In a Bar Down Under

We locate the very best of Oz's bars
By Chris Middleton
David Attenborough leans into the camera and in hushed tones confides "The more adventurous whisky drinker surfaces in the evening. They're nocturnal habits have them venturing into the city. Like at this Sydney habitué we are now watching. At the end of this alley, hidden in a disguised basement something is afoot. Drinkers are disappearing into what might only be called a whisky nest. If this were Melbourne or another Australian city these gathering places would be more public, instead of secretive places of assemblage. You may well ask, what is causing this behaviour we are now witnessing?"

The catalyst behind the explosion in specialist whisky bars has been State licensing laws permitting the emergence of small bars. First it happened in Melbourne, then Sydney and now it has spread across the country. Over the past five years, dozens of small bars specialising in whisky have opened their doors. Some are malt focused, others bourbon, even Japanese and Irish whiskey. What would fascinate Attenborough is not the instinctive pull of drinkers to an evening waterhole, but the sub-cultural nuances between cities and bar habitats. Most of these Sydney bars are in concealed locations, imitating the American speakeasy trend. Once inside these hole-in-the-wall bars they're boisterous places pumping with music, stocked with walls of whisky and inventive cocktails. Melbourne whisky bars tend to be more composed and relaxed, even elegant in comparison to Sydney. Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide are a composite of Sydney and Melbourne, but with their own provincial style.

Bars need followers, so driving this phenomenon has been a shift in whisky consciousness. Add a younger generation of bar staff who bring a high degree of knowledge about whisky, cocktails and some expounding zealous appreciation on everything from malts to bourbon, the whisky landscape has changed.

1 Baxter's Inn

Basement, 152 - 156 Clarence Street, Sydney CBD

Off a back street alley, past a warehouse dock you'll find a nondescript door guarded by waiting waste. There's no signage leading into this netherworld. You've either been here before or you're following a group who know this rat run. After descending through a small corridor you enter an Aladdin's cave of whisky. This speakeasy basement has the warm welcome of discovery, with a long saloon bar, private booths and small tables, filled with the sounds of delta blues. And it has the best range of whisky in Sydney. The long and high back bar is crowded with whisky, over 630. The past two and a half years Baxter's Inn has been Sydney's number one whisky destination, and deservingly so.

2 Shady Pines Saloon

Shop 4, 256 Crown Street, Darlinghurst, Sydney

The Skunk died. He once concealed in his carcass the mystery bottle of bourbon. In this whiskey honky tonk bar there's bison, lifeless vulture and moose head. You've entered another time and another place, a western twilight zone. You're here to raise a glass to American whiskey and beer. In this clandestine basement bar hidden in an East Sydney alley there's over 80 bourbons and ryes. In here you'll find crafties like Balcones, Corsair and Wasmund. There is a tattooed hipster under the Stetson singing at the bar 'If I don't get rye whiskey, I think I will die.' Is it Tex Ritter's ghost? Long live the Skunk.

3 Wild Rover

75 Campbell Street, Surry Hills, Sydney

Why hide Australia's only bar dedicated to Irish whiskey? An unmarked white door, not even a street number means only prior knowledge or watching people disappear from the footpath signals its existence as another Sydney hole-in-the street bar. Inside it's a homely whiskey parlour. A two-level old Victorian terrace has been converted into double level bar with over 40 Irish whiskeys, beer and more. Some of the Irish whiskeys are quite rare. It's relaxed, it's urbane and as the evening shadows darken the streets it quickly fills with patrons answering the question. It's trying not to be a lighthouse to all passers-by.

4 Tokonoma

490 Crown Street, Surry Hills, Sydney

Japan is synonymous with being understated, with subtle simplicity and elegant proportions. Tokonoma bar, with its collection of over 40 fine Japanese whiskies and minimalist interior personifies Japan in Sydney. Tokonoma has been Sydney's only bar dedicated to serving and encouraging Japanese whiskies for some years. There are rare releases to be found, from cask strength malt expressions to a handful of small independent distilleries hidden in the Japanese hinterlands. Being part of the Toko restaurant, there is a close affinity between the whisky and food. After all, Japanese whisky was designed to accompany and compliment their national gastronomy.

5 The Roadhouse

6/142 Bangalow Road, Byron Bay

This part of Australia is a little bit of heaven. Surf, sunshine, tropical rainforests, with an abundance of organic foods and now there's Dan Woolley's Roadhouse. For years Dan's been looking for a home to settle his collection of over 500 whiskies. Two years ago he went North with his cache. And what a world of whiskies he filled the shelves with. Hundreds of malts, 60 of these being Japanese, numerous American brands and labels from all corners of the planet. The Roadhouse is also a restaurant, so Dan collaborates on whisky and food pairings using the region's fresh, seasonal produce. Heaven, or is this the pearly gate bar outside?

6 Whisky & Alement

270 Russell Street, Melbourne CBD

Whisky & Alement is the radiant phoenix of the old Chez Regines. It reopened a year ago with over 500 whiskies, mostly malts. This is more than a whisky bar. It is Melbourne's gateway to learning about whisky. Over the years thousands of Melburnians have been enticed into the world of whisky through their school of whisky, and many more will be in the future. It's the only bar in Victoria to stock Scotch Malt Whisky Society. Visiting international whisky representatives and Australian craft distillers display their wares at the bar, and there's discoveries like American craft whiskies such as Balcones and Koval waiting.

7 Baranows Lounge

348 Burwood Road, Hawthorn

Melbourne confidently makes their whisky bars noticeable, like old clubs they are a third home, a place to fall into a comfy leather chair and slip into quiet conversation under high ceiling fans. No more so than Baranows Lounge. The name tells it all, with over 400 whiskies, malts being the main event. This six year establishment draws a broad church of Melburnian's whisky seekers. And it's one of the last cigar bars in Victoria. The focus is solely whisky, along with puffs of smoke in the specially ventilated indoor lounge. If its food you want, Baranows is BYOF (bring-your-own food) preferably from a local restaurant.

8 Eau de Vie (EDV)

1 Malthouse Lane, Melbourne CBD

There's always an exception to the rule. Eau de Vie is a clone of another Sydney whisky speakeasy of the same name by the bar impresario Sven Alemming. So it's Melbourne's only whisky speakeasy. The plain exterior camouflages a sumptuous interior, walled with whisky, which includes a spacious ice well table. Like its Sydney counterpart it was created to celebrate whisky with well over 400, 300 of them malts. Quite a number of these rare bottlings, sourced from overseas collections. With a fine dining restaurant as part of the venue, Eau de Vie conducts monthly degustation menus to matched whisky tastings.

9 Cobble

7 Browning Street, West End

Over the past two years Brisbane has mushroomed with half a dozen whisky bars. Queensland has long been a rum centric market. Now whisky has arrived with much fanfare and home-grown learning to issue a challenge. Cobbler leads the pack with 350 whiskies in a long saloon bar, including 30 Japanese. While it's a dedicated whisky bar one of the business partners owns a restaurant and each month food matching events are held with selected labels. The rest of the time it's BYOF, a twist on Bring Your Own (liquor). It's the only bar in Queensland to range whiskies from Scotch Malt Whisky Society of Australia.

10 Naked Whisky Bar

Morrison Hotel, 640 Stanley Street, Woolloongabba

Fiasco steakhouse at the Morrison Hotel is one of Brisbane's best steak restaurants. So it was only a natural step last year to convert the public bar into one of Brisbane's best whisky destinations. The quiet and comfortable Naked whisky bar is all about whisky seduction, with over 250 brands and growing. While good whisky is to be drunk unadorned, no one here will mind if adulteration is on your mind. Selected malts, bourbon, Irish and Australian whiskies are all exposed on the bar. Regular tastings and whisky dinners are held here making this a whisky oasis for an anorak, whisky club or someone taking their first uncertain steps.

11 Lefty's Old Time Music Hall

15 Caxton Road, Petrie Terrace

'Deadwood meets True Blood' is what the owners call this year old whiskey establishment. It's as much southern honky tonk finds New Orleans bordello in a western saloon all wrapped up in the sweet sounds of country music. The dude from Shady Pines and the local hombres have raised the calibre in this venue for Queenslanders.

This is where bourbon whiskey and food celebrate Southern Dixie, from the live country music, to the bar of 250 whiskies loaded with bourbon and ryes; all downed with burgers, corn dogs and popcorn shrimp. For the malt buckaroos, plenty of shots are at hand.

12 Nant Bar

2 Edward Street Brisbane CBD, Emporium, 10/1000 Ann Street, Fortitude Valley

This is a case of the vertical integration of a whisky business. Nant is one of the new, small craft Tasmanian whisky distilleries that have ventured into opening its own bars to retail their whisky on the mainland. Their two Brisbane premises are the first of the Nant bars outside the bucolic malt distillery's restaurant and cellar door situated in the highlands of old Van Diemen's Land. Nant has recently opened more bars in Hobart and Melbourne, Sydney and overseas outlets are soon to start trading. While its commercial imperative is to showcase Nant whisky, it also stocks around a hundred other malts for drinking.

13 Helvetica

101 St Georges Terrace, Perth City

Western Australia's mining boom has brought wealth and people into Perth. It's also bought whisky. Helvetica was the first of the small bars dedicated to the western whisky drinker when it started five years ago. They stock over 100 whiskies, mostly malts including a few Australian labels, such as the State's only malt whisky, Limeburners in Albany. The team is knowledgeable and the bar is intimate. They regularly offer whisky classes and tasting flights in the modern and relaxed venue. Helvetica is the West's liquid gold mine in the heart of the metropolis leading prospectors and financiers into the State's new whisky boom.

14 Hippo & Co

17 Carema Place Canberra City

Australia's capital has long been starved for a bona fide whisky bar. Last year Hippo was reborn as Canberra's first whisky bar. Stocked with over 220 whiskies, it has been designed to capture the ski lodge feel of the nearby Snowy Mountains, using recycled woods and exposed brick to give the feel of a rustic high country hut. Fittingly, it symbolises Canberra's indigenous Ngunnawal name, which means meeting place. As it is in Canberra, the bar is a magnet for Federal politicians, academics, scientists, business people and Canberra's whisky adventurers. Like so many Australian whisky bars, only cheese snacks are served along with whisky.

15 Wheatsheaf Hotel

39 George Street, Thebarton

South Australian whisky bars are quite different to the rest of the country. Rather than stocking a large back bar of whiskies, they rotate whiskies monthly so there's always a changing feast, always new discoveries and themes. So only expect to find about 40 whiskies each rotation. For the past 11 years, Wheatsheaf has been Adelaide's most famous and dedicated whisky bar. This is the destination for whisky enthusiasts. They hold eclectic tasting motifs, conduct scientific experiments on whiskies (like spectroscopy) and they have just opened their own craft brewery on site. They don't serve cocktails and they don't prepare meals either, only snacks (BYOF). This comes perilously close to serious fun.

16 Lark Distillery Whisky Bar and Café

14 Davey Street, Hobart

Tasmania, especially the city of Hobart, is the fountainhead of Australia's recent craft whisky revival. Bill Lark, one of the Tasmania's new distilling pioneers opened a whisky bar and cellar door beside Constitution Dock in the heart of Hobart. What better way to find, taste and buy his whisky. The bar also stocks around 200 whiskies, mostly malts, with the best selection of Tasmanian whiskies: Cradle Mountain, Sullivans Cove, Overeen, Belgrove, Hellyers Road, Lark (of course), plus local independent bottlings of Trappers and Heartwood whisky. British style ploughman's lunch and snacks keep the whisky company at this historical waterfront bar.