Sydney drinks to 'small bar' movement

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Published July 14, 2013

| AFP

When Martin O'Sullivan opened his small Grasshopper bar in Sydney's awkwardly-named Temperance Lane three years ago, his friends thought it was madness.

What would entice drinkers down a tiny lane into a basement last inhabited by a printing business when there were plenty of lively pubs and beer barns nearby?

"Everyone thought I was a nut case," he says.

But in the ever-thirsty city the Grasshopper has flourished, at the vanguard of an explosion in small bars after a change in liquor licensing laws allowed a move away from the traditional large pub to intimate drinking holes.

"It's about the cultural change, because pubs have had a good run for some 180 years," says O'Sullivan, whose restaurant bar serves drinks in glass jars and decants wines into glass laboratory flasks.

When the idea of amending liquor licensing laws to help bring smaller, boutique bars to Sydney was first floated it was scoffed at by then-president of the New South Wales Australian Hotel Association, John Thorpe.

"We aren't barbarians, but we don't want to sit in a hole and drink chardonnay and read a book," the publican told the Sydney Morning Herald in 2007.

O'Sullivan said the comment struck a chord.

"There couldn't have been a better quote. A lot of men were like 'I don't mind a beer, but the idea of sitting in a pub that smells like cigarettes with pokies (slot machines) in the background and the TAB (betting agency) isn't particularly my idea of a lovely drinking establishment'."

He says one of the drivers of the growth in small bars has been their appeal to women, who up until the 1960s were banned from entering the public bar in many Australian pubs, instead being ushered into the ladies' lounge.

"When these small bars started, there was a huge influx of women. And they weren't coming in and getting drunk," says O'Sullivan, who heads the Small Bar Association of New South Wales.

"We don't have TVs, we don't have the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship)," he says, adding that small bars tend to focus on quality wines, artisan products, cocktails and great service.

In 2008, the New South Wales state government agreed to change laws which cut the costs for some liquor licences.

The move allowed small, boutique bars to flourish, with more than 70 opening within the city precinct, and many more across Sydney in the years since.

Lord Mayor Clover Moore was instrumental in helping push through the law, believing the change would not only broaden options for drinkers, but bring other benefits.

"Not everyone wants to drink in a large pub or a noisy club, and small bars offer an intimate, boutique alternative," a council spokesman said.

"They are a key component of the city's efforts to revitalise Sydney and bring life and variety back to our laneways and small streets."

It means that a rash of distinctive bars have popped up in basements and other hidden niches in the city, including Stitch with its old-fashioned sewing-machines, the Baxter Inn whisky den, and Absinthe Salon which specialises in the wormwood spirit.

"It's not so much that drinks have changed or that consumption has changed... the big thing is the ability now for choice," agrees O'Sullivan.

"For me, I can walk out the door now and I can go to a rum bar, I can go to a scotch bar.. so now there's a choice, whereas before I could go to a pub, a pub, a pub... or a restaurant or a nightclub."

O'Sullivan says despite the profusion, small bars see each other as complementary rather than competition, adding that he is always happy to point drinkers in the direction of other establishments, such as the Mojo Record Bar.

Natalie Ng, who co-manages the warm bar hiding behind a vinyl record store, says it caters to the after-work drinkers as well as music lovers.

"Being a music bar we don't have a certain genre so to speak, but we feed off our sales in the record store," she says of the music, which stretches from old school 60s and 70s hits, rock 'n roll, to swing, funk, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.

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