Melbourne’s laneways hide many secrets. Exploring the city’s alleyways, it’s not unusual to happen across hidden gems, but it’s my unbiased opinion that this industry offers the best gems of all; small bars.
Stepping onto the rooftop of one such small bar off Heffernan Lane, you’re greeted warmly by the team, wearing tropical shirts and contributing to the bright summer vibe of the upstairs area. This is the Rooftop Gin Garden of Union Electric, where these super friendly staff are finalists for Best Bar Team at ALIA 2019.
Union Electric has collected quite a few categories of nominations this year, with Venue Manager Alex Brown also being a finalist for Bartender of the Year and Best Bar Manager.
Less than two weeks out from the night, I sat down with Brown and Union Electric Co-Owner Huw Griffiths, to talk about all their nominations and how they stand out in the huge Melbourne laneway bar scene.
Griffiths explained the bars beginnings, four and a half years ago, when they originally planned to build next door and demolish the current site.
“While we were waiting for everything to happen next door we started ripping the debris out of this place and realized it was a really cool old building underneath it all. So we decided to put the bar in here instead,” Griffiths said.
Opening with just the downstairs level and extremely low on cash, they had to be creative to save money and to stand out in the thriving laneway bar scene. Using whatever ingredients they could find, they built their cocktail list by making their own shrubs and forming close relationships with up and coming spirits brands.
The current cocktail list (also holding a finalist nomination this year) is described by Brown as “approachable.” He said that: “we want people to enjoy their drinks and we want every single drink to be enjoyed, not just a few on the list… So we go with flavour combinations that people are aware of and we make it easy for them.”
Griffiths said the drinks have to be relatable, speaking to the personality of the venue and the customer.
“Anyone that wants to design a drink on the list, there needs to be a reason for it. Hopefully there’s a story, doesn’t have to be a sensible story can be ridiculous, and then it has to have a personal connection,” he said.
When the offering is so easily likeable, it’s no wonder the industry voted to make the cocktail list an ALIA finalist. The base menu includes iconic flavour combinations with a special twist, like the apple and cinnamon ‘Day on the Green’ mixed with coconut washed Adelaide Hills Sunset Gin. Watching the team pour the washed gin from a bottle with Snoop Dogg’s face on it, you can see that cheeky personality that Griffiths values.
Also on the menu right now is Brown’s creation for the Bacardi Legacy Competition, which he named 1808. There’s a personal connection and story behind that one too.
“1808 is the date that my granddad got on a ship and came over the Australia, the 18th of the eighth 1951. So it’s about the journey of change which just falls in line with the Bacardi legacy, drawing closely to the Bacardi family itself,” Brown explained.
Aside from cocktails, Union Electric’s focuses are gin (upstairs) and rum (downstairs), creating lighter and darker spaces intended for optimal daytime and night-time experiences.
Upstairs, the Gin Garden is home to a collection of around 200 gins. With International Gin and Tonic Day coming up this weekend (19 Oct), Griffiths said the key to mixing any G&T is about balance.
“We did a cocktail course for some people who weren’t really too sure about gin. Almost unanimously, they said they tried a gin and tonic but they didn’t like it. But by the end of the day, they all had half a dozen gin and tonics,” Griffiths said.
“It’s usually because people have had a bad mix. They’ve used a tonic that might be flat, or overly sweet, or isn’t chilled, or they’ve just bought the wrong one. We’ve got so many good tonics now that it’s easy to get right. And most people do like a well-balanced gin and tonic.”
Brown agreed and said: “There’s a lot of misinformation when it comes to drinks, and how they should be experienced.”
Faced with such a huge array of options, Union Electric are spoilt for choice, but Griffiths and Brown say their favourites gins are Australian. At the top of the list is fellow ALIA finalist Never Never, with several products stocked proudly front and centre at the bar.
Looking to the future, Griffiths and Brown are excited for their nominations and the ALIA awards, which will take place next week on 23 October.
Griffiths said: “It was a bit of a surprise. But we’ve had a good run the last 12 months… we’re pretty chuffed to be nominated.”
Don’t miss out on your chance to come along too! ALIA tickets available here.