ethos, meanwhile, saw bars such as Seddon's Lay Low turning citrus peels and avocado seeds into syrups and orgeat. The circle of life in a glass.
But it wasn't all serious cocktailery. Glorious, ridiculous cocktails of the '80s – especially anything blue – continued its upswing at playhouses like Shady Lady. Beer drinking at the source continued to grow, with sours and lagers coming in at the top of this year's craft charts. Bar snacking has also never been stronger. Even if it's just jaffles or things on sticks, bars are paying attention to the provenance of their hot dogs, and in the case of wine bars, entirely dissolving the restaurant-bar divide.
Here's to drinking smarter, not harder, while keeping the dial firmly set to fun. Cheers.
The wine shop/bar hybrid model has spread like botrytis, but they nail it at this Prahran stayer by the Toorak Cellars crew. Wooden alcoves are stacked to the ceiling with treats from Jura to the Savoie. It's a tight fit up front, but there's a fire out back, 20 wines by glass and exactly the snacks to damp your drinking fire in the form of meatballs, anchovies and baked goats' cheese. Done.
64 Commercial Road, Prahran, 03 9529 4988, thealpsprahran.com
Sharing DNA with Fitzroy North's vintage-y Tinder hero Longplay, Amarillo is the new all-day neighbourhood hero Fitzroy never knew it needed. The lighting is golden, panels dark and vinyl correct. The Mediterranean list is broadly Iberian, united by universal appeal to drinkers. So there's sticky aged goats' cheese, jamon and lonza, but also a hearty Russian salad, and sobrasada meatballs. Drink a cat's pyjamas (a martini rinsed with Cocchi Americano), manzanilla sherry or something skinsy, interesting and affordable from the continent.
149 Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, 03 9415 9367, amarillofitzroy.com.au
The Grossi family's back alley bar is as much a draw for its proper kitchen making proper spaghetti, toasties and ridiculous desserts until the wee hours as for its wine list giving access to the hefty restaurant cellar and super fresh cocktails poured over invisible Navy Strength ice. Its hidden location also keeps the crowd to smart drinkers who can still navigate Google maps.
Mornane Place, Melbourne, 03 9662 2412, arlechin.com.au
The all-Aussie spirits concept sounds nerdy and the menu with seven pages of gins alone could intimidate, but Bad Frankie is all easy good times. Behold walls decoupaged with Holdens and red roos, ample-cushioned banquettes and a crew in party shirts who know their A Booze Cs so well you can just vaguely name drinks you like and they'll Ozify them with local cassis and gin made down the street. Does any bar snack trump their bangers and mash jaffle with gravy, or supreme pizza toastie? Doubtful.
141 Greeves Street, Fitzroy, 03 9078 3866, badfrankie.com
Cleverly channelling the classic inner-north terrazzo-floored espresso bars of the 1960s, Romantica also keeps it modern with an excellent selection of local craft beer on tap, quality whisky from near and far and a kitchen that pumps out pizza and tartare until close, which means 4am at weekends. Whether you're after a (free) game of pool, a decently made martini or just a spot in one of the red vinyl-clad horseshoe booths, this is a bar equipped to cure what ails you.
52 Lygon Street, Brunswick East, 03 9191 9410, barromantica.com.au
Well that was a million bucks well spent. The freshly renovated Bomba Rooftop bar not only offers a whole new space with another Insta-worthy cityscape view featuring Her Majesty's Theatre, but it has also upgraded everything else from taplines to toilets. There's a dedicated chef in the open kitchen shucking oysters and pressing bikinis (Spanish-style toasties), a solid range of tap beers, a list of freshly made and batched cocktails, a surprisingly good sangria on tap and lists of aperitivi and sherry made for quaffing while watching the sun set between skyscrapers.
Level 5, 103 Lonsdale Street, Melbourne, 03 9650 5778, bombabar.com.au
Those wondering how an Andrew McConnell cheeseburger might taste should make a beeline for his elegant, urbane wine bar sitting above wildly popular sibling Cumulus Inc. The food's an obvious draw (do not miss the anchovy, potato skin and creme fraiche snack), but it's also worth climbing the stairs for impressive wine, beer, cider and cocktail lists. The by-the-glass list is particularly good with boutique Champagne rubbing shoulders with skinsy gris from Canberra and nero d'avola from the Murray Darling while sharp service also hits the spot.
Level 1, 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne, 03 9650 1445, cumulusup.com.au
Named for the syndrome where people think they're smarter than they are, this self-deprecating shopfront bar does what it does very well. It knows its way around a martini for starters and offers ample scope for customising with about 14 gins on the shelf. There's also a short, regularly changing list of their own leftfield concoctions that might see solera whisky mixed with black tea and cream or corn chip-washed tequila with avocado. Hungry? Choose from a small selection of house-made American-style fruit pies (yes, cherry) or hit-the-spot grilled cheese and tomato on toast.
436 Lygon Street, Brunswick East, dunningkrugerbar.com
Is there a sweeter, more deadly whisky bar in the land? Kelvin Low and Yao Wong went as niche as possible with their 20-seater, where the focus isn't just on whiskies from countries you didn't know made them, but on one-off bottlings. Each night they stand behind that sleek California redwood bar, ready and waiting in tidy waistcoats to pour a rare nip (or half – prices reflect obscurity) of something Taiwanese, Japanese, Scottish or Scando you may never see again. Jazz, tap beers, simple cocktails and chicken liver parfaits bring it home.
113 Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, 03 9417 7441, theelysianwhiskybar.com.au
There's finally extra space and seats at the glowing, tiled, golden-era bar where fastidious sazeracs and mary pickfords are twizzled and shaken under the gaze of a jackalope. But the rules are the same. Relinquish control. Get the bartender's choice. Sit barside over booths. Never ask for a midori splice.
Level 1, 150–156 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy, 03 9416 2229, theeverleigh.com
Windsor's bar scene offers plenty of misses but Galah is a sure-fire hit. The saw-toothed warehouse space above a bottle shop entrance (buy something on your way in or out), hits the sweet spot between bar and club with aplomb. The booze is Aussie-accented, whether you're talking the locally made spirits, minimal-intervention wine or a list of craft beer local heroes, both packaged and on tap. There's also charming table service, a menu of noteworthy snacks (say yes to tempura cauliflower) and house and jazz-flavoured tunes via DJ and occasional live performance.
Level 1, 216 High Street, Windsor, 03 9521 5325, galah.melbourne
Adding New York-style pizza joint Connie's, which slings cheesy pies and dark and stormy slushies until 3am turned this CBD dive bar by the Everleigh crew into a frothing triple threat. There's the jukebox rich in Lionel and Iggy Pop and a sketchy pool table for kicks. You're drinking bottled cocktails, or bourbon shots with crafty Aussie and American brews. The potential for peril is great. But mainline that giant pepperoni slice with extra chilli. No one can see straight under cover of neon light.
234A Russell Street, Melbourne, 03 9041 0856, heartbreakerbar.com.au
There's a fine line between informative and annoying when it comes to cocktail list annotating. Impala, in this and pretty much everything else it does, stays on the right side of the line. Sibling to downstairs neighbour Neptune, this '70s disco chic cocktail bar knows how to have fun but is also committed to delivering well-constructed classic and home brand drinks. Want to know what a well-made Mint Julep or Brandy Crusta should taste like? Take a black-vinyl upholstered seat. Otherwise, give your server a vague idea about what you like and be pleasantly surprised at how accurate a bartender can be.
Level 1, 212 High Street, Windsor, 03 9533 2827, impala.melbourne
In true speakeasy style, Lay Low plays hard to get: its entrance is an unmarked door next to an intercom inside a streetwear store. Behind the door is a spacious, terrazzo-floored bar with a long banquette and a burnt orange-tiled bar, where friendly bartenders pull together flavour-forward cocktails heavy on the quench. Who would have thought gin, carrot juice and ginger would be such a winning combination or that mescal and manzanilla would play so well with mandarin? If this is what the New West is all about, count us in.
93 Buckley Street, Seddon, no phone, laylowbar.com.au
Footscray doesn't love new-wave interlopers, but few have been able to argue against this $2 shop being turned into a glorious, wood-beamed two-level palace of craft beers, decent wines and smart cocktails where it's all charcuterie and sours on deck and takeaway treats down below. Pair a sixer with crabs and fresh noodles from the markets and be the ultimate Switzerland in the gentrification war.
106 Nicholson Street, Footscray, mrwest.com.au
Scott Pickett's first southside restaurant, leather and ochre-clad Matilda 159 Domain, has a similarly stylish basement bar where the restaurant's themes of smoke, flame and indigenous ingredients play out in the cocktails. This might mean sugar syrups that have been smoked with cherry wood, fermented peppers from the kitchen ending up in a bloody mary or drinks flavoured with geraldton wax. Sturdy, well-priced wine and beer lists accompany an excellent menu of snacks that includes must-do salmon roe and smoked bonito cream tartlets and rusty wire oysters with a bone marrow crust.
Basement, 159 Domain Road, South Yarra, 03 9089 6668, matilda159.com
Ah, sweet Romeo Lane. It's the bar that looks like butter wouldn't melt, with its perfect carved panels, flower posies, wartime tracks and coiffed snacks, but that tight cocktail list bringing it with a honeyed-yet-still-sharp bees kiss, vermouth and sherry-led lower-booze drinks and tightrope-sharp classics can so easily kneecap your night.
1A Crossley Street, Melbourne, 03 9639 8095, romeolane.com.au
Sometimes only a dive bar and a gaudily coloured frozen cocktail will do. The Shady Lady hits all the expected marks – found, made and salvaged decor in various shades of ruched fabric and smoky blue, a neon sign, cigarettes for sale and a back courtyard in which to smoke them and frozen cocktail versions of pina colada, daiquiri, mojito and margarita that are as tasty as they are bright. It also nails the hospitality side of the equation with good-humoured, unpretentious service that leaves many other local bars in the shade.
36 Johnston Street, Fitzroy, no phone
How does a cavernous 250-person former warehouse space come across as cosy and intimate? A cute fitout helps – open fires, timber and metal detailing, hanging plants – but it's also the reassuring presence of the brewery, just there behind glass, the source of the 12 to 20 beers on tap at any one time that range from clean pilsner to massively powerful IPA. It's also there in the solidly cooked beer-friendly food (pizza, fish and chips, burgers) and a takeaway licence that means the fun doesn't need to end yet.
100 Gipps Street, Collingwood, 03 9415 1944, stompingground.beer
Union Electric Gin Garden
Everyone's favourite semi-open air party bar in Chinatown is still bringing the fresh fruit-driven drinks, craft booze, '90s hip hop and killer attitude. And now there's wild gin action upstairs, set beneath impressive tropical plants and botanicals. Staff do a solid job divining exactly what both you and your chosen gin needs. So gently fragrant Japanese Roku gin martini gets a grapefruit twist while Tassie's ballsy Dasher and Fisher number is hosed down with heaps of vermouth. Don't do gin? Beers, rums and anything from Deliveroo is possible.
13 Heffernan Lane, Melbourne, 0450 186 466, unionelectric.com.au
Watch this space...
Pegged for early 2019, four bartenders from Fitzroy's heavily decorated Black Pearl will be opening their own venue, Fancy Free. The plan is to regularly collaborate with brewers and distillers and make gun service the top priority.
Also launching in the new year, Lume head chef Eileen Horsnell alongside bartender Orlando Marzo will be opening a yet-to-be-named wine bar in Melbourne's CBD with serious eats and even more serious cocktails. Given the fine dining pedigree of the pair, it's one to watch.
The Good Food Guide is in its second year as a national book, with hats awarded across Australia. The Good Food Guide 2019 will be launched on October 8 with our presenting partners Vittoria Coffee and Citi, and will be on sale from October 9 in newsagencies, bookstores and via thestore.com.au, RRP $29.99.