Two years ago, Matt Bax closed the doors to Der Raum, the game-changing Melbourne bar recognised as one of the world's cocktail trailblazers. Bar Económico took its place - a rollicking "rum brothel" and roaring contrast to the polish and price-point of its predecessor. Tomorrow, though, Bax brings a little bit of that Der Raum magic back with Bar Exuberante, a slick 14-seat complement to its more gregarious sister on the same site.
"They are totally separate but both rooted in rum culture," says Bax. "Just different ends of the spectrum."
The Exuberante end is fine rums and cocktails kicking off at a not-inconsiderable $22 a pop. "Some of Der Raum's famous creations have been revived and, I'd say, improved," he says. "The fanciness is back in Richmond."
Der Raum's famous Hot Cold Piña Colada makes a comeback, while the BX Cocktail No.1, a variant on Der Raum's New York Minute, comprises Carpano Antica Formula vermouth, Luxardo Maraschino, robust barrel-aged bitters, macerated roasted Guatemalan coffee beans and Ron Zacapa 23-year rum.
"Our Zombie, Daiquiri and Mojito are by far the best I've ever tried," Bax says. He checks himself: "I'm a biased, arrogant bastard, but I'm happy to stand behind that claim."
Drinkers who don't dig on rum aren't left sucking their thumbs, either. Bar Americano's Negroni has migrated south of the CBD and the 1864 Manhattan from Der Raum makes a reappearance.
Bax has lost none of his flair for detail. The ice, as at Bar Americano, is branded. "Of course it makes our drinks taste better," he quips. He's lost none of his taste for top-dollar offerings, either, but you get what you pay for. There's a $30 cocktail, The Airmail, which comes with a letter from one of the world's leading bars (Artesian in London, perhaps, or New York's Attaboy). "You also get to send a letter back," says Bax, "all included in the price of the cocktail." Der Raum's flavour chart is back in the form of a cocktail clock, and the rum list has been simplified into a dart board-inspired target.
"Anyone can, in theory, pick the perfect cocktail or nip of rum without knowing anything about either liquid," says Bax. "It took me about six to nine months to get these two features perfect."
As for the theme, a sort of imperial-era hotel chic: "It's the love child of every pompous hotel I've ever stayed in," he says. "I cringed when I later heard about Wes Anderson's Grand Budapest Hotel coming out, but I'm a massive fan so I don't care about the comparisons."
Bar Exuberante, 438 Church St, Richmond, Vic, (03) 9428 0055