As far as bars go they don’t come much more swanky than Melbourne’s Gin Palace. From its plush gothic décor to table service, the bar delivers the perfect first impression.
You could assume that only the classiest and most sophisticated would fit in here. You could imagine pinkies pointing off champagne glasses. But as they say, ‘don’t be too quick to judge a book by its cover’. There’s a lot going on beneath the polished, urbane appearance of Gin Palace.
Arguably Melbourne’s most iconic bar, Gin Palace opened 18 years ago. The council had just introduced small bar licensing. Bars such as Gin Palace began to pop up in the city’s nooks and crannies, giving birth to its present day bar culture. Today, it’s the laneway bars, basement bars and rooftop bars that beget the drinking sanctum that is cosmopolitan Melbourne.
Gin Palace was named after the original Melbourne gin palace, once enjoyed by society’s elite, but shut down in 1870 “for being in a filthy and disgusting condition”. The term ‘gin palace’ was commonly used in the 1800s to describe popular drinking haunts; the first of these was built in London in the late 1820s and fitted out at great expense. Grandiose gin palaces divided society with many seeing them as hedonistic, crude and indecent.
Dazzling gold signage will guide you to the entrance of the lavish basement bar off Russell Place. Step down three stairs and into the Old Victorian era, palatial and inspiring with draping fabrics and art deco furniture of contrasting textures, patterns and colours.
You may need to give your eyes a few seconds to adjust to the darkness before exploring… The series of dimly lit loungeroomesque spaces and alcoves will have you wondering where to plant your derrière. A bathtub may present as a particularly interesting option to the more adventurous or ostentatious, while the deep cushiony booths look like the perfect option for an intimate chat or canoodle with a date.
A favourite feature for me is the photo gallery under the crystal chandelier. I could ponder the identity of the people in the frames for hours – the 1920s slapper, the Gina Rinehart lookalike, the Audrey Hepburns, Liz Taylor, the random family portrait and the poster girl of Gin Palace – an elderly regular who frequented Gin Palace right up to her death at age 101. So much ‘what is going on here?’ adorning that wall.
Gin Palace reminds me of an opulent old theater and could easily be the scene from a F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. The space has captured the heritage of old Melbourne. Somehow I feel like you can sense the characters in the walls.
So you may be picturing ladies and gentlemen of the prosperous 1920s right now, perhaps you have visions of The Great Gatsby. Ok maybe not top hats and sequins, but a high standard of attire at least. We’re thinking fancy frocks and suits maybe. Well no. This is where the contrasts come in.
Gin Palace has no dress code and never has; in fact from the beginning it has been undiscriminating. According to Shaun Byrne, owner Vernon Chalker has always maintained that he would prefer to attract a skateboarder than an executive board member. Gin Palace is a place where everyone is welcome and a melting pot of demographics.
Gin Palace is open 7 days a week, 363 days a year, with a 3am license. Throughout the night the atmosphere will evolve as the crowd shifts and changes. You may turn up and find anything from the subdued to the debauchery. I’ve had some very surprising interactions in there myself. It is the unpredictable that make Gin Palace so intriguing.
In its 18 years Gin Palace has hardly changed. Its combination of unique experience, old-school hospitality and unwavering consistency is its winning formula. The cocktail menu even has a section that’s stayed the same since the beginning.
But something is about to change. After 8 years as Manager of Gin Palace, legendary bartender Shaun Byrne is moving on. After handing the reigns to the lovely and respected Trish Brew, Shaun will focus on his venture Maidenii Vermouth and bar consulting, starting with an exciting contract in Shanghai.
Trish will be only the third manager in Gin Palace’s history. Apparently they like to be part of the furniture so we may even see an old photo of Trish on the gallery wall one day next to the other old poster girl of Gin Palace.
More tongue in cheek than plum in mouth, sure Gin Palace is swanky, but with a twist.
Gin Palace is the premiere gin venue of Australia and a destination for gin lovers far and wide. Starting out with just 16 gins, the bar now has over 200. A combination of knowledge, expertise and range has earned its reputation as the ultimate gin experience.
The menu consists of both classics and variations on the classics. Everything they do is beautiful and there is a touch of creativity in every glass. I highly recommend the martinis, negronis and gin & tonics. Gin Palace does these classics in innovative and extraordinary ways.
There is a focus on Aussie gins and native ingredients in their cocktails. Local distillers often consult the team at Gin Palace and some award winning gins have been produced as a result, including Four Pillars Navy Strength, which won gold at both Hong Kong and San Francisco.
Barrel Aged Martinez
Hayman’s old tom gin, Maidenii sweet vermouth, Luxardo maraschino liqueur, Angostura original & orange bitters. Aged 6 weeks. Served with a lemon twist.
Gin & Tonic
Four Pillars Rare Dry, Fever Tree Tonic, frozen blueberries, apple & a bay leaf.
P.S. Word has it that Gin Palace has plans for World Gin Day in June, so keep your ear to the ground.
Open 7 days, 4 p.m. to 3 a.m.
10 Russell Place, Melbourne