When it comes to Melbourne cocktail bars, Adelaide import, Matthew Bax, is somewhat of a master conjurer. Bar Exuberante—his latest venture, located in a back room of his low-key Richmond rum dive, Bar Economico—pushes his signature flair for extravagant tendencies to new heights. In true Urban List style, we made sure that we were some of the first to check out what’s being hailed as Melbourne’s best cocktail bar this side of the millennium.
If the name rings bells, it’s most likely been paired with exclamations of ecstasy or emphatic reverence regarding Matt Bax’s previous Richmond establishment, the much-lauded Der Raum. Named ‘best cocktail bar in the world’ by virtually every awards body (and seasoned top-shelf liquor drinker) under the sun, the surprise relocation of Der Raum from Melbourne to Munich in 2012 left a gaping hole in Melbourne’s cocktail scene. His CBD venue, Bar Americano, is most definitely worth a visit but it's his Richmond ventures that have been pricking ears of late. Where Bar Economico fills a penny-pinching gap, Bar Exuberante gives drinkers the five-star treatment.
Before we let you in on Exuberante’s secrets, it feels appropriate to state that, in spite of its grand title, the bar itself is a single room. Part Wes Anderson film set, part 1960s Copacabana, it’s fanciful but not frivolous. Four petite cocktail tables are dotted along its walls with no more than five seats placed at the bar. A small hatch-like door in the far wall opens to reveal a single hand offering liquid ‘amuse bouches’ (tiny pre-cocktail cocktails, ‘amusers of the mouth,’ if you will) as new guests enter. Like Dorothy in her ruby slippers, we can’t help but feel that we’re not in Kansas anymore.
The smoke-and-mirrors suspension of disbelief is reinforced by every detail: A custom-built, wooden shelved wall behind the drinks preparation area is meticulously stacked with pristine tools of Bax’s exacting trade; polished copper mixing apparatus and tiki-style tankards sit beside precisely placed porcelain oddities. A sous vide system gently hums in one corner and a section of the inlaid interior displays rows of room keyfobs, all stamped ‘The Imperial Exuberante Palace Hotel.’ Even the embossed drinks coasters and paper-packeted complimentary peanuts keep up the act, proudly welcoming you to your stay at the Imperial Exuberante.
With over a decade of experience in the industry and a bar stock that includes sought-after small batch spirits (think 23-year rums and house recipe infusions), it’s not surprising that the cocktails at this Melbourne bar are some of the best you’ll find in the country. The Bar Exuberante menu itself is a delight—yes, the infamous warm foam-topped Pina Colada of Der Raum’s heyday is back—and each new delicious drink is accompanied by a lavish description that transports you to a far-off land. One sparkling elixir—the Airmail—comes with letter-headed paper, instructing you to fill out its contents and post it to one of the bar’s affiliates in New York, London or Munich.
The hidden bar doesn’t take bookings so it’s first in, best dressed, but it’s definitely worth a wait for a sitting. Once inside, the service is attentive but not invasive and the standards, impeccable. While we’re finishing our first round, Bax, dissatisfied with the first attempt, remakes the finishing touch to another visitor’s drink—a slice of crisp apple coated in burnt angostura-infused toffee—and presents it to her on a skewer like a giant lollipop. It’s this attitude that sets Bar Exuberante apart from the rest of Melbourne’s best bars.
We could ramble on for hours about our escape to Exuberante but, like many of life’s precious moments, words will never quite hit the spot. Pack your Panama, your imagination and your credit card, and take a trip yourself.
Image credits: Carmen Zammit