On a balmy Saturday evening in Australia’s inland capital, the blazing sun nodding towards the hazy blue outline of the Brindabella Ranges in the west, I’m standing in downtown Odgers Lane desperately seeking Molly, a suave and modern speakeasy that opened somewhere around here a year ago. There’s nothing as straightforward as a sign. There’s not even an address on its website; just a set of coordinates – 35°16’44.5”S 149°07’42.0”E – that leaves me wandering aimlessly among the dumpsters.
Eventually, I ask a couple of likely locals if they know the place and they point to a bare light bulb over a doorway, which leads to a corridor, which leads to a flight of stairs and, finally, to the word “Molly” tiled in black on a landing in front of yet another doorway. It opens to reveal a boisterous, low-lit jazz club with a grand piano, a copper-topped bar and oil lanterns on tables for that illicit, early-last-century vibe.
On the bar are several small barrels of aged cocktails – Sazerac, Negroni, Old Fashioned – and an impressive array of spirits that venue manager Zac Guertin says includes some 550 whiskies sourced from everywhere from Wales to Taiwan and Ireland to India. After mixing me an excellent dry martini with a twist, Guertin, dressed smartly in a long tie, a bibbed apron and a bushranger beard, escorts me down a different corridor and through another doorway to a hidden lounge. Inside is a card table, turntable and plush leather sofas for the exclusive use of Molly’s club members – those willing to part with A$2,200 (S$2,170) a year for a “cabinet membership” with perks including a well-stocked spirit locker and access to a VIP room inside a renovated bank vault.
Molly is the sort of leading-edge liquor purveyor you might expect to find in Melbourne, Hong Kong or London. But Canberra? Home to politicians, public servants, roundabouts and kangaroos, Canberra has always had a reputation for being worthy but sedate, and a city of transients thanks to the fly-in, fly-out habits of political staffers and students at Australian National University (ANU), the country’s top-ranked tertiary institution. But a new breed of mostly homegrown entrepreneurs, many of them lured back home by family, more affordable housing and memories of the fresh air and wild spaces that characterised their childhoods, are bringing new life to the young city’s libations scene.
At Bar Rochford, an elegant wine bar and bistro in the heritage Melbourne Building on central London Circuit, owner Nick Smith has distilled his years of experience working in Melbourne and travelling in Europe into a bar recently named Australia’s best by Gourmet Traveller magazine (the first time the capital has won the award). It’s a distinctly Canberra experience, from the leather banquettes that recall the green parliamentary benches in the House of Representatives to spotted gum tables and a concrete floor mottled like the bark of a mountain ash tree.
Smith came home from Melbourne to be with family and opened Bar Rochford in 2016 to address what he saw as a lack of grown-up, gastronomic drinking options in the capital. “I think it’s important for people to leave Canberra – it’s such a small bubble – and take inspiration from other places. You can only get so much from staying in one city,” he says of his experience, while also stressing the capital’s appeal for aspiring entrepreneurs. “Canberra is a good opportunity for young people to do business. There are spaces available, and we are a few years behind with regard to hospitality [trends].”
It was a similar story for Jessica Arena and her husband Antony, two of the owners behind Molly and its sister bars Highball Express, a Cuban-themed rum palace, and Black Market, another speakeasy-themed bar in the basement of the 1927 Acton Hotel building in Canberra’s hip NewActon precinct. They were living in Sydney with two young children and moved back to Canberra for the more relaxed country lifestyle but missed the bar culture they’d become used to.
“The bars [in Canberra] were nightclubs – places you went to get really drunk,” Arena explains. “Molly was born as a bit of hobby, as somewhere for us to go. That was the first one and it was only ever meant to be Molly, but we found different audiences that weren’t being catered to and it snowballed from there.”
The pair aren’t the only Canberra natives staking their claim on the nightlife scene. Bar stalwart Bria Sydney opened Knightsbridge Penthouse – the city’s first cocktail bar and nightclub – when she was just 21, and for the past decade has run the chic Parlour Wine Room in Acton. Like her peers, she spent some time away from the capital – two years in London in her case – before returning with fresh ideas to invigorate the Canberra scene.
“It’s only been for about 15 years or so that my generation started to stick around,” Sydney says as I sit at the bar counter of Parlour with a salad of baby octopus and harissa-spiked potatoes and a summery Viognier and Pinot Gris blend from nearby Lerida Estate. “I think we were sick of hearing how terrible Canberra was,” she continues. “If someone’s going to make it cool, it has to be us, right? So most of the cool places – like Bar Rochford and Molly – they’re owned by Canberrans who stuck around.”
Indeed, the city’s bar scene feels now as if it has reached critical mass, with diverse choices from the garden party vibe of the Alice in Wonderland-themed White Rabbit Cocktail Room to Lazy Su, a kooky pan-Asian eatery that morphs into a cocktail bar serving bao burgers and A$10 ($S10) espresso martinis on Friday and Saturday nights.
This modest metropolis – with a population of around 420,000 – has also joined the nationwide thirst for craft breweries though, in truth, Canberra was actually an early leader in the field. Two-time champion Australian brewer Richard Watkins introduced the capital to cask ales and barrel-aged sours at the Wig & Pen, a landmark microbrewery where he created more than 150 beers during a 17-year stint from 1996. Then in 2014, in city-edge Braddon, he opened the two-storey brewpub BentSpoke, a buzzing space with kegs for seats and stair rails that double as pipes to pump beer from the upstairs brewery.
“The Wig & Pen was way ahead of the craft beer curve,” says Dan Watters, community engagement manager at Canberra’s biggest craft beer outlet, Capital Brewing Co. “They put Canberra on the map as a place that knew its beer.” Capital Brewing Co opened less than two years ago in industrial Fyshwick, a location that allowed its four founders to dream big with a site that seats 930 indoor and out and produces more than a million litres of beer each year. On the weekends, when the establishment caters to around 4,000 patrons, it feels more theme park than brewery, with family groups and friends savouring brews as out-there as the jalapeño and pineapple gose and a blood orange NEIPA (an unfiltered IPA) called the Hang Loose Juice.
Capital’s success comes on the back of what Watters calls an “explosion” of interest in craft beers that has seen the number of breweries in Canberra increase from just two breweries in 2013 to nine last year. “We are a really parochial bunch,” says Watters of craft brewing’s success in the city. “The locals all get behind us.”
Meanwhile, Canberra’s wine industry is experiencing a similar surge in popularity as its cool-climate varieties – Shiraz and Riesling are the star performers – receive national acclaim and exposure. But the recognition for one of Australia’s great unsung wine regions, with about 140 winemakers and dozens of cellar doors, has been a long time coming. The first modern vineyards were planted in the 1970s by pioneers such as John Kirk, a Commonwealth scientist whose son Tim now tends the vines and makes the wines at their 14ha Clonakilla vineyard in Murrumbateman, a leisurely half-hour drive from Canberra Airport.
The region’s cool climate results in slower-ripening grapes that produce more nuanced and aromatic wines with finer tannins – the opposite of the Barossa Valley’s big, and much better-known, Shirazes. “We want more elegance, subtlety and refinement,” say Tim Kirk, whose flagship Shiraz-Viognier has helped put the region on the radar of fine wine connoisseurs. His other superior red is the O’Riada, a silky, aromatic Shiraz in the Northern Rhône style of Côte Rôtie. Down the road at Four Winds Vineyard, as popular for its wood-fired pizzas as for its Sangiovese and German-style sparkling Riesling, winemaker John Collingwood thinks there’s a definite momentum in the district as their wines are becoming better known. “Everyone I talk to seems to be going well,” he says, “expanding their cellar-door hours and saying goodbye to the second jobs they had to take to support themselves.”
The biggest vote of confidence in the region’s future is the new cellar door that opened last September at Shaw Vineyard Estate. Its dramatic concrete angles faced in glass look more like a modern art gallery than a wine-tasting emporium, and it’s the centrepiece of a 280ha merino farm planted with vines in 1998 that makes mainly Shiraz and Riesling, but also does a Cabernet Sauvignon with hints of eucalyptus.
Indeed, the evolving sophistication of the national capital’s drinks scene is a far cry from the days when, as Nick Smith recalls, a typical night out for locals meant heading to the neighbourhood pub. Now, as well as far greater options in venues and vibes, Canberra’s starting to show its true character. And with new city apartments sprouting, a light rail due to debut early this year and more Canberrans coming home to live and make their mark on the capital, he’s excited for the future of a city he once viewed as “very dull”. “Now I’m optimistic about the city and where it’s at,” he says. “I think in the next five years, Canberra will have more heart.”
On his recommendation, I wind up my Saturday night in the city at the scruffily bohemian but very likeable Smith’s Alternative, a bookshop turned band room and performance space for anything from poetry to comedy. It has a fully stocked bar, simple snack foods (toasted sandwiches and brownies, for instance) and an instrument wall where anyone’s welcome to borrow a trombone, a guitar or a double bass and jam to their heart’s content. Furnished with old couches, wooden chairs and a piano on the footpath for passers-by to play, Smith’s Alternative is a bar for all people, all seasons (it’s open 365 days a year) and all reasons: a most democratic bar in the cradle of Australian democracy.
This article was originally published in the February 2019 issue of SilverKris magazine