Published on 13 August 2020
Joe Jones opened Romeo Lane, an intimate cocktail bar on Crossley Street, with Rita Ambroz in 2015 and promptly picked up The Age Good Food Guide’s 2016 Bar of the Year and Time Out Melbourne’s Best Cocktail Bar 2017 while Jones himself was named Bartender of the Year by Time Out. Not bad for a first outing. More recently, Romeo Lane took out Best Cocktail Bar and Bar of the Year at Time Out’s 2020 bar awards. Jones also had a hand in the design and menu of Arlechin, the moody laneway bar that the Grossi Group opened in 2017, which went on to win the Good Food Guide’s Bar of The Year. That year, he also participated in Diageo's World Class Cocktail Week hosted by Icebergs Dining Room & Bar and opened the doors to a consulting business assisting some of Melbourne's favourite bars and restaurants with exciting new libations and training programs. He is, in his own words, a sucker for punishment. Here’s what he’s been drinking lately.
The last three delicious things I drank were…
A No. 8. While shooting some content for social media last week, I made a few classics from Sydney's Icebergs Dining Room & Bar to include in the shoot. Matty Opai, one of their long-standing bar gurus, was kind enough to provide me with the measurements and every drink was absolutely delicious: fun, bright and very Italian. The No. 8 in particular is a fairly straightforward arrangement of spirit, Campari and grapefruit juice, shaken till fluffy – it certainly adds up to more than the sum of its parts. It made me miss Icebergs and refreshed me all at once. Feelings!
Victor Gontier’s 2009 Calvados Domfrontais. I use this a lot at the bar. It's obnoxiously good mixed or alone, or in this case served just after an apple-centric dessert: tarte Tatin.
A can of Pabst Blue Ribbon. This was an almost otherworldly kind of cold. I think someone left it in the freezer at work for a while and then it defrosted in the fridge right next to the fan. The first few sips were actually painful. It was awesome.
As far as I’m concerned, the defining place to get a drink in Victoria is… I have to pass on a definitive answer. There are too many entirely plausible options for too many different circumstances. That's what comes from being spoilt for choice. I will say, though, the last time I felt really immersed in a place and its connection to what I was drinking was at Oakridge Wines. Sitting there looking out over the vineyard on a sunny afternoon, having all the drinks connect perfectly to Jo Barrett and Matt Stone's amazing food was an experience that was exclusive to that location and time. I'd recommend it to any local or visitor.
My favourite place to buy booze is Blackhearts & Sparrows. It's become such a staple for so many people now, with more locations and the diversity of products, but I like it. It's friendly, convenient and as complex as you feel like making it at the time – three things I like about drinking in general, now that I think about it.
When someone hands me a wine list in a restaurant, I usually pass it to someone who knows what they're talking about. I don't often enjoy drinking wine, but I have the good fortune of often dining with friends (or at friends’ restaurants) who are happy to make the big decisions for me. I should say this rule doesn’t apply to fizzy wine, because I could drink that in oceanic quantities and it sort of denotes the beginning of a good time. Usually I nag my pals to order me a bottle of Champagne to start with and then ask for the wine list later to look at the digestifs.
The Victorian spirit I’m digging the most right now is… to be honest, I have an aversion to the flavour-profile of a lot of Australian spirits so I generally find it difficult to land on something I can drink a lot of. But I can certainly get into a double pour of Anther Gin or Melbourne Gin Company topped up with something.
There’s no better value on a wine list or in a bottle-shop in this state than Patrick Sullivan’s wines. Much like virtue, value too, is in the eye of the beholder. For all the effort and soul that goes into Pat’s products, to be able to get a hold of any of his wines for the price you can is exceptionally fortunate for us all. The one-litre bottles of Fernet Branca that you can get for $78 from Mediterranean Wholesalers don't suck either.
I’d love to see us distilling more pastis in Victoria. I feel like it's one of the things that might loan itself well to the spectrum of ingredients that are both growable and native to this state. I'd even be happy to extensively taste test it for you (for a small appearance fee).
My guilty pleasure at the bar is really shit nightclub-type, two-part mixed drinks. The kinds that are perfectly palatable with rail spirits and postmix, like Cognac and ginger ale or tequila and lemonade. Particularly when you're in the middle of a Friday service, that sugar hit can be a lifesaver. Somehow the more neglectfully they're prepared, the more virtuous they become. You should try a Coke and bourbon: it's exactly like a bourbon and Coke but in reverse proportions and eerily reminiscent of having your friends make you drinks at parties in high school.
The best or most important change to the way we drink in Victoria in recent years has been people trying to make drinking out more fun again, which is pretty important seeing that alcohol is basically the glue of society and it's actually meant to be enjoyable. It's funny how often that gets forgotten and how inhospitable hospitality can be when that gets missed. I like that everyone seems to have come to grips with the idea that not everything has to be arbitrarily over-the-top to be good – or even great. We’re seeing a lot of excellent, incredibly skilled chefs and restaurateurs choosing to operate in more accessible settings with looser, less confrontational service and a huge emphasis on atmosphere to open up what they do to a wider range of people. Some of Melbourne's busiest late-night venues are dive-style bars with their main currency being beers and shots. One of the most successful Melbourne Food & Wine Festival events in recent years was a couple of crazy guys jammed into a coffee shop on Crossley Street with half of the hospitality industry there, spilling out onto the street. Keep it up, Melbourne! Choose life...or something like that.
For me, the most inspiring person in the Victorian drinks world is not one person as much as a group of people... the customers, of course! If it weren't for your ongoing interest in the brave and the new, the time-tested and the adored, your thirst for knowledge and deep appreciation for a revitalising night out, we'd have no reason to constantly try and improve (or even get out of bed most days, to tell you the truth). I'm sure I speak on behalf of many when I say that we salute you and look forward to seeing you all when our world returns to scheduled programming (or a version thereof).
Romeo Lane is open for business, offering cocktails to-go seven days a week. Order before 2pm for 3pm pick-up from the bar, or opt for delivery. 1A Crossley St, Melbourne, romeolane.com.au or @romeolane
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