Ever since the first bedraggled group of British convicts and soldiers landed in Sydney harbor over 200 years ago, marking the start of European settlement, Australians have had a close relationship with alcohol. Rum was the first currency of the colony, traded by pirates to the confused and thirsty colonists for supplies. You can only imagine how the Aboriginal inhabitants of Australia reacted to these pink and desperate few, scratching in the earth like drunk, abandoned children. It was a scene that would unfold all up and down the east coast of this harsh, dry continent. But unlike Sydney, Melbourne was never a penal colony. Here our love of the hard stuff was fueled not by desperation, but celebration.
Melbourne sprung up quickly and neatly, built on the wealth of one the biggest gold rushes in human history. At one point we drank more champagne and Islay whisky than any other city on earth, and there were two separate companies engaged solely in the business of importing ice from Canada (by tall ship, packed in straw) to chill our Sherry Cobblers. People from all corners of the globe came here to seek their fortunes, making Melbourne, from its inception, the multicultural capital of Australia.
As the gold rush subsided, our drinking habits returned to their English roots. Pubs were, for the next hundred years or so, pretty much the only place you could get a drink. And to this day, the pub remains an integral part of our drinking culture, bolstered by a strong live music scene and, more recently, a massive craft beer movement.
During WWII and in the years after, another huge wave of immigration from Greece and Italy brought with it the newly invented espresso machine, and a Mediterranean passion for food and hospitality. Melbourne became a bastion of European food and drink culture, our streets and alleys lined with cafés, all licensed to serve alcohol, of course, because what’s food without wine? Melbourne is the only city in Australia where it’s legal for minors to drink in restaurants, so long as they’re having a meal with family.
Subsequent waves of immigration from all over the globe brought their own approaches to drinking. Among the 7,000 or so licensed venues in the city you can now find every conceivable kind of bar—from neighborhood pubs to molecular mixology bars to mega clubs to hostess bars (the Korean style joints where young ladies deliver a bottle, and possibly more, to your table).
When the cocktail revolution hit, we weren’t to be left behind. Serious cocktail bars started springing up about 15 years ago and quickly made it into the ranks of the best in the world. Bars like Der Raum (now closed), The Black Pearl and 1806 hold legendary status, while newer players like The Eveleigh and Bar Americano help to maintain our position as one of the best cocktail cities in the world.
In Melbourne, neon lights and long lines can very much lead you astray; the very best of what we have to offer is often hidden in the side streets, down dark alleys or on rooftops, so finding the best spots to drink requires a little advanced planning. But more than anything, what sets this city apart is a feeling of community in the best drinking spots. The bartenders, sommeliers, chefs, waiters, distillers, brewers and winemakers all know each other and pass knowledge and experience around like bottles of their preferred drink. And in a place where nearly everyone is from somewhere else, it’s nice to feel at home. —Fred Siggins