Less than a decade ago, Sydney’s bar scene sorely lacked the hidden haunts that other cities like New York are known for. Now, thanks to a boom in the booze industry Sydney is filled with underground whisky clubs, decadent 1920s-themed bars and the classy joints you would take your mum to.
However, the best part of Sydney’s bar scene is the people behind the bar, serving, mixing, and shaking the drinks. They’re always up for a chat or have wild anecdotes to share. Here are my favourite Sydney bars for the best company and concoctions.
Nothing gets me more excited than a speakeasy that actually feels like a speakeasy, so when I heard about Sydney’s newest clandestine wine bar, Bar Messenger, I rushed over there. The bar pays homage to its base, the historic Transport House, and the Roman God Mercury, also known as the messenger of the Gods. The entrance is via a buzzer and a pull of a wall-size painting, which is actually the passageway into the Art-Deco-inspired bar. Once inside, a wall of disturbingly yet, cool paintings of people with animal heads welcomes guests, leading them to the open space, where one side houses lounges for a more casual affair and the other tables and stools. The wine menu is as adventurous as the experience, with tipples from New Zealand, France, and of course, an impressive collection of Australian favourites. No speakeasy is complete without a list of classic cocktails, including a Negroni and a Tom Collins. For something to bite, the bar keeps it simple and casual with gruyere cheese toasties, a selection of salumi, and smaller share plates, including a must-devour housemade taramasalata.
The Rat Pack era influence at Maybe Sammy continues to waft out a cocktail list paying tribute to Sammy Davis Junior’s 1977 performance at the Sydney Opera House. So, if you’re wondering what effect porcini mushroom distillate perfume will have on your cocktail quaffing, whether red bell pepper juice and palo santo are both necessary in a twist on a margarita or if mini cocktails can get any more fun (they can), then a visit to this bar should be on top of your list. It is also the first Australian bar to crack the World’s 50 Best Bars list.
This little gin bar is home to Sydney’s largest botanical collections. The 80+ juniper blends have been sourced from all corners of the globe and will sit alongside a wine list of old and new-world wines. The cocktail, gin and wine list are the results of a collaborative effort led by the venue’s Beverage Manager, Daniel Strahan and General Manager, Alex Rogerson. The original sandstone walls of Frank Mac’s will become home to the 120-person capacity bar, which flows from outdoor seating on George Street, across two levels and into a back courtyard. The downstairs space feels cosy and intimate, with vintage leather banquettes, lounges, low tables and a fireplace.
The legendary team behind The Maybe Group brings the same energy and quality of Maybe Sammy to their new vibrant tequila bar, El Primo Sanchez. Cocktails are served in traditional handmade clay jarrito jugs, while Mexican and Latino produce shines through each drink. There is a decent selection of agave spirits, mezcals and tequilas—some Australians have never heard of before. The food menu skews more traditional Mexican than contemporary, ranging from lighter snacks like tacos to more substantial but still informal dishes. The two-person karaoke bar in the corner is funky and oh-so-fun. I’ve never had a bad night here, and I guarantee you won’t either.
Iconic gin brand, Four Pillars opened a lab steps away from its gin shop and distillery in Surry Hills. The destination cocktail bar is accessed via a discreet door that opens to a slightly dim-lit room, with a juniper blue 20-stool concrete bar taking centre stage. The moody vibe goes hand in hand with such a classy spirit such as gin. The menu showcases the entire range with classics such as a G&T or gin fizz and some inventive concoctions. During summer, you can pick up a paddle for $16, which includes a flight of gin and a bottle of quality tonic.
A nod to Japanese listening rooms, Rekōdo (Japanese for ‘record’) blurs the line between food, drink and music to create an immersive restaurant and vinyl bar with a Japanese bent. Expect Japanese-inspired food, sake, cocktails, and wine—all set to a killer soundtrack curated by a collective of tastemaker artists, played by vinyl DJs, and amplified through a Klipsch La Scala sound system. Each month a guest vinyl Selector curates tunes.
This bar is undoubtedly one-of-a-kind. Firstly, it’s set within a run-down office building. Secondly, it’s hard to find, and once you do find it, four flights of narrow stairs await. Although, once you get to the top, a drink is always waiting for you. The menu is ever-changing, but right now, you can get a Bakers Dozen, which is butterfat-washed whiskey, roasted walnut, and croissants with bitters, garnished with a housemade mini croissant.
Tequila lovers, assemble. Cantina OK is a micro mezcal mecca hidden in a back alley on Clarence St, but is easy to see from the street. The pink brick wall stands out, but the crowd gives the location away. The tiny bar is the place you would find in Mexico: unassuming with quality spirits. Here, shelves are stocked with imported handmade agave spirits, which are used to make their world-famous margaritas with shaved ice and hand-pressed limes. If you don’t know much about mezcal, the bearded bartenders have recommendations.
Little Felix takes you back to 1920s Paris, where you would likely run into Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald sipping champagne in crystal coupes. Tucked alongside its predecessor Felix Restaurant, this moody bar has a cocktail list inspired by 20th Century Parisian hotels, using mainly top-shelf spirits and classic French flavours. The food menu is also heavily French, with a range of cheeses, hors d’ oeuvres, and charcuterie to pair with any beverage.
It doesn’t get any more nostalgic than a barbershop. Here, at The Barber Shop, revel in a bygone era, where taverns were called parlours, and murky lighting was a necessity. Enter via a functioning barbershop on York Street to find a tavern housing over 700 gins and slinging world-class cocktails in a simple setting. If you’re peckish, they have a small selection of share plates, including duck sausage rolls, truffled three cheese toasties, cheeseburgers, and meat and cheese board to pair with their international wine list.
Venture down a narrow alleyway between a 120-year-old church to find this slice of Tel Aviv culture. While their food is definitely worth a try, if you keep walking, you will find a bar enclosed in a brick cave, channelling a middle eastern aesthetic. On the menu, find cocktails like you would in the motherland, including Layla Lavan, which uses arak, macadamia liquor, coconut milk, and coconut and halva cream. Other intriguing cocktails include the Levantine Sour, a gin and pear juice drink with tonka bean syrup, and the Dafna, with vermouth, fino, sage, and pomegranate seeds.
For most Sydneysiders, The Baxter Inn is as old school as it gets. Good-looking fellas pour the whiskey behind a fairy light-lit bar when you walk in. With over 1,000 whiskeys to choose from, they boast the biggest collection of single malt in Australia. The basement-level bar is a great place to hide from the city bustle for a few hours after work. The decor is old school. Think of low ceilings, brick walls, dark wood, and soft carpet. The bartenders can whip up pretty much anything you ask for, although you would be a miss to leave without trying a dram of whisky or two.