If there ever was a bartender’s bar, new Melbourne bar, Union Electric, may be it. Opening to as little media fanfare as they could muster about a month ago, the bar is fast becoming a destination for those in the know in Chinatown. ‘We’ve only just put a couple of signs up and we don’t have a proper landline,’ explains front-man Huw Griffiths. ‘It’s that Melbourne thing, you want people to have to find you or be referred by someone, you want to show someone a secret spot.’
Huw—who has worked around the traps at the likes of Royal Saxon, Madame Brussels, Collins Quarter, Byblos, Le Bon Ton and The Meatball & Wine Bar—is now running the show is for Union Electric’s owner (and Channel Sever chopper pilot), Shane Whiteley. ‘I tell people he’s a unicorn,’ says Huw. ‘One of the best blokes I’ve ever come across; it’s nice to work for an owner who doesn’t drag six girls in at two am on a Friday night.’ But there are myriad reasons to drag your own self into Union Electric.
They’ve stripped away layers from the 1891 building, exposing beautiful brick and century-old rafters complete with hand-beaten blacksmith nails. The name of the bar and the utilisation of Edison bulbs throughout is a nod to the Union Electric Lighting Company which is part of the lane’s heritage.
Union Electric have also boiled the offering down to the essentials of what makes a good local bar. Huw says, ‘It really hit home when I went to one of the bars in town that’s supposed to be better at cocktails. Between the two of us, we spent 60 bucks for two drinks and a snack and I can’t remember what we had, the names of the drinks or what was in them but they were almost identical to look at: nondescript brown liquid garnished with something that was a bit naff.’ Instead, Union Electric offers cheaper-than-usual $13 cocktails, a focus on fresh juices, good bartender banter, and, in their own words, ‘the greatest espresso martini that Melbourne has ever seen’ (them’s fighting words).
Hubris aside, the key to Union Electric’s success lies in its relationships. With the exception of a solitary bottle of Grey Goose ‘as much as possible there’s a story behind every single product we offer. You’ve got so many awesome products to choose from, you may as well work with awesome people as well,’ muses Huw. Union Electric touts the West Winds gin (owner Jeremy Spencer has already carved his initials somewhere in bar—see if you can spot them), 666 vodka, rums imported by local bartender mates, Custard & Co., scrumpy and Maidenii vermouth. There’s a special section on the Union Electric cocktail list dedicated to drinks by notable bartenders they know and admire, and late night snacks are speedily delivered by Union Electric’s neighbours at the New Kum Den (the bar’s most popular cocktail, the spritely Kum Den Botanica, is dedicated to them).
This familiarity extends outwards from behind the bar to make for a relaxed, social space. Huw sums it up: ‘We’re serious about bartending but we don’t take ourselves seriously...we just want to have a good time, mess about and make sure customers are happy.’ You, and a portrait of the bar’s patron saint Bill Murray which is emblazoned upon the wall, should comfortably drink to that.
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Image Credits: Nick West for The Urban List