Leading Melbourne bar The Everleigh is selling a collection of "antique" cocktails made using rare old spirits that were bottled decades ago. There's a Martini made with Gordon's gin from the 1950s; a Negroni featuring Plymouth gin and Campari bottled in the '70s; a Bobby Burns made with 1980 Aberlour Speyside single malt. But you don't need to travel to the bar in Fitzroy's Gertrude Street to enjoy these limited-edition cocktails: you can hop onto The Everleigh's website and buy them by the single-serve bottle, pre-mixed by the experts and ready to drink.
Welcome to the rapidly expanding world of high-quality pre-batched cocktails. Since the mid-2010s, when The Everleigh started selling its "Famous Four" cocktails – Martini, Negroni, Manhattan and Old Fashioned – in 85ml bottles, other Australian brands have followed suit, showcasing the best that this country's booming mob of artisan distilleries have to offer.
Not long after the first Everleigh cocktails hit the market, Sydney-based craft-spirits distributor Nip of Courage started selling litre-bottles of pre-mixed Martini, Negroni and Espresso Martini – perfect for parties – made using seriously good spirits such as the fragrant gin from Stone Pine in NSW and Belgrove white rye from Tasmania. And the Melbourne Martini company launched a range of ready-to-drink cocktails, including a Margarita and an Espresso Martini, "bottled" in jam jars.
The Espresso Martini is a favourite with the new wave of ready-to-drink producers: it's the latest addition, for example, to the range offered by Sydney's Cocktail Archive Co, joining the Vesper, Old Fashioned and Negroni. Espresso Martini comes in three forms – Classic, Irish and Mocha – in the range of bottled cocktails offered by Melbourne coffee-roaster (and now liquor seller) Luxe Brew. And the Espresso Martini made by new canned-cocktail company Curatif, using vodka from the excellent Archie Rose distillery in Sydney and coffee from top Melbourne roaster Seven Seeds, is as good as anything you'd have freshly made in a bar.
Keen to tap into this trend, some of Australia's top craft distilleries now produce batch-bottled cocktails. Melbourne's Starward distillery sells two, both using its own superb whisky: a (New) Old Fashioned, blended with house-made bitters and wattleseed syrup, and a Red Manhattan, blended with vermouth from the Adelaide Hills Distillery.
And a couple of top distillers are offering pre-mixed Negronis: Adelaide's Prohibition Liquor Co has bottled an all-Australian version – its own gin plus Okar bitters and Maidenii vermouth – while Four Pillars in Victoria's Yarra Valley sells a range of fabulously different takes on the Negroni theme in 200ml pre-batched bottles highlighting very unusual botanicals: Woodland features paperbark-smoked rosella and pine needles, Coastal includes samphire and saltbush, Metropolitan incorporates coffee and toast, and Desert has charred blood plums and desert lime.
Because all these brands and drinks have burst onto the scene in the past few years, it feels as though the pre-mixed cocktail is a recent trend. In fact, bottled and canned blended drinks have a very long history in Australia. Back in the 1850s, enterprising Melbourne hotelier Michael Moran started selling "blended and bottled" gin, brandy and sherry cocktails from his Central City Hotel in Collins Street to people heading off to the races. During the cocktail craze of the 1920s, when the Martini became fashionable in Australia, Barossa winery Yalumba released a blend of vermouth and gin cheekily labelled Ver-Gin, following it in the 1930s with a pre-mixed White Lady cocktail (gin, lemon juice and triple sec) called Niblik, bottled in an art-deco-inspired angular-glass cocktail shaker.
During World War II, American soldiers stationed in northern Australia brought with them their preference for drinking rum mixed with Coca-Cola. Seeing a sales opportunity, Queensland's Bundaberg distillery started selling its rum pre-blended with cola, first in bottles and then, in the late 1950s, in cans.
This trend really took off in the mid- 1960s, when Sydney wine-and-spirit merchant Douglas Lamb teamed with Schweppes to market a range of canned drinks – brandy and dry ginger, gin and bitter lemon, vodka and orange – under the Alfresco label. While that brand didn't last, another launched at the same time by United Distillers Limited lives on to this day: Australian bottle-shop fridges are still full of UDL cans.
One of the new wave of high-quality pre-mixed drinks, made by the winemaking team at Chapel Hill vineyard in McLaren Vale, riffs on this history, inspired by the drinking habits of US forces in World War II, and an ironic nod to the legacy of the UDL tinnie: a vermouth spritz made using fortified grenache, native botanicals and shiraz juice. It comes in a can, and is called AmeriCANo. Oh, and it's delicious.