Chemical reaction

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Melbourne haunt Der Raum regales patrons with inventions that elevate the art of mixing cocktails to bacchanalian
heights, writes Annemarie Kiely.

There was a time when the word ‘cocktail’ would conjure up cummerbund-wrapped waiters shaking whisky sours into shallow glasses for men in sharp suits and women in floaty silks. It whiffed of elitism, elegance and All About Eve, the 1950 American
drama in which Bette Davis famously snaps at suggestions that she’s served her guests cocktails made with domestic gin –
“They’re domestic, too, and they don’t care what they drink as long as it burns.”

But with the rise of the middle class and the shift of consumption from private salon to corner bar (remember Bryan Brown teaching Tom Cruise to tend bar in the cheesy 1980s classic Cocktail), spirit mixing became ‘performance art’ before being killed off by the can of pre-mixed. At this point of take-away ubiquity, when bar-bought alternatives floated teensy paper parasols in detergent-bright drink, the mixologist was born and chemistry declared the counter-pointing tool of slow and special cocktail creation.

Enter Matthew Bax, the one-time accountant now painter who 10 years ago took out a lease on an ignominious Richmond bar
by way of financing his full-time pursuit of art – a brooding brand of abstract expressionism that sells well in both Australia
and Germany. He had simple plans for Der Raum – the English translation of which, ‘The Room’, perfectly describes this
cocooning slice of domestically familiar space – but he never dreamt that its reputation would burgeon into world acclaim, with
the likes of National Geographic declaring it one of the world’s best watering holes (for wilderbeests of the two-legged type) and
The Bartender’s Bible listing it in the global top 10.

“I thought I could open a bar that would make all this money and I’d just collect it all at the end of the week,” he says, shaking his head at the naivety. “I had no idea what I was doing, and I struggled with it for a time. But I really just tried to make the best drinks that I could, and it’s never strayed from that core idea.”

Both Bax and his dimly-lit bar – recently refurbished by craftsman Ravi Avasti with cossetting oak booths that beg the long stay – understate the significance of a place that regularly pulls the international connoisseur and critic.

“We were better known in London for the first eight years of our life,” he adds, roll-calling the big name chefs and bar historians who have beaten a path to his insignificant door. “It was definitely time for bit of a refurb and menu revamp – I think we are the only bar in the world that genuinely creates new cocktails every season.”

The Der Raum distillations of the moment include ‘Chicago 2300’ – a spiced rum, cherry, citrus and Tonka bean bitters take
on the ‘Chicago Fizz’; ‘La Alternativa’ – a confection of whisky, Italian vermouth, cherry, apricot and cinnamon crumble;
‘Margherita Margarita’ – a Neopolitan riff on a Mexican staple with Reposado Tequila, Mezcal, citrus, agave, spiced tomato
and basil air. Basil air? In this bar, the description “capturing the cloud” isn’t just techy talk for connecting to a pool of
computing-power; it describes the pursuit of an aroma-laced fog that floats above a complementary mix of liquid flavours
– a veritable micro-climate in a cup.

“We are also starting a membership system,” adds Bax of the tenth anniversary re-calibration of the business into a ‘locked-door’ bar. “We want to look after those patrons who have stayed loyal to us all these years. It might sound wanky, but it’s our way of prioritising regulars over the once-in-a-blue-moon cool.”

We’ll drink to that, although without a membership card (see the website), pot luck comes with a press of the intercom button.
But might there be a day when Der Raum’s experimentation extends into food? Bax answers with a variation on the old joke.
“Bacon and Eggs walk into a bar and sit up on a stool. The bartender says, “Sorry, we don’t serve breakfast here.”

For more information visit www.derraum.com.au or @derraum.

This story was originally published in Vogue Living July/August 2011.
Producer/text: Annemarie Kiely
Photographer: John Laurie

 

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