Whisky – it’s not all about peat bog drams from the Scottish isles. Melbourne has more American, Japanese and even locally made whiskies than ever before. Here’s where to find the best and how to drink them
They salute the USA with both fists, a boatload of bourbon and Buffalo hot wings at the Kodiak Club. This was one of Melbourne’s first odes to the great American dive bar, and it’s still one of the best. They take bourbon and rye whiskies pretty seriously here. Take it straight up with an American beer chaser like a proper honky, or get ‘em to mix you a cocktail – American whiskies were the first used for cocktails, and they often work the best.
Best for: North American whiskey drinkin’
Ask for: Nathan Taylor
Drink this: William Larue Weller 2011 – part of the antique collection from the Buffalo Trace distillery in Kentucky. It’s named after William Larue Weller – the first distiller to replace rye with wheat in the mash bill, to produce a softer whiskey. Like a lot of American whiskies, it’s younger, sweeter and has a lot more candy charm than your Scottish wares.
How to drink it: Neat, fool.
Best whisky for beginners: Their go-to is the Woodford Reserve, which is triple-distilled giving the bourbon a smoother taste.
Freakiest gear on the back bar: That would be the Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection 19-year-old 1991. It’s been aged in a new warehouse called Warehouse X, where Buffalo Trace carries out experiments. It’s here they do controversial things like reuse barrels (something which voids the ‘bourbon’ definition, by US liquor laws), and go crazy on barrel charring.
272 Brunswick St, Fitzroy. Mon 6pm-late; Wed-Sat 5pm-late; Sun 6pm-late.
The folks at this slip of a bar on Russell Street know whisky. They've got almost 500 bottles of the stuff glittering on the back bar, along with a miniature wooden cask which delivers extreme eye-watering flavours. Know nothing? They’ll teach you. Want to know what’s going on with locally made hooch? Chances are that the guys from Bakery Hill and Starward Whisky (a distillery in Essendon) are sitting at the bar right now. If you’re after an educated talkin’ to, all matched to smoky beers and snacks like pickled garlic, this is your bar.
Best for: Multicultural adventuring and getting learned.
Ask for: Brooke Hayman
Drink this: White Oak Akashi 15 years. Until recently, the White Oak distillery (one of the oldest in Japan, licensed in 1919) produced run-of-the-mill whiskies, but a few years ago, they got experimental, laid stock in brandy casks for 12 years, and rendered it amazing. They bottled a portion of this as Akashi 12 years, which is worth a nudge, but upped the stakes and put the rest in konara casks (Japanese oak) for another couple of years to create the Akashi 15 – it’s practically black, with a whole lot of tannin.
How to drink it: Neat or with ice or water – it’s up to you. But go slowly, OK? According to Hayman, the biggest whisky party foul is hasty drinking – give it time to open up.
Best whisky for beginners:They recommend a triple nip panel for newbies here so you can find what you like. Hayman generally recommends things from Japan (plenty have been made to be easy going so as not to freak out sake fans), and alternative Scottish stuff like a Ledaig 10-year-old that’s only partly-peated. It tastes more like cured ham than chewing charcoal.
Freakiest gear on the back bar: That’s a hard call at this joint, but they reckon the Edradour natural cask strength Cask No. 295 takes the weird biscuit. It’s Scottish, but after a tasting (which they do every Monday) they dubbed it the Asian Hot Pot. Sold.
270 Russell St, Melbourne. Tue-Thu 4pm-1am; Fri 4pm-3am; Sat 7pm-1am.
Chances are you won’t know about this tiny terrace-turned-bar unless you live in Carlton, but you should. Leigh Oliver and Tom Daniels are two of the friendliest gents in the land, serving some of the best eats on Rathdowne Street all backed by a collection of bottles from distilleries long closed down.
Best for: Endangered Scottish whiskies
Ask for: Leigh Oliver
Drink this: The 987 Adelphi Selection form Bunnahahbain, is a 25-year-old whisky, hand picked for bottling by whisky writer Charles Maclean and Alex Bruce – an actual, real-life descendant of Scottish lord, Robert the Bruce. We shit you not. There’s only 238 bottles in existence and Oliver reckons it tastes like toffee, figs and Christmas mince tarts.
How to drink it: Go straight at it, lassie.
Best whisky for newbies: Scapa 2001, Gordon & Macphail distillery bottling. From the Orkney Island, off the far north scottish coast. Light and sweet, nice summer fruit palate.
Freakiest gear on the back bar: Here the prize goes to the Octomore edition 4.2. From the Bruichladdich Distillery, it’s one of the most heavily peated whiskies in the world, it’s got three to four times the amount of peaty bog stank to it than most other Islay malts. It’s also been finished in a sauterne barrel, which adds quite a lot of sweetness to the malt.
164 Rathdowne St, Carlton. Tue-Wed 5-11pm; Thu-Sat 5pm-1am; Sun 5-11pm.
This elegant Japanese cocktail bar, where the hand towels are served steaming hot and the hand rolls are stuffed with lobster, also stocks some of the more interesting whiskies currently coming out of Japan. Like Australian whiskies these are the young guns in the game – both are often a little mellower, which makes them a really good place to start for non whisky buffs, but they’re also unbound by traditions, which means you can find some really weird and wild stuff. Come early to get one of the few seats at the thick wooden bar, or switch your kicks for slippers and climb on the platforms up back.
Best for: Turning Japanese
Ask for: Tom Sheed
Drink this: The 1984 Malt of Kagoshima. It’s a single malt, aged in a sherry cask from Kagoshima in Kyushu Island. The distillery was closed in 1985 and they only produced 3018 bottles, so this is from the final vintage. It’s all spiced pear and smoke, with a bit of a salty and sweet and floral kicker and great long finish. It’s as close as a Japanese whisky gets to a Scottish Islay whisky.
How to order it: Neat. Like a Yajuza boss. (But they’ll cut you an ice block to order if you want.)
Best whisky for beginners: Ask for the chilled Kagoshima whisky with soda water and lemon twist. It’s like malt Champagne.
Freakiest gear on the back bar: Go for the Mars Shinshu Komagatake, 1989. Named after a nearby mountain, it was distilled in 1989 in American white oak and bottled in 2012. It needs some cool water to tame it and you’ll want to sit on it for a while, but if you give it some space, it’ll give you back vanilla, citrus, spice and oak characters.
Lvl 1, 1 Flinders Ln, Melbourne. Mon-Sat 5pm-1am.
This jazzy back-alley speakeasy has a giant, twinkling whisky library out the back and right now, its own whisky. Last year, bar manager Greg Sanderson created a special blend with Bakery Hill especially for their Bobby Burns cocktail. Like to do a little peacocking? Buy a bottle of something off the back bar and you can store it in your own hooch locker. They also do a whisky cocktail matched degustation if you want to go buck wild.
Best for: Cocktails
Ask for: Greg Sanderson
Drink this: They have weird stuff aplenty here, but they’re also big fans of classics and will probably steer you to a Lagavulin 16-year-old. It’s a rich, smoky, complex and meaty beast with a long history of distillation dating back to the 1740s. It’s one of the highest rated 16 whiskies ever and comes from the south east coast of Islay – an island off the coast of Scotland famous for having some of the most intensely peat-boggy whiskies going.
How to drink it: They serve most of their whisky with hunks of ice and water on the side so you can sip and then choose if you want to dilute. That’s not a soft move, incidentally. They serve a lot of cask-strength whisky, which is all fumes and burn, so the water enables you to get more flavour.
Best whisky for beginners: The Dalwhinnie 15-year-old – an easy-drinking filly with only a touch of smoke, and vanilla. It’s the gateway drug of single malts.
Freakiest gear on the back bar: Balcone’s Brimstone – a Texas scrub oak smoked blue corn whisky. Tastes like corn on fire. Yeehaa!
1 Malthouse Ln, Melbourne. Mon-Sat 5pm-1am.