The Lobo Plantation review

Callan Boys
The old grogram cocktail, featuring stout and house-made spiced rum.
The old grogram cocktail, featuring stout and house-made spiced rum.  Photo: James Brickwood

Basement lot 1, 209 Clarence Street Sydney, NSW 2000

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Opening hours Mon-Thu, 4pm-midnight; Fri, 2pm-midnight; Sat, 5pm-midnight
Features Bar
Prices Cheap (mains under $20)
Phone 0437 233 009

Mention rum to an Australian and most of us won't think of a complex, nuanced spirit with centuries of tradition. We'll think of ute musters, binge-drinking and pre-mixed rum and cola cans. We'll think of Bundaberg.

The Queensland distillery might have had the best intentions when it started turning sugar into spirits 130 years ago, but these days rum has a few public image issues. This is a shame because rum – especially dark rum aged in a charred oak barrel – is a brilliant drink with diversity that rewards exploration. God bless basement bar Lobo Plantation for educating Sydneysiders about ye olde Caribbean spirit since 2013.

Lobo stocks almost 300 unique rums from Jamaica, Cuba, Antigua, Costa Rica, Panama, Venezuela, Martinique and other places where you can lie in a hammock and chew on sugarcane. Rum flights start at $60 for a journey through Central America and peak at $399 for a "high rollers" package. Offering a domestic flight seems like the next logical step given the amount of new Australian rums now on the list from Adelaide Hills Distillery, Husk and Archie Rose.

Ropa vieja tostadas.
Ropa vieja tostadas. Photo: James Brickwood

If you want a spot at the bar for one of these flights, or simply a chinwag with staff about the tobacco and licorice notes of a 2003 vintage Habitation Saint Etienne rum ($37), then later in the week is not the time to do it. The place can become quite chockers from Thursday onwards.

Glamorous Cuban-style decor (cane chairs, tropical prints, plantation shutters even though we're underground) and a quick-fire bar team makes Lobo a very attractive option for after-work drinks. There's a thick line-up for refreshments when I visit on a Friday, made thicker by two blokes wearing backpacks at the bar. (There should be an on-the-spot fine for this.)

Few cocktails are as dark and simple as the Treacle ($20) where dark rum, cane syrup and Angostura bitters are stirred together and topped with an apple juice float. The Old Fashioned-twist was created by legendary London bartender Dick Bradsell and while it has legions of fans around the world, it's a drink too sweet for my salty tongue.

Bar manager Mary White toasts cocktail garnishes with a big butane flame.
Bar manager Mary White toasts cocktail garnishes with a big butane flame. Photo: James Brickwood

A rum-and-rye Old Fashioned with Gosling's Family Reserve ($26) is way more exhilarating and better again is Lobo's signature Old Grogram ($19) featuring a heavy stout reduced and blended with bay leaves, cloves and other spices. This tincture is added to house-made spiced rum, lemon juice and sugar syrup for sweetness that tiptoes instead of pinging your throat. Bar manager Mary White is on hand with a butane torch to toast the drink's cinnamon garnish with a bloody big flame.

A snack menu includes red-bean empanadas (four for $15), kingfish ceviche ($12) and something called Da Big Bawse ($17), which is actually just a hodgepodge of under-seasoned pulled pork, smoked ham, Swiss cheese and mustard between two slices of ciabatta. I suspect the kitchen didn't like making it as much as I didn't like eating it.

Your dinner money is better spent at one of Chinatown's magical food courts a few blocks away but if you're truly fanging to eat then ropa vieja tostadas (two for $16) are perfectly agreeable with shredded beef, peppers, tomato salsa and green olives.

It should be mentioned there's also beer and wine, but hey – you can drink beer and wine at many other choice bars in Sydney. Lobo exists to showcase the world's best dark rum and notably there's not a Bundy bottle in sight. May your awful rum memories be erased forever.

The low-down

If you only eat one thing … ropa vieja tostadas ($16).

If you only drink one thing … Old Grogram ($19).

http://www.thelobo.com.au/