Down the Rabbit Hole: An Insider’s Guide to Australia’s Drinking Wonderland

Believe the hyperbole surrounding the Australian bar scene; the country is unique for giving visitors and locals the sense that they’ve just “stumbled upon” a hidden bar that’s either down a side alley, behind a back street, or through an unmarked door. Like Alice down the rabbit hole, the sense of discovery makes a night out in Australia an unpredictable and exhilarating experience. “It’s a really exciting time, and there’s real creativity in the industry at the moment,” says Chris Hysted, winner of Australia’s Best Bartender award. “We’re hunting down hard-to-find ingredients, experimenting with techniques and adding modern and unusual twists to drinks.” So while there are plenty of reasons to visit Australia, including excellent booze, innovative design and warm hospitality, it’s the country’s creativity that makes it distinct from its international counterparts. Featuring a revolving door of boutique drinking dens flourishing as quickly as the country’s urban growth, Australia’s bar scene has an impressive selection on offer.

Grinstead Horse by Chris Hysted, Winner of 2009 Australia’s Best Bartender
60 ml Talisker
15 ml Walnut Liqueur
10 ml Dark Cacao Liqueur
Stir Down Briefly Over Ice in a Rocks Glass
Top With 45ml of Quality Porter Beer

Joe’s Shoe Store > In the aftermath of the gentrification in Northcote’s High Street (in inner-city Melbourne) survives an unassuming bar with a misleading shop front. First-time visitors will be forgiven for passing Joe’s Shoe Store in their lust for liquor. But make no mistake. This is a bar. Joe’s Shoe Store is a disused shoe store turned watering hole conceived by co-owners and friends Sebastian Butler and Gustavo Gonzalez. And it’s everything you want in a bar: plenty of bench and booth space for recreational drinking, flattering dim lighting, spinning vinyl complete with DJ, and a good-looking bartender that knows a pinot gris from a pinot grigio. The discerning drinker will find reprieve in Joe’s impressive collection of European wines and perfectly balanced cocktails, including their signature Espresso Martini, in an environment that is a refreshing oxymoron—the bar is unpretentiously cool and fashionably off-trend. So while Melbourne bars may come and go, Joe’s Shoe Store is definitely here to stay.
233 High St, Northcote, VIC

Espresso Martini
30 ml Vodka
30 ml Kahlua
A double shot of espresso coffee
A dash of Amaretto
Garnish with fresh coffee beans

The Grace Darling Hotel > Grace Darling was an English Victorian heroine on the strength of a celebrated maritime rescue in 1838. So the story goes, according to my Wiki research. No doubt a nautical period flavors the interiors, but not in a gaudy “look-at-me” way; the Grace Darling is all sophistication, with plush carpets and elegant, albeit piratical-themed, interiors. Curiously, the Melbourne art and design crowd eschew over-priced glam bars, preferring more local establishments that have mastered the balance between boutique and laid-back cool. “It’s a happy hybrid,” says bartender Kim Stills. “We can make high-end cocktails or serve you a quality beer.” Although the bar’s capacity sits at 100, its numerous open fireplaces and Chesterfield armchairs give visitors the sense that they’re wiling the time away in some rich relative’s lounge. The bar is the realized vision of not just one but five hospitality experts, each already successful in their own individual ventures. There’s no connecting the dots here — this bar was destined to be great since opening its doors in 2009, and is definitely one for the history books.
114 Smith St, Collingwood, VIC,

Von Haus > Why would you patronize a bar the size of a living room? Because it’s downright cool, and one of the city’s most revered small bars. The bar’s name is loosely connected to the painter Eugene von Guerard, who also lived on the establishment at one point. Housed in the 1859 heritage-significant Crossley Building, Von Haus oozes with Old-World charm characterized by warm colors, distressed walls and a European bar menu. The communal table that occupies much of the space, and its exposed kitchen, gives the place a cozy ambiance that’s reminiscent of intimate dinner parties. Predominantly a wine bar, there’s a careful selection of French farmhouse ciders, fortified wines and top shelf spirits on offer. Here’s a place that prides quality over quantity in every respect, and does not suffer hordes of drunken fools gladly.
1A Crossley St, Melbourne, VIC

Shady Pines Saloon > Tucked away on a small lane parallel to Sydney’s bustling Oxford Street is Shady Pines Saloon in Darlinghurst. The venue is a labor of love, blood and sweat from Anton Forte and Jason Scott, and is an exemplar of a newcomer “making it” instantly. The bar has achieved an uncanny nostalgia despite being only a few months old. Although the bar is famous for its rare whiskeys and an enviable boutique beer list, it’s the cocktails that leave an indelible impression. The bartenders are all trained in the art of mixing daiquiris, whiskey sours and martinis shaken, stirred and salted. The Western saloon theme and vibe is outlandish but not gaudy; kitsch, but not cliché. The decor and vibe is a humorous nod to America’s Wild West—a massive Bull’s head adorns the awning while there’s a long wooden bar counter with stools for resting your laurels.
256 Crown St, Darlinghurst, NSW,

The Commons > In the past Sydney’s politics and transient personality gave rise to a bar scene that was defined by beer barns and drinking halls. But as Nadia Saccardo of Sydney subculture guide Two Thousand ( says, “Recent changes to the licensing laws and shifts in local mentality have resulted in the creation of smaller, more experience-driven drinking environments.” Sitting in the context of this aspiration is the Commons, a civilized and dignified local eating and drinking house featuring sandstone walls and gardens. This converted terrace takes its design cues from its 160-year-old structure, modern and chic architectural features and all of the sustainability trimmings that are expected from a considered approach to the environment. The drinks menu is focused on quality rather than range, and is true to the philosophy “do fewer things, but do them better” without sanctimony or pretension.
32 Burton St, Darlinghurst, NSW,

Cloudland > Once in a while, in the obsolescing bar scene of Brisbane, comes something special. The elaborate and genre-breaking Cloudland is a mind-boggling urban oasis in Fortitude Valley. Designer Nic Brunner has created a visually stunning bar scene worthy of a film set; the futuristic Hanging Gardens of Babylon include over 5,000 climbing plants and a 10-meter waterfall. This feat of engineering might boasts four-levels of opulent interiors and a glass bar made from 19,000 glass balls, all topped by a retractable glass roof that opens with the touch of a button. If you’re not too light-headed, try the house cocktail that blends Belvedere Pomarancza, Campari and pink grapefruit juice, finished with nitrogen-charged rose petal foam.
641 Ann St, Fortitude Valley, QLD,

Helvetica > In the throngs of the city center is a small oasis of calm —a watering hole reprieve from the city’s frenetic pace. Occupying two levels and located in a laneway off of a laneway with no signage, Helvetica was conceived by three young bar connoisseurs with an obvious penchant for whiskey. Patrons may purchase bottles and have them shelved for storage, and staff will serve from these pre-selected bottles at no extra charge. Provided you haven’t already been overwhelmed by the whiskey selection, you can settle with a label-worthy malt while listening to a bar soundtrack predominantly playing pre-70s Rolling Stones, jazz and blues. Designed for intimate tête-à-têtes, Helvetica’s not exactly for every occasion, but it’s certainly for those wanting to emulate the good life a la Don Draper.
Rear 101 St Georges Terrace, Perth, WA,

– Lieu Thi Pham