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Sinning in Sydney

After more hours than I want to count neatly folded into the capsules that comprise coach service on most major American air carriers; after finishing two Jim Butcher “Dresden Files” novels; after Justice League: Doom and Nameless Gangster; after all that, I stepped into Sydney, Australia with only a single thought in my mind: I needed a drink. Or two. Luckily, Sydney is a drinker’s paradise, overflowing with dens of indulgence that run the gamut from historic pubs to modern cocktail bars with an eye focused on the American speakeasy. With an absurdly mild definition of winter greeting me, I knew I was in for a proper drinking adventure. While almost everything in Australia costs twice as much as it does in New York, the odd exception is the alcohol (purchased in bars that is). Australia’s best drams of whiskey are poured for you at more or less the same price you would pay in a whiskey bar in the United States. Cocktails are comparable in price (but not always quality) to what you’d pay at any one of the many speakeasy-revival style bars in the States. And beer prices hover at about the same level as you’d pay for a pint of quality American micro-brew. So with those amazingly indestructible and colorful Australian dollars in hand, and after a brief stop at the hotel to freshen myself a bit, I was off.

A Few Thoughts on Sydney’s Drinking Culture

Australia is not a country that lacks for a proper hard-drinking reputation, and from what I witnessed on the ground, it is well-earned. I admire any city that seems to have more public houses than fast food restaurants. The majority are no-nonsense after-work watering holes, functional in decor and marred by unsightly signs encouraging you to enter their VIP room — though despite the typography and name, this has nothing to do with exotic dancers in some state of undress. Equally unwelcome, unless I suppose you are doing the financials, is the intrusion of the brightly lit peacock display of electronic gambling machines lining walls and back rooms. Easy enough to ignore in a room carried away by convivial spirit and good cheer, but a searing eyesore in times of quieter or more contemplative indulgence. Beyond these bridge-and-tunnel crowd bars (or whatever the Sydney equivalent may be — bridge and water ferry, perhaps?) however, one can find a suitable stool upon which to perch and while away a bit of time with your neighbors and bartenders.

Speaking of whiling away some time, it took a spell before I deciphered the proper behavior for a patron at a typical Australian pub. Less complex than deciphering the jaywalking culture of a new city, I never the less sat idly and at times frustrated wondering when the bartender was going to roust from his or her position at the far end of the bar and ask if I wanted anything, until such time as I learned through keen observational skill that the prevalence of “can I help you” service industry attentiveness we take for granted in the United States is largely unpracticed in Sydney. It is upon the shoulders of the drinker (and often the diner) to catch the eye of a bartender using tactics I would shudder to even consider at home. Rather than reacting with irritation however, the bartender would inevitably respond to my boisterous summonings with a smile and amiable word, meaning that their lack of attention was born not of boredom or disdain but is simply how things are done. This is not true of all types of establishments, and it seems the more a bar draws influence from American establishments — Baxter Inn and Shady Pines Saloon for example — the more likely it is bartenders will approach you with the proactive attentiveness one is accustomed to in the US. This is perhaps a difference in culture, and perhaps also a difference in whether the server works in a country where their wage depends substantially on tips.

Beyond that, drinking in Sydney is much as it is here. As a foreigner, bartenders and patrons both were prone to striking up friendly conversation with me, and I was happy for the chance to ramble on, especially when it came to the topics of beer, long-distance travel, and my plans for touring their country. Overall, it is like Australia as a whole: a bit like drinking in an American bar and a bit like drinking in a London pub. The fact that each bar seems to contract with a specific brewery (or have their own) means that the variety and quality of beer is exceptional, as we shall now see.

A Quick Note

Before we wander further into the fields of fermented and/or distilled barley: as an assessor of whiskey, I have if not a master’s palette, then at least an accomplished palette. When it comes to beer, however, my tastes are substantially less trained. While I pride myself on the diversity of my taste in beer, I do no pretend to be a master taster. As it goes with film, so it goes with beer. I have had strange ones, puzzling ones, predictable ones, delightful ones, but only on the rarest of occasions have I pronounced something awful. So while we shall dig into both beer and whiskey on this tippling jaunt, keep in mind that as a guide, I am enthusiastic but also very easily pleased.

I have also learned a valuable lesson abut the need to think a little bit ahead when it comes to photographic documentation meant to accompany an eventual article. I recall taking photos of establishments, heady pints, and rows of inviting taps, but apparently most of that journalistically responsible activity took place entirely in my own head — which would explain why my beer was constantly being poured by Kylie Minogue and Virginia Hey. Alas, lessons learned for the future do us precious little good in the past and present, and so I am afraid this article contains a horribly paltry offering of inviting graphical accompaniment.

Also keep in mind that Sydney is a huge city with a lot of places at which one can indulge in hops and barley, and I am but one man who had to split his time between drinking, museum visits, hiking, and standing on the beach like I’m contemplating paddling out to catch a wave on Manly Beach despite the fact that I have no surf board and am wearing a three-piece suit. This article is a survey of where I went; as a definitive guide to places you should visit, it is woeful and lacking by a hundred locations. Also, if I assert something here as fact that a more experienced drinker or Australian knows to be false, by all means use the comments section to correct my missteps. It was my first time in Australia, after all, and I was pretty tipsy. I went about my drinking with a theme: historic and/or haunted pubs, which is always a must-do for me; and recommended whiskey bars. There are several establishments on my short list that time, money, and jet lag prevented me from visiting. No Mojo Records. No Eau de Vie or Victoria Room or Low 302. No whatever that bar’s name was on Crown Street that had all the whiskey and Voltron figures in the window. For a much more knowledgeable and better researched foray into the world of Australian beer and bars, I highly recommend The Crafty Pint. Travel on a budget and with a deadline is always tinged with missed excursions and regrets. We file these away for return visits because it is all we can do. Let us then file them and move on to the places I actually did get to.

Lord Nelson Brewery Hotel

Originally built as a private residence in 1836, owner William Wells decided in 1842 to acquire himself a liquor license and transform the location into a hotel and public house (the two very often going hand in hand in Sydney). It’s been open ever since, and the current owners have restored the pub to something resembling its original state (it had in the past undergone a number of redecorations and renovations betraying dubious taste). There’s also a micro-brewery in the pub, infusing the air with the scent of malt, hops, and yeast while also providing the pub with a line of fantastic house brews.

The Lord Nelson Brewery Hotel sits in the shadow of Observatory Hill, atop which is perched an observatory that looks exactly like you’ve always wanted an observatory to look, provided that you are like me and formed most of your aesthetic preferences based on the 1800s and prefer your scientific buildings to be brick, brass, and green-stained copper. The sort of place one might expect to enter and overhear Ogilvy the astronomer proclaiming that the chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to one. In fact, it was an impending evening visit to the Observatory to gaze upon Saturn, the Southern Cross (described in Following the Equator by Mark Twain thusly: “It is ingeniously named, for it looks just as a cross would look if it looked like something else.”), and an exceptionally ancient Messier cluster, the identifying marker of which currently escapes me. And anyway, stargazing is for another story. We are here for the beer and, to a lesser extent, the food. In general, the food in Sydney is safest to consider “to a lesser extent,” though their commitment to layering everything with rocket then slathering it with beetroot relish is to be admired if not necessarily enjoyed.

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Lord Nelson’s on-premises micro-brewery has been pouring pints for patrons since 1985. The majority of the production takes place in a small, windowed room where you can watch the suds bubble as you eat and drink (but mostly drink). In the name of research, I availed myself of two house pints, the first being the Old Admiral and the second Nelson’s Blood. Both of these beers exhibit a malty robustness tat makes them especially appealing to a whiskey drinker like me, who favors Speyside sweetness. Old Admiral is an English style strong ale, which means it smells and tastes like how I always assumed Oliver Reed would smell and taste. Thick, malty, robust, and boozy in scent. In taste, lots of malt, caramel, a hint of red fruit which is something we always say when giving tasting notes even though red fruits can taste pretty different from one another. So the idea of red fruit, which is actually closer to sherry wine. There’s also dark chocolate and toffee. Sweet with a slightly sour aftertaste. I was quite happy with it. Nelson’s Blood is a porter style beer with an aroma of roasted malt and coffee, maybe even a bit of char. Tastes like it smells, with some toasted almonds thrown into the mix. Rich and substantial, and a fine pint to end on, though by “end” I mean “finish up and move on to the next place.” Would have loved to do a flight, or just sit there and order pint after pint, but a man must pace himself.

As for the pub itself, one I figured out that sitting at a table doesn’t mean table service in Australia, I was quite happy. Roomy and old fashioned, and thanks to the brewery, everything smells like malt and yeast. The food was acceptable, if not spectacular, though I acknowledge that I am somewhat spoiled in this regard. I know some people like to shy away from pubs that make it onto the tourist trail, but I think one does oneself a disservice. I hit it midday, and it was populated but not crowded and was pretty fun.

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Shady Pines Saloon

One of two whiskey and cocktail bars I visited in Sydney that have taken up the fight to revitalize and revive speakeasy style bars, but since this is Australia, without some of the manufactured “exclusivity” and smug attitude that can mar otherwise admirable similar efforts in the United States. As one might guess from the name, Shady Pines Saloon is aiming for chicory and Willie Nelson and ghost riders in the sky. As a Kentuckian, such thematic wrangling usually disappoints at best and insults at worst, but I think Australia and America share a certain rugged kinship that actually makes an Australian attempt at such a theme substantially more tolerable and successful than the same in New York. Like many Sydney bars, finding Shady Pines can be a bit of a challenge (especially if one is stumbling over after attending Whisky Live Sydney). Located behind a nondescript door down a nondescript alley off of Crown Street, there’s every chance I would have wandered back and forth past it all night had not the friendly security guy/bouncer pointed me to the correct door. I should note that, at least in my experience, these guys are there to check your ID and help you find whatever hidden door will lead you to your barstool, and they are usually genial. This is unlike what you sometimes find in New York, where the gentleman stationed outside of a faux speakeasy cocktail lounge is there to judge you and, from time to time, actively discourage your entrance should you not pass their hipness muster.

Once inside, Shady Pines is a study in wood slats and Christmas lights, with a well-stocked jukebox that knows exactly the right volume to play so that one can hear the music without being drowned out by it. I know they have that study now that says loud music equals more drink purchases, but since I go drinking because I like drinking and do it with people I also like, excessively loud music (or patrons) for me means I am going to wish the establishment well but move on to somewhere else. This is why every time I think to go to The Standard Beer Garden in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District, I actually end up enjoying a pint or three a few doors down at the much more inviting Brass Monkey. Anyway, back to Sydney.

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Shady Pines (recommended to us by our good friend, Idle Hands bar co-owner, and international imbiber Marc Schapiro) boasts a decent beer and whiskey selection, but I was told to give their cocktails a try. Owners Anton Forte and Jason Scott may have a fine country-western theme going, but their background also lends itself to the crafting of exceptional cocktails, coming as they do from such well-regarded mixing stations as The Victoria Room and Lotus. The melding of rustic trailer park decor and speakeasy cocktail mixing may not seem to go hand in hand, but Australia knows how to make these contradictions work. Thanks in large part to the friendly vibe, both from customers and bartenders, the juxtaposition of Coopers beers served in tin buckets full of ice with with craft brews and smartly mixed cocktails works. Being what I am, I had to go first for a julep, and it was very well done indeed if a little heavy on the ice. After that it was whiskey, which always puts me in familiar territory. All in all, a fantastic experience. Love this place. It’s friendly, lively without being overbearing, and the bartenders and engaging and knowledgeable.

Fortune of War

Any claim to be a city, a town, a country’s “first” whatever is always dubious, but I suppose one has to establish the marker somewhere, and Fortune of War seems as proper a place as any to begin for Sydney, unless of course you happen tobe the owner of Lord Nelson’s, in which case you insist that Sydney pub history begins with you. Whatever the case, Fortune of War is located in Sydney’s Rocks neighborhood, designed to retain the city’s old world heritage and stuffed with souvenir shops, pubs, and a lovely outdoor market on the weekends. The pub was open, as the legend goes, in 1828 and in its current form has carpeting that seems almost to be the original. The bar is U-shaped and, more importantly, sports a full line of James Squire beers on tap. The accursed electronic gambling machines have invaded this otherwise historic and comfortably dingy bar, but at least the infernal flashing monstrosities have been banished to a back room. I hear the second floor bar is nicer. I wasn’t in the mood for nicer though. I wanted old bar stools and murky carpet sodden with decades of booze. Fortune of War had me covered, and I was happy.

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Despite its historic nature, Fortune of War seems to maintain a sort of low profile. It seems to attract a slightly older crowd, some locals, and the occasional tourist (though not as many as you’d think given its prime location in the heart of Sydney’s themed tourist district). This makes for a nice, low key chance to enjoy a couple pints of James Squire. The real James Squire (1754-1822) was a convict colonist credited with the first successful cultivation of hops in Australia and the fledgling country’s first brewery in 1798. Squire was the very picture of what Australian convicts were given a chance to be, and shortly after arriving in the penal colony, he began down the path of becoming a successful businessman and brewer, opening not just a brewery, but also a bakery and a tavern, called The Malting Shovel. So popular and successful did he become that upon his death in 1822, he enjoyed (or was at least on display during) the colony’s biggest funeral service to date.

In 1999, Australia’s Lion Nathan (itself owned by Japanese beverage gant Kirin) renamed its Hahn Brewery as the Malt Shovel Brewery and launched a line of James Squire beers. So despite what the marketing might tell you, this beer has nothing to do with James Squire’s original brewery, which in turn has nothing to do with the current brewery named after his tavern. And given what a giant company Kirin is, positioning itself as a craft brewer may be a tad deceptive. But I like Kirin (they also own one of my favorite bourbon brands, Four Roses), and not being in Australia full-time means the marketing bull doesn’t bother me. Especially since the beer is pretty good. I enjoyed two of them at Fortune of War: Nine Tales Amber Ale and One Fifty Lashes Pale Ale.

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Nine Tales is all malt and biscuits. Well, malt and biscuits with some toasted nuts and very faint hops bitterness. Much like the Fortune of War in which I was drinking it, there’s not a lot here to blow the mind but it gets the job done in comfortable and satisfying style. From time to time, I want to really wrangle with a complex and strange brew. Other times — many other times — I just want a no-nonsense, easy to drink beer, and Nine Tales gave me exactly what I wanted. One Fifty Lashes is an English pale ale. Contrary to what the name might conjure, pale ales are not light and crisp beers. They are still ales, after all, and rich and hearty despite being light in color. This one is mostly grass and hay, with some hops in there, and a bit of fruit. Floral, with a slight, slight hint of caramel. Perhaps because I’d been playing in the deep end with stouts and porters, this one came across as a bit insubstantial. Not bad for the time it lasted, but of the James Squire beers I had, this is the one I’d probably not order again.

Baxter Inn

Elsewhere n the web and not too long ago, I wrote an article about whiskey from the world’s less expected whiskey producing countries, and in it I kind of slagged Australian whiskey. Well, a fortuitous trip to the country afforded me the chance to reassess my statement, and that reassessment started in Sydney’s most acclaimed and recommended whiskey bar: Baxter Inn. Like Shady Pines, it is located down an alley and somewhat difficult to find but well worth the small amount of effort it takes. And like Shady Pines, it’s an imminently comfortable experience. Dark lighting, lots of wood, and tiers upon tiers of whiskey bottles that can make even the most seasoned of imbibers lose their mind. I went in with two goals in mind: to drink whiskey from Japan that is unavailable in the United states, and then to do the same for Australian whiskey. In that regard, I ended up with a couple drams from Japan’s Nikka and one from Tasmanian distiller Overeem.

The high quality of the whiskey, the warm enthusiasm of the bartenders, and the overall laid-back and inviting vibe of the bar was, however, overshadowed by the two attractive women sitting next to our party and who were so far into their cups that they started ordering glasses of wine and forgetting to drink them before ordering another. And that led to one of them drunkenly beseeching one of the bartenders to find her someone to have sex with. Nothing serious, just a night’s fling. I was not an available candidate, but he made at least a token effort to send her home happy by luring an unsuspecting bloke over to introduce himself and be subjected to a flurry of disjointed thoughts and philosophizing. It was all a great amusement, but the bartender seemed, I think, more interested in talking to us and the group next to us, who simply wanted to discuss whiskey.

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It was at this bartender’s suggestion that we tried Overeem, a small distillery of which I’d never heard. Among us, we had two drams: the standard strength port finish and the cask strength sherry finish. I know they are all the rage, but honestly, I’m notpartial to cask strength whiskies. i don’t mind them, and I love quite a few, but given my druthers I prefer whiskey that hovers between 80-90 proof. I just get more flavor and enjoyment fromt hem around that level. Overeem’s cask strength sherry finish whiskey, is an exceptionally pleasant dram, but it was blown away by the port finish, which instantly made itself at home near the top of my favorite whiskies list. Absolutely fantastic stuff. So much so, unfortunately, that i can hardly remember a single thing about the Nikka whiskey I drank, other than the fact that I quite enjoyed it.

If there’s a reason not to spend all your time in Sydney at Shady Pines, it’s because Baxter Inn is every bit as fantastic. The owners state they were trying to create the feel of a place that was one grand and regal but has since fallen into a state of frayed and faded glory. That’s a perfect aesthetic for me, and they pull it off spectacularly. I could lose a lot of hours down in that red-lit cellar. And best of all — the whiskey selection is unbelievable. Not only that, but the bartenders seem to know something about every bottle they have, and if they don’t know, they are more than willing to pour themselves a dram to accompany you and discuss what’s being consumed. Without hesitation, I’d tag Baxter Inn as one of the best whiskey bars in the world.

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Hero of Waterloo

If you were looking to get knocked out, dragged through a trap door, and eventually wake up as a laborer on a naval vessel, then Hero of Waterloo was traditionally your best bet for all your shanghai’ing and press-ganging needs. I was disappointed to read a number of negative reviews about the bar, but I read a lot of negative reviews about a lot of places I like. Plus, as a pub famous for the tunnels through which unsuspecting drunks would be kidnapped and pressed into service on the high seas, there was no way I was skipping out on Hero of Waterloo. And it turns out it was right to disregard negative comments. Hero of Waterloo is one part pub, one part cheesy Lake George style museum, with the lower level dedicated to wax dummy recreations of the pub’s seedy past. I knew from my first step in that I was going to be right at home.

Like the other historic pubs I visited, Hero of Waterloo is different from such places in other countries in that it attracts as many locals as it does tourists. Also, unlike most historic pubs even in Sydney, Hero of Waterloo is largely unchanged since it first opened in 1843. You can even see the original scratches and dings on the stones that were quarried by local convicts. The only real change is that these days the Hero maintains a very Irish character, right down to hiring immigrant Irishmen to staff the bar. It was the most welcoming of all the historic pubs I visited, and I had a great amount of fun during my couple hours sitting there with a couple pints from, yet again, James Squire.

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James Squire Jack of Spades Porter and Four ‘Wives’ Pilsener were my choices for Hero of Waterloo. Jack of Spades is as black as the hearts of the press gangs who dragged unwilling drunks through the pub’s trapdoors and out to sea. It smells of coffee and rye, doughy biscuits and malt. Porters are among my very favorite beers, and rather than making me a more discerning judge of their quality, it makes me drain them with inconsiderate and reckless abandon. So my enjoyment of the Jack of Spades was not perhaps scientifically derived (I also stumbled over directly after drinking at Fortune of War) but was substantial. The taste is dark chocolate, mocha, hops and toasted barley. If you told me I was going to be forced to spend an entire day sitting at Hero of Waterloo drinking Jack of Spades, I would simply shrug and get to it. Wonderful. Four ‘Wives’ Pilsener might seem rather a light follow-up for such a thick first round, but I am nothing if not committed to my research. It’s light, citrusy, and grainy. Crisp, wheaty, and has a bit of orange zest bitterness. For a light follow-up to a muscular porter, I could ask for nothing finer.

And it was on those refreshing, zesty malted notes that I slowly arose from my stool, got a brief tour of the infamous cellar (the tunnel has long since been blocked off), then headed down the street upon my merry way, well and fully satisfied with Hero of Waterloo, Australian beer, and drinking in Sydney. I would gladly join you again for a pint or a schooner. Sydney offered me a lot of options, and all of them panned out pretty well. It’s a very fun town in which to drink, one more than willing to welcome in a wandering stranger from across the Pacific and wrap him in easy camaraderie and fantastic beer. None of the pubs and bars I visited did anything but make me feel welcome,and save for the distance of the United States and Pacific Ocean between us, some of them I would gladly call home.