You can be excused for not knowing Katuk. This discreet bar one level up on Chapel Street intends to be a little inconspicuous. The entrance is just a narrow doorway to a stairwell. You can easily miss the unassertive sign overhead thanks to surrounding overt clothing stores. But this is ok. Katuk intends to be unobtrusive and circumspect.
The Melbourne bartending fraternity brought Katuk to my attention. I’ve been fascinated by their respect and admiration. Here’s a bar that is renowned for it’s professionalism and sophistication in the cocktail game, yet it doesn’t make a noise.
Katuk opened in 2007. At the time Chapel Street South Yarra had a pumping nightlife with clubs and bars dotted all the way along the strip. On any Friday or Saturday night, the street would be filled with revelers.
Since then, Chapel Street has changed dramatically thanks to the council’s successful re-visioning. The bar almost didn’t happen due to council resistance to issue a liquor license, but owner Simon Pratt persisted for six months and eventually got it through by challenging that Katuk was a new generation venue; a subdued bar and not another raging nightclub.
Katuk is very different to Simon’s legacy, Q-Bar, which occupied the basement on the corner of Toorak Road and Chapel Street for over a decade. When Q-Bar closed it was the end of an era in Melbourne’s nightlife. Maybe it’s just me looking deeply into it, but comparing the sister venues highlights the quintessential shift in Melbourne’s bar culture from the Q-Bar days til now.
Coming into winter, I can see myself spending a lot of time at Katuk. It’s a warm, inviting place with a roaring fireplace, leather couches and cosy little spaces to hide, as well as a balcony for people watching over Chapel Street, a great open space for functions and a quirky little outdoor smokers area. It invites you in to hang up your coat at the door and kick back with a cocktail or whisky.
It’s hard to decide what I like best about Katuk in terms of its architecture, design and styling. The place intelligently utilises spaces. I especially like the cubbies and the day beds, but I also like the library and the sense of homeliness.
There are few bars I’d be comfortable enough to go to solo, but I could imagine myself relaxing on one of the sofas with a leather-bound book from the display. Curiously, the book titles range from psychology to legal journals to anatomy and I don’t think they’re intended for reading, but regulars have been known to borrow them and return them.
The venue uses contrasting textures and shapes in clever ways, such as the smoothness of the granite bar adjacent to the coarseness of the tree trunk off-cuts. You don’t often look up at the ceiling, but I was mesmerised by the patterns created by the spectacular light fitting and noticed the beautiful wallpaper over the ceiling. It’s these fine details that make a bar experience truly memorable.
According to Simon, Katuk is designed to be non-intimidating, non-influential and safe. There are no flashing signs or bar tap advertising. It invites a mix of demographics from industry to business leaders to Mums & Dads to locals.
The bar focuses on sourcing different and unusual spirits, and has a passion for Chartreuse, Glenmorangie and Grand Marnier. The menu offers a selection of seasonal modern cocktails, classic cocktails and whiskies, including some very rare Scotches. Regulars can even keep their own bottles locked in a special cabinet.
Highly experienced and knowledgeable bartenders run the bar. These guys have all won the respect of the bartending community through their accomplishments and awards. They proudly showed me their latest innovation – the hollow sphere, which they are using for a Japanese Slipper – and told me about the clear Cuba Libre they’re creating.
Sometimes the highest achievers just aren’t the ones making all the noise.
This was Bar Manager Andy Buntine’s entry into the Suntory Cup, a state finalist.
Mixed with Tromba Blanco Tequila, St Germaine Elderflower Liqueur, cucumber, lime & mint.
Beautifully balanced, aromatic and delicate. A refreshing and tasty cocktail, perfect in the warmer months or as a lighter, pre-dinner drink.
The Businessman’s Elixir
Blake Hall’s winning entry in the Chartreuse Chevalier Competition (2014).
Everyone should experience this drink at least once. Andy smoked the rosemary on a wooden board then placed the balloon shaped glass over the top so the smoke filled the glass with a burnt rosemary smell and flavour. He then mixed Hennessy VS Cognac, Chartreuse Yellow Liqueur and Dubonet Apertif, and transferred the drink to the glass.
Wintery and warm, the smell of the rosemary combined with the smoothness and sweetness of the drink – amazing.
Recently a few Melbourne bars have been barrel aging their own cocktails as well as pre-prohibition classics, such as Negronis. I was excited to discover that Katuk has a cocktail that is made, barrel aged and bottled in-house. Called the Hawksburn as a tribute to the area, it is as sophisticated and old-worldly as its name.
Mixed with Glenmorangie and Ardberg Whisky, Dubonet Apertif, Chartreuse Jeune Liqueur and Angostura Bitters, then barrel aged for up to 5 months, bottled and sealed with wax.
Andy simply cracked the waxed seal on the bottle and poured the drink over a hand clipped ice cube in a short class, then garnished with a slice of lemon rind. I recommend enjoying this one beside that roaring fireplace.
Open 7 days, 5 p.m. til late
517 Chapel Street, South Yarra
“I always take Scotch whiskey at night as a preventive of toothache. I have never had the toothache; and what is more, I never intend to have it.”
– Mark Twain