First published on 17 Dec 2013. Updated on 7 Jan 2014.
When we read the declaration on the Roadhouse menu that they’re stocking the biggest whisky and whiskey collection in Australia, we call BS. We’re just outside of Byron Bay, after all, and we know for a fact that Whisky and Alement in Melbourne has a list 450 strong and that Sydney’s Baxter Inn is a twinkling boozatorium stacked to the roof with fire waters of the world. But then owner Dan Woolley steps out from the kitchen and we realise that we are wrong – and in a whole world of drinking trouble.
Wolley is a giant in the Australian whisky scene both physically (the guy is huge!), and professionally. He’s consulted on lists for over 100 bars around Australia and has ‘whisky’ tattooed across his knuckles for good measure. And here, two kilometres away from Byron Bay’s backpacker-packed centre on Bungalow Road, he's put all of that knowledge and his 500 plus bottle collection into one hell of a café-come-whisky bar.
Open all day, this joint starts early with breakfast and parties late. They have the best coffee in town and a menu that raises one fist in salute to American delicousness and the other to Byron Bay produce.
Things can really escalate here. It’s easy, for example, to start out gently with afternoon beers and saucy jerk wings on the deck, and wind up on the wrong side of the whole menu and midnight.
We spend six hours perched at the bar interspersing nips of single malts with plates of giant buttery king prawns cooked in the shell, chased by charred corn cobs in a shaggy jacket of spicy mayo and toasted coconut, and a tower of rosy lamb cutlets, freshened and tarted up by mint pesto and acidic cherry tomato bombs. A banoffee pie/dark chocolate tart hybrid is the stuff of stoner’s dreams, but the menu changes daily so we can’t guarantee you’ll get as lucky or sugar-drunk as us.
What we can guarantee is a good time. Open windows lined with stools look out to a deck shaded by umbrellas and palm trees by day and lit by hurricane lamps at night. Inside, two full walls are taken up with aged Scotches, rare Japanese single malts and stuff from Australia’s can-do distilleries like Bakery Hill and Starward in Melbourne. Motown mixes with rock’n’roll, while Biggie Smalls, the bar's giant Italian mastiff, weaves between legs like a gentle, gangly panther.
It’s a scene, and the crew – though variously dressed in trucker caps, buttoned shirts and singlets (this is Byron) – has the moves to bring it all home. A barrel-aged Manhattan tastes like the rye, sweet vermouth and bitters classic has been crossed with a Christmas mince pie. They also have a sharp handful of local wines and will make you a really refreshing shake-up of gin, lemon and cherry liqueur if you don’t do dark spirits.
Whisky flights aren’t on the menu, but they’re definitely possible – and smart. The collection is just so big that Woolley prefers to design them to suit your taste. We trek through the smoky peat bog marshes of Islay, and then commando roll through Kentucky’s golden bourbon-giving fields and into a 1995 Nikka Coffey Grain whisky that’s all toffee and spice.
Come early and stay all day. We’d stay forever if we could.
The Roadhouse Café, 6/142 Bangalow Rd, Byron Bay, NSW 2481. 0413 966 618.