A martini waits to be sipped inside Melbourne’s Bar Margaux.

IN HIS 1953 NOVEL The Go-Between, L.P. Hartley wrote: “The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.” The quote has broad application, but it certainly doesn’t miss in describing the bar scene in Australia, which has evolved, almost beyond recognition, in the last decade.

Where once local bartenders might have slavishly imitated what their cousins in the northern hemisphere were doing, nowadays they’re looking inward for inspiration, cultivating a distinct, grown-up drinking culture that’s worlds away from the beer and big Barossa reds that dominated the drinking landscape here for so long.

We’ve seen gin emerge from grandma’s pantry to become a showcase spirit, as local producers, armed with an endless list of endemic botanicals to tinker with, receive deserved global acclaim.

Similarly, Italy’s original palette prepper, the Negroni, and the much lauded spritz, have spurred an antipodean lust for bittersweet Mediterranean flavours. Smart revisions of these classics with Australian elements are everywhere. They aren’t performatively patriotic, either; they’re deft and delicious.

Wine bars with diverse natural offerings and Old World wonders are coaxing crowds in and keeping them, with considered small plates and dedicated snacks. Welcoming and free of pretence, for many, these establishments are replacing the local pub.

At the same time, an exploding cocktail scene and demand for quality spirits is sparking bar-top tête-à-têtes on preferred ingredients. Our latent discovery of the martini, meanwhile, is keeping bartenders across the land on their toes.

Of course, not all bars are created equal. Here, we profile some of the nation’s best, digging into the grind and highlighting the brilliance that make them watering holes worth your time.

New South Wales

Cantina OK! Sydney

Photography: Nikki To
Ryan Bickley & Storm Evans at Cantina OK! Photography: Nikki To

Tucked down a back alley in Sydney’s CBD, the first thing you’ll notice about this hole-in-the-wall bar is the friendliness of the crew. The last time we called in, we were greeted with beaming smiles and had barely sat down before we were poured a glass of water and given a run down of the menu.

A self-proclaimed ‘micro mezcal mecca’, patrons are given the chance to taste and discuss rare Mexican spirits, including some that co-owner, Jeremy Blackmore, confirms are “literally brought back from Mexico in our suitcases through customs”.

Expect fun-sized sips that vary from floral to smoky, complemented by seasonal fruit, such as slices of dekopon mandarin with spice salt. The classics are covered, alongside some stunning signature cocktails. Sip and savour while the dexterous bartenders fix your next drink.

The team behind Cantina OK! go to great lengths to ensure they get their hands not only on rare mezcals, but prized samples with purity of flavour. To maintain a unique and direct supply line, they’ll regularly visit Mexico to source the very best, hunt down dusty caches of old spirit, or go foraging for magic mushrooms up a mountain as a way of befriending an artisanal distiller. With this level of dedication, it’s no wonder that Cantina Ok! has made The World’s 50 Best Bars list the last four years running.

Bar Heather, Byron Bay

Photography: Jess Kearney

Looking like a Parisian bistro with a smidge of Basque tapas bar flair, this Byron Bay hideaway reveals itself behind a thick velvet curtain and is a great place to kick back with salty hair and sun- kissed skin after a day on the beach.

Owners and veterans of the wine import industry, James Audas and Tom Sheer, describe the venue as “Intimate, inviting, transportive” and we don’t disagree. An ever-rotating wine list highlights artisan Australian winemakers, together with exceptional European drops and hard-to-find labels. Be sure to try the icy half martini of local gin—easy-going for newbies and satisfying for the seasoned drinker alike.

Delicious bites from the creative mind of chef, Ollie Wong-Hee, showcase a stunning array of local produce, creating an uber wine-friendly, snack-centric menu.


Mary Mary, Hobart

Photography: Dearna Bond

Tasmania is one of the wilder corners of our country and the pristine environment and passion of the people in the Apple Isle form the building blocks of some incredibly impressive alcoholic beverages.

Showing them off is the modus operandi of this sultry Hobart hangout. Renowned distilleries and artisanal producers are peppered across an eye-popping cocktail list that reimagines global classics. Take the Apiarist’s Manhattan: beeswax, house rum blend and port wine. Boiled down, it’s the classic Manhattan’s pithy Tasman cousin and is but one part of a drinking odyssey bar manager, Ronán Kavanagh, and his team are keen to take you on.

Housed between the original sandstone walls of St Mary’s Hospital, which dates back to 1841, this truly immersive drinking experience is a must on your next trip down south.


Bar Rochford, Canberra

Photography: Pew Pew Studio.

Located in Canberra’s iconic Melbourne Building, owner Nick Smith describes the vibe here as “more Stones than Beatles” and with edgy white décor, accents of regal green and swollen shelves of eclectic vinyl records, we’re inclined to agree. From the moment you walk in, it’s clear this is a place oozing casual sex appeal.

It’s not short on substance, either. With a dedicated focus on wine, novices right through to seasoned quaffers are catered for in a list that takes in obscure varietals and organic and biodynamic producers, without ignoring the classics. With wines by the glass rotated daily, Smith’s promise is that no two visits will be the same—and trust us, they’re not.

New World gin is given room to shine on a martini list that would make Ian Fleming blush. It’s shrewdly categorised into ‘heavily brined’, ‘salty’, ‘bone dry’ and ‘wet’, along with a handful of their personal takes. Fun is to be had in sipping and sampling your way to the perfect aperitif.


Big Esso, Melbourne

Photography: courtesy of Big Esso

With a landmass as large as Australia’s (nearly 7.7 million square km), it’s little wonder we’re considered a powerhouse for rare foodstuffs. Nornie Bero is the chef and owner of this Federation Square bar-cum- diner. A proud Torres Strait Islander, the venue is Bero’s open love letter to Indigenous flavours. “Native ingredients are front and centre, from beers to cocktails, we make sure you can taste the most unique flavours of Australia,” she says.

This is a bar where you can enjoy a hangover-quashing bloody mary with pepperberry and pickled Karkalla (coastal succulent), or an appetite-inducing green ant martini—yes, you read that correctly. You won’t find a more fun, or comprehensive, tribute to this vast sunburnt country in a bar.

Nornie Bero hails from Mer Island in the Torres Strait and grew up learning to hunt, fish, and cook. These experiences have given her a life long appreciation for food and produce. She cut her teeth in kitchens around Melbourne in the late ’90s before realising that Indigenous cuisine was scarce. Determined to raise its profile while offering “colourful, fun, island vibes”, Bero sees food and drinks as a way to communicate the diversity of the land we share, while having frank conversations about national identity.

Related: The best outdoor dining options in Melbourne

Bar Margaux, Melbourne

Photography: Gareth Sobey

This basement bar entices you to venture down with its well-crafted drinks and insists you stick around with its retro French décor. Think white-tiled walls, dark wood and plenty of nooks to help you escape the hurly-burly of the outside world.

Whether you wander in for an early evening tipple or spill through the door for a boisterous nightcap, the elegant bar space and polished service run like a Swiss timepiece, with bartenders perpetually poised to shake, stir and pour to your every whim. Lovers of liquid masterworks will rejoice in a list that includes standouts such as French 75, Aviation No. 1, and Black Velvet, with the helpful categories of ‘Light’, ‘Fresh’, ‘Stiff’, and ‘Late’.

And, of course, what’s a brooding gallic watering hole without some world-renowned French wines available by the glass? Matching delicious drops with lip- smacking dishes—like a Malbec Sémillon Bordeaux blend with a wagyu burger, or a small producer Champagne with oysters—is the icing on a very delectable cake.

South Australia

Shotgun Willies, Adelaide

Photography: Dylan Minchenberg

As far as rustic, rambunctious dive bars go, Adelaide is probably the last place you’d expect to find a venue of this pedigree. But if you’re open to honky-tonk chaos, and don’t mind slinging back American beers with bourbon chasers, then Shotgun Willies is the place to let your hair down.

It’s a Nashville-inspired live music venue but feels intimate once the regular local country and folk acts get the evenings started. Still, there’s a distinct saloon bar feel here and the place doesn’t take itself too seriously—see the Willie Nelson shrine behind the bar.

Grab a shot of the watermelon whiskey and come pay your respects. Whether you’ve come to stomp your feet or fling some darts, there’s something for everyone; a satisfying Americana menu, served till midnight, is a stirring exclamation point.

Western Australia

Foxtrot Unicorn, Perth

Photography: courtesy of Foxtrot Unicorn

Take one 19th century underground bank vault, mix in Perth’s most talented bartenders, garnish with a sprinkle of Western Australian nostalgia and you’re staring at the blueprint of Foxtrot Unicorn.

It might be located in one of the world’s most remote cities, but the team here is focused on stocking the best booze from all over the world. After all, what’s a few thousand kilometres between friends?

Perhaps the most striking part of this set-up is the obvious love and dedication at work behind the scenes and the professionalism up front. Those involved are hospitality lifers, and from the moment you step inside, it shows.

An effort is made to cater to all tastes, with low alcohol options well represented. Their most popular drink, however, is the stirred-down honeycomb old fashioned, combining Scotch whisky, wattleseed, chocolate bitters, agave nectar and finished with a big, crunchy hunk of honeycomb. A solid addition to the ‘West is best’ movement.


The Scottish Prince, Gold Coast

Photography: Courtesy of The Scottish Prince

Gin may be enjoying a prolonged moment, but whiskey, too, is in the limelight right now. And behind an unassuming, dark wooden door on the southern end of the Gold Coast, the Scottish Prince puts the classic spirit on a pedestal.

There are over 300 listed varieties from around the globe, with lesser-known producers from countries such as New Zealand and France making an appearance, too. But it’s the extensive collection of hard-to-find Scottish whiskies, prudently separated by region, which truly impresses.

Things are usually warm in southeast Queensland, but what’s obvious when you first walk into this bar is the effort made to make you feel like you’ve just walked into a Scottish village pub: the air is cool and crisp, candlelight flickers over dark wooden booths and natural trinkets dot the wall between oil paintings.

The attention to detail is impeccable. You’ll find it a hard place to leave, particularly once you marry this delightful setting with a seasonal cocktail and tunes from a local blues band.

The name for this Sunshine State whiskey trove wasn’t just pulled out of thin air, and neither was the bar’s maritime theme. The original Scottish Prince was a transport ship carrying people and goods from Glasgow to Brisbane in 1887, when it ran aground on South Stradbroke Island on the northern end of the Gold Coast. Luckily all passengers survived, but as the legend goes, a large assignment of whisky on board was never recovered, and it’s strongly believed quick- witted locals were the culprits. Today, it’s a popular dive site, protected by the Commonwealth Historic Shipwrecks Act.

Alba Bar & Deli, Brisbane

Photography: courtesy of Alba Bar and Deli.

Fusing New York swagger with Basque Country finesse is an unconventional ask, but the team at this Brisbane CBD drinking den pull it off very well.

The layout is simple, and the concept even plainer: come for the first-rate drinks and stay for the appealing plates. What’s commendable about Alba is the way they’re willing to go against the grain a little, filling the drinks’ list with offbeat European flavours like a house sgroppino (a Venetian sorbet and vodka situation) and various sherries. Most people don’t realise the latter can be easily matched to many dishes and, should you let them, the staff here are only too keen to show you how.

A Spanish-leaning wine list complements some seriously good pintxos and, with unfussy small plates like handmade ravioli and steak tartare, forms a cracking little countertop taste of Europe.


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