Sinning in Sydney
All photos by Keith Allison.
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 the Korean gangster epic 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. 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 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.
Lord Nelson Brewery Hotel
19 Kent St, The Rocks NSW 2000, Australia
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. 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 drink.
What to Drink: Old Admiral and Nelson's Blood
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 that 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.
Shady Pines Saloon
4/256 Crown St, Darlinghurst NSW 2010, Australia
One of two whiskey and cocktail bars I visited in Sydney that have taken up the fight to revitalize and revive speakeasy style bars. As one might guess from the name, Shady Pines Saloon is aiming for chicory and Willie Nelson and ghost riders in the sky. Finding Shady Pines can be a bit of a challenge. 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 bouncer pointed me to the correct door. 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. Shady Pines boasts a solid 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. The melding of rustic 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.
Fortune of War
137 George St, The Rocks NSW 2000, Australia
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. Fortune of War seems as proper a place as any to begin for Sydney, unless of course you happen to be 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 might be the original. 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.
What to Drink: 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, as well as a bakery and a tavern called The Malting Shovel. In 1999, Australia’s Lion Nathan (itself owned by Japanese beverage giant 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. But 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. Nine Tales is all malt and biscuits. Well, malt and biscuits with some toasted nuts and very faint hops bitterness. One Fifty Lashes is an English pale ale, mostly grass and hay, with some hops in there, and a bit of fruit. Floral, with a slight, slight hint of caramel.
Basement, 152-156 Clarence St, Sydney NSW 2000, Australia
Sydney’s most acclaimed and recommended whiskey bar, the Baxter Inn is like Shady Pines in that 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. It was at this bartender’s suggestion that we tried Overeem. I had two drams: the standard strength port finish and the cask strength sherry finish. Overeem’s cask strength sherry finish whiskey, is an exceptionally pleasant dram, but I was blown away by the port finish, which instantly made itself at home near the top of my favorite whiskies list. 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. The bartenders 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.
Hero of Waterloo
81 Lower Fort St, Millers Point NSW 2000, Australia
If you were looking to get knocked out, dragged through a trap door, and 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. These days it's one part pub, one part cheesy 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.
What to Drink: Jack Squire on tap again
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. The taste is dark chocolate, mocha, hops and toasted barley. 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. 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.