How Melbourne Found Its Drinking Groove

Written by Caroline Evans on . Posted in drink

“Tell me what you drink, and I shall tell you who you are”

I moved to Melbourne in 1999.  Working as a lawyer in the city I had plenty of time to drink in the myriad of small bars that wove through the urban landscape – they were a respite from work, a lounge room in the city to meet friends, a safe place where you could sit to relax.

I assumed that that was the way the city had always been – bars, along with food and the coffee scene, defining inner Melbourne for me.  It was very different from the city I had grown up in – Canberra – and even from Sydney, where I had just moved from, where the bars were bigger, less personal, flashier.  But this wasn’t the case.  Melbourne, on the bar front, is actually a babe in the woods, albeit a pretty good-looking one that’s grown up very, very fast.

Little focus has been given in literature to the role that drink and drinking institutions play in Melbourne’s social and cultural identity. There is a staggering amount of popular writing – blogs, newspapers, guidebooks and magazines – but little dedicated to the considerations of drinking culture from the more academic perspectives.

More generally, work has been done on food and identity, and many of the principles of individual and group identity formation are also applicable to drinking.  As Wilson in the compilation Drinking Cultures said:

“[D]rinking [is] a conception of individual and group identity… an act of identification, of differentiation and integration… the sites where drinking takes place, the locales of regular and celebrated drinking, are places where meanings are made, shared, disputed and reproduced, where identities take shape, flourish and change.”

I loved that.  Growing up in a essentially non-drinking family, discovering bars and clubs and pubs had been a university experience for me.  I hadn’t yet turned my mind to how drinking – both alcoholic and non-alcoholic – could be a fundamental part of the lives and identity of the places we live; how the places we do our drinking are extensions of our private lives as much as they are public forums.

Equally, these bars in turn add to the cultural capital of places. In looking at how Melbourne drinks, where it drinks, and the developments over time, you get insight to the development of the city’s identity and accordingly, a sense of place.

History in two paragraphs

We don’t need to go back too far.  A quick roundup to set the scene.

At the end of the first half of the twentieth century, Melbourne was in a conservative place, both on the culinary and social fronts.  The collapse of the Victorian economy at the end of the nineteenth century had dealt a great blow to the exuberant “Marvelous Melbourne” society underwritten by the gold rush.  Through the early twentieth century, wartime patriotism and growing temperance pressure saw the introduction of early closing legislation in 1915; by the 1940s the “six o’clock swill” was in full swing.  Post-war, things looked bleak.

But the second half of the century saw a dramatic turnaround, and Melbourne shifted gears into a seemingly unstoppable gastronomic boom.  A number of factors are generally seen as key contributors to this – increased affluence; increased immigration; travel; and advertising (particularly television), industrialisation, and an increase in the number of licensed establishments.  These factors clearly favoured the larger cities – Melbourne and Sydney.  They also paved the way for a more relaxed, integrated approach to drinking.

Urban planners made me drink

Rita Erlich, one of Melbourne’s most prolific food writers and historians, refers to it as the “Hoddle factor” – the 1837 grid pattern for Melbourne’s CBD that laid down the pattern of laneways for access to subdivisions within a straightforward rectangular grid.  From the 1850s these laneways had set the physical nature of the city, and from there, its character.  These small, hidden, often seemingly undesirable spaces have allowed for the expression that seems to communicate at a personal, intimate level.  People search out the hidden, the hard-to-find, bars down unmarked stairs or along a seemingly deserted alley, drawn by the element of surprise and a sense of personal engagement.

And it is not only along the laneways.  Bars are up, down, but above all, hidden.  There are practical reasons for that – these were traditionally the cheaper locations, and a element of hard-to-find is beneficial to a bar’s critical “atmosphere”.  Melbourne may today boast a drawcard bar culture but this has not always been the case – the changes in the late 1980s to Victoria’s liquor licensing laws took the state from the most conservative and confusing in Australia, to the most liberal.

“We saw Melbourne as a fairly European-style city… We wanted to see Melbourne as a place you could go after dark, with good … European-style bars… We wanted to use Melbourne’s predominantly European style of buildings and lanes to create a café society and provide something better than the beer barns [out in the suburbs and on the highways].”

They were hard drinkers

OK, back in time a little.  The introduction of early closing legislation in 1915 had seen Melbourne’s men jamming into pubs each night to drink as much as they could until the clock hit 6pm. Whilst seen as a victory for the temperance leaders, the impact on drinking culture did not paint a positive picture – Reg Leonard in the Sun News Pictorial wrote in 1956:

“In the past year I have travelled thousands of miles through the United States, Britain, the Continent and Mediterranean.  I will say at once that nowhere have I experienced anything as revolting and disgusting as what we call the six o’clock swill.  The daily demonstration of piggery is something that no other country in the world can match.”

By the 1940s the term “six o’clock swill” had entered common vernacular.  During the Second World War production of beer was cut, but demand did not fall – people switched from beer to cheap spirits and home brew.  Workers demanded beer – it was associated with an Australian man’s “right to a drink in the pub” – part of his identity.

And there was loud resistance to having to do it in a rush, standing, during limited hours.  The six-o’clock swill became something of a lightening rod for those seeking a more “civilised” drinking culture – one that didn’t force people into time constrained and offensive environments.

With the death of the early closing legislation laws in Victoria in 1966, pubs began to focus on new clientele, and women were welcomed in; however the picture remained dim for social, open, inclusive drinking until the mid 1980s, when the Victorian government engaged Dr John Neiuwenhuysen, an economist at the University of Melbourne, to review the licensing laws.  When the review started pubs still held a monopoly on drinking – small bars were illegal, sly-grog still thrived, and restaurant drinking was primarily BYO.  Revolution was about to occur.

Oh Dr Neiuwenhuysen – Melbourne’s small bar legend

“Melbourne’s bar culture, which has arisen from reform to liquor licensing last century, leaves Sydney for dead”

Walk out into the streets of inner Melbourne and chances are you will find a small bar within the block.  This was the Melbourne I moved to and it seemed that this abundance of bars had been with us forever but they are in fact a very recent part of Melbourne’s history – only 25 years have passed since the Liquor Control Act 1987 began the evolution of Melbourne’s now distinctive bar culture.

The seeds for the modern-day bar scene were planted back in the 1930s.  In the midst of the six o’clock swill, the original small bar appeared in inner-city Melbourne.  The opening of Carlton’s Jimmy Watson’s Wine Bar in 1935 was “the signal of a different way of doing things… a reflection of the European influences that had come to the area, but also a desire to break away from preconceived ideas about where, why and what people drank”.  Jimmy Watson’s provided an alternative venue to the pubs, and championed Australian wine (in no small part from necessity as this was the limit of their licence) at a time that it was considered a drink for deadbeat alcoholics.

After another twenty years of ineffective legislative tinkering in a small bar wasteland, in the mid 1980s the Cain State government undertook the far-reaching Nieuwenhuysen review.

The wide-sweeping reform to licensing legislation, providing for a degree of alcohol service without food, and significantly extending hours, changed Melbourne’s drinking landscape, increasing massively the number of licensed establishment, which along with the nurturing of a European-style wine-drinking culture was particularly suited to the growing Victorian wine industry.

Melbourne’s now prevalent small bar scene was knocking on the door.

Melbournians took so quickly to the idea of drinking in tiny, hard-to-find places that it is difficult to imagine the city without the bars in laneways, basements, on rooftops, car parks, and at the bottom of river pylons on the Yarra River.  The small bar represented a differentiation from the pub culture, a change to how drinking fitted into everyday life.  The pace of change, of acceptance, must have coincided with other factors – social, economic, geographic – to give birth to such a sustainable new genre.

Michael Harden, who has written on various aspects of food and drink in inner Melbourne, identifies three critical factors – the appearance of an economically viable group of people seeking an alternative to the mainstream (pub) drinking culture; the 1990s recession which saw CBD shop vacancies and a drop in rents (particularly in the laneways, basements and upper floors); and the active role the Melbourne City Council took to bring life back to the city centre.

These elements set the scene for the bar revolution, but it is questionable as to whether the speed would have been what it was, without further government intervention.  In 1994 the State government came to the party with another round of licensing liberalisation.  Implemented primarily to support the Crown Casino, the new class of licences was both cheap and unrestrictive – no service of food was required at all.  The bar scene was about to well and truly arrive.  It’s enough to make one stop bad-mouthing the government.

One key factor in the eventual character of the bars was the way in which an early licensee – Six Degrees – developed their premises.  A fledgling group of architects, they had set up their bar in Meyers Place.  The fit-out and vision has perhaps influenced the development of the small bar scene in Melbourne more than any other, creating a new aesthetic utilising recycled materials, a lack of advertising, and informal approach to (minimal) food.

My own converted factory home in Melbourne has a Six Degrees fit-out and so I have a particular sense in these bars that I am really in my own lounge room.  No doubt one day I’ll turn up in my PJs looking for the DVD remote.

In 1994 there had been eight small-bar applications – this rose to 152 in three years, and the “individual” approach to the bar began to develop.  There were different avenues – some luxury, some grunge, some attached to nationalities or themes – but a consistent theme has been specialisation, innovation, and plenty of imagination, eking out more from less in some limited spaces.  Melbourne bars rarely try to be all things to all people.  They are more likely to emphasis the diverse and esoteric, and use that as a drawcard.

In 2012, a review of bar trends called out a number of these specialisations – early-to-mid-century Americana retro, specialisation of individual spirits, bitters, house-cut ice, quality mixers, bacon(!), and localisation – local spirits, mixers, and complementary locally produced ingredients such as honey.

Is this “the real” Melbourne?

I nearly did not include this last part.  “Authenticity” is a challenging concept.  You feel like it shouldn’t be – that authentic is straightforward.  It means local, or that there is a history for something, right?  But even those basic concepts are difficult ones to align to Melbourne’s bar culture, which we’ve seen is pretty new, and as with the rest of the city’s food and drink scene, constantly reinvents itself, drawing of global trends and influences.  Is Melbourne’s identity a lie?

I say no.  “Authenticity” in the context of culinary experience has been and continues to be debated.  At the most literal, modernists call for an objective basis – labels such as “local”, at the other end, critics challenge the concept of a single literal view of what is “real”, banishing other experiences to the inauthentic.   Ultimately a view of authenticity relies as much on individual (or collective) experience as any attempt to define threshold requirements of place of origin or a certain number of years of continuous location.

This experience, and indeed the perception by society of an experience is itself a way of understanding authenticity.  So “having a drink” becomes much more than the alcohol intake – it is about people having a lifestyle, or a community, or an experience of discovery – all valid and authentic to those drinking.

So, for example, the kitting out of Fitzroy’s LuWOW as a 1950’s style tiki bar does not undermine the modern-day “Melbourne-ness” of this bar; rather it stands as the embodiment of the city’s character of change and continued innovation.  The cosmopolitanism of Melbourne – its “geography of culinary convergence” – combined with the distinctively changing nature of our drinking culture, allows for regular reinvention – and this creates the authentic identity for the city.

Melbourne’s drinking culture as seen through the recent developments in its bar culture is not yet academically well considered.  But we can consider the development of Melbourne’s identity by reference to ‘what we drink, how we drink, where we drink, and when we drink”.

Through this we see key themes – informality, discovery, innovation, and quality.  A sense of throwing off the shackles and extending the boundaries of our own lives into these public arenas.  These themes are in part historical, but in very large part dynamic.  I certainly hope the drinking cultures of Melbourne will continue to develop and in doing so reflect the interests, values and influences of the city.  Along with providing some mighty fine drinks.


Demossier, M 2005 ‘Consuming Wine in France: The Wandering Drinker and the Vin-anomie’ in Wilson, T (ed) 2005, Drinking Cultures: Alcohol and Identity, Berg, Oxford, pp.129-154, p.145

Wilson, T 2005, ‘Drinking Cultures: Sites and Practices in the Production and Expression of Identity’ in Wilson, T (ed) 2005, Drinking Cultures: Alcohol and Identity, Berg, Oxford, pp.1-24, p.10

George, J and Wilton, D 2011, Flavours of Melbourne: Favourite Restaurants and Bars in Melbourne’s Laneways and Rooftops, Smudge Books

John Cain 2008 interview regarding the 1987 reforms, in Harden, M 2009, Melbourne: The Making of a Drinking and Eating Capital, Hardie Grant, Prahran, p.64

Harden, M 2009, op cit, p.17

Clover Moore, NSW Parliament, 2007in Harden 2009, op cit, p.138

Harden 2009, op cit, pp.138-175

Harden M, & and Grundy R 2012,  ‘A couple walk into a bar…’’, The Age, 5 June

Molz, JG 2007, ‘Eating Difference: The Cosmopolitan Mobilities of Culinary Tourism’, Space and Culture, vol 10(1), pp. 77-93, p. 80

Wilson 2005, op cit, p.13

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Caroline Evans

Caroline Evans

Caroline lives in Melbourne, Australia and enjoys drinking wine, pretending not to be a lawyer (although she is still, at last check, a lawyer), making pastry, reading murder mysteries, and holidaying in places that are hard to get to. She trained to be a cook in Ireland, worked for a Israeli patissier in London and is currently studying for her Masters in Gastronomic Tourism.
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