First of all, a few words of warning. For a city and country whose preferred spirit is whisky, Australia is strangely not awash with thousands of rare and small whisky labels. Even Australian malts from the southern States are still hard to find in Sydney. Australians are pragmatic people and want value. Moreover, they want a bargain. Insanely priced imported whiskies don’t get much of a look in other than as objects of more money than sense. So the whiskies tend to skew heavily towards popular and mainstream brands. For whisky dogs seeking unusual, interesting and idiosyncratic whiskies from indie distilleries and limited edition expressions from the large distilling companies in America, Scotland, Japan and elsewhere, there are plenty to choose from.
Some of these bars are manned by pretty adventurous whisky hunters too. They live for whisky. They don’t preach. They just want to share their discoveries with you. These Indiana Joneses of whisky make special safaris to into the interior of America and the wilderness of Scotland to bring back a few rare beauties.
When they hear a friend is off to San Francisco they badger them to pick Old Potrero rye; in when Texas ‘get me Garrison’s bourbon’, or skiing in Colorado ‘drop by Stranahan’s will ya’. There is a good selection of American whiskies down here as Bourbon is Australia’s favourite whisky. In fact we drink twice the per capita of bourbon than Americans. When it comes to great whisky, geography is not the main criteria, flavour is. Sydney is also a cocktail city so saporous whisky is an essential ingredient.
Another issue needing to be flagged is that Sydney whisky bars can be a bit eclectic. Not your leather chair retreats with world globes by wood panelled walls. Here they range from Asian inspired stripped-down simplicity to a honky-tonk saloon, or an American speakeasy to modern international Bauhaus and even gestures of an Ottoman pavilion. Yet every bar is quintessentially Australian in attitude. That means everyone is naturally friendly, no pretensions and the bar staff harbour a wealth of information about whisky. If the bar is not too crowded they delight in trawling the back shelf to help you discover a gem and articulate its qualities. And it doesn’t have to be expensive either, just worthy of some redeeming characteristics. Armed with this review as a guide you will be able to find some whisky gems in the Emerald city.Eau de Vie
229 Darlinghurst Road, Darlinghurst
This is not a street front bar, so even GPS tracking won’t navigate the virgin visitor into this venue. It’s Sydney’s version of a Manhattan style speakeasy. Hidden from all but the knowing or informed. The bar is located behind the lobby of a small boutique hotel. After you pass through the small lobby of the Kirketon hotel you egress the lobby and a short passage to arrive at the bar. Here you will be rewarded with Sydney’s largest range of whiskies, including a great range of ryes and bourbons, and more than 120 malts. Alongside the bar is an intimate whisky room lined with cabinet boxes containing rare and expensive malts and deluxe blends. It’s also the only bar with a few Australian malt whiskies too. Surprisingly, Luke Redington says most of the drinks served here are cocktails. It’s a younger crowd. Cosmopolitan and experimental. Even so I find it a conundrum that the bar with the best range of whiskies in town happens to be cocktail central. Maybe I’m thinking like a whisky Taliban in the speakeasy world. After all it was American Prohibition and these kinds of blind pig joints where cocktails were needed to make bootleg liquor more palatable. Then, I can think of nothing better than a Manhattan with Sazerac rye.Hemmesphere
Level 4, 252 George Street in the Establishment
The design of this table service lounge bar could be described as Orientialism meets Sydney’s laid back beach culture. This is a sensuous place for conversation and spacious civility. Generous couches welcome guests before the conviviality of the evening absorbs them. Sebastien Derbomez enthuses “Everyone who comes in here is treated like family”. The service is attentive, warm and friendly. It’s the genuineness typified in all the Sydney whisky bars in this review, just more reserved here. In a country where smoking is barely permissible, even in public spaces, Hemmesphere has one of Sydney’s few cigar bars where the stogie lover can puff away while cradling an old smoky Islay whisky on an open air terrace beside the bar. Cocktails are estimated to be 70 per cent of the drink orders; that Sydney whisky paradox again. Sebastien serves his award winning cocktail, the Big Easy. As with many Sydney cocktails it is a sensory and visual event, a tableaux of three elements are presented on a small tray “First you take a sip of Australian sparkling white wine to prepare the palate, now nibble on fresh apricots in a saffron syrup, and the pièce de résistance, a glass of Bowmore’s mixed with Aperol in a glass rinsed with Absinthe”.Rocklily
Level 1, 80 Pyrmont Street,
Pyrmont in Star City Casino
Rocklily just opened in April and its reputation is staked on tequila and whisky, as well as being a premier live rock music venue. It is situated in Sydney’s gambling Mecca, Star City Casino. Found inside the surreal and luminous heart of the sprawling casino floor is the Rocklily lounge, surrounded by blackjack and crap tables, slots machines, roulette and restaurants. Dan Woolley has collected Australia’s largest tequila range, supported with 70 odd whiskies. Dan is a man with a mission. Stored in his home are 400 whiskies waiting his next venture, Australia’s largest dedicated whisky bar, Arcane. He has some 80 American whiskies, 40 Japanese and the largest range of single malts in the country. He is securing premises in Darlinghurst and plans to be open by November.Rockpool Bar & Grill
66 Hunter Street Sydney
This is one of the most beautiful dining venues in Australia. Situated in an early 1930s Sydney skyscraper it oozes the grandeur of a once a prosperous City
Mutual Assurance Society. A green marble atrium of cathedral proportions rises
in the art deco style designed by a Gotham inspired Australian architect. Instead of
the worship of Mammon it now serves the finest meals, a carnivore’s cavern of Wagyu burgers, aged beef and more. In the ‘chancel’, leading off restaurant’s main nave is the elegant Rockpool bar. It’s a relaxed space where more than 60 world whiskies have been selected to compliment to fine dining and the modern corporate juggernauts seeking a friendly waterhole. The whisky menu has been well constructed to represent all the key whisky regions, from Springbank in Campbelltown to Irish Red Breast, Canada to Japan, American ryes and Australian whisky. The Rockpool bar is in the heart of
the financial district and legal fraternity so it tends to attract more of the professionals by day and by night Sydneysiders who appreciate fine dining and a ‘nobbler’ or two of whisky.Shady Pines Saloon
Shop 4, 256 Crown Street, Darlinghurst
Just off Oxford Street, this is a true hole-in-the–wall joint. There is no sign outside screaming saloon. When you do set foot through the non-descript doorway you descend into a country & western habitat. What Jeremy Blackmore, the barman describes as “Texas 1920, made up crumbs, bits and pieces from around the place”. Like the walls, which are populated with animal taxidermy. You can even order a Hoof or Skunk, barrel proof bourbon served from a cattle hoof and skunk cadaver.
Shady Pines, as you might expect, has a good range of American whisky. Including micro distillers labels and hard to find Kentucky bourbons like Ancient Age and Eagle Rare. There are no crumbs when it comes to whisky here. “We stock what we like, anything we can get our hands on.” Ironically,
the younger crew that drink here – biker to bankers – drink more malts than bourbon. Go figure, Sydney seems to be full of contradictions. When it comes to cocktails it’s the classics; Old fashions, julieps and sours that reign here with 35 beers mixed in the herd. With Talisker or Buffalo Trace in hand, joined by the live sound of slide guitar and country music it’s just become honky tonk heaven.Tokonoma
490 Crown Street, Surry Hills
Japanese influenced minimalist and restrained. There’s an easy mood here, what Benito Drovandi describes as an ‘adult’s playground’. Here you will find the best list of Japanese whiskies in town. More than 30 Suntory, Nikka, Chichibu and others, plus 50 odd Scotches, Irish and American. As the bar is part of the Toko restaurant the cocktail list is adventurous drenched in Asian-Oz ingredients. “We infuse our own house tonics made from shochu with various herbs, fruits, vegetables and spice; and yebisin beer ice cream, flipped in Yamazaki with palm sugar shaken hard with fresh espresso and pamper anniversio rum”. The clientele is a diverse Sydney crowd whose gender neutral composition expects interesting cocktails, no doubt fuelled by their inventive house concoctions. The large contingent of Japanese whisky brands is recruiting a loyal and regular cadre of local followers. A sign that Japanese whisky is slowly on the rise.Zeta Bar
Level 4, 488 George Street, in the Hilton Hotel
Their PR calls this the ‘sexiest bar in Sydney’. Glamorous is a more fitting term as the bar is an elegant and sophisticated venue in the centre of Sydney. Spacious and inviting it has a beautiful open rooftop terrace that takes advantage of balmy Sydney weather, overlooking the magnificent 19th century sandstone Queen Victoria Building. Inside comfy lounges and a large fire offers a warmth of intimacy. Surprisingly, not many hotel guests venture into what could be a New York Soho-style locale. But the accents and skyline anchor Zeta squarely in sunny Sydney. The bar has more than 60 whiskies and cocktails are popular here. ‘Grilling fruits’, foams, jellies and airs, to deconstructed cocktails served on plates the Zeta offers inventive, even daring new formats of new organoleptic discovery. If you are more the purist, then an excellent range of whisky awaits you, for unadulterated consumption.