“Wait, I think we passed it.” I said to Dale, coming to a sudden halt at a street corner. The warm, late afternoon was quickly fading into early evening as the restaurants and pubs along the eastern end of Flinders Lane were steadily filling with stylish couples on early dinner dates and men in business suits out for after work drinks. We were among the hoards, albeit slightly under-dressed and looking a little more worn after our full day of exploring Melbourne. But our destination was much less obvious than the flashy glass-walled, modern art bedecked restaurants whose tables were covered with candles and chargers, waiting for their next special-occasioned patrons. We were on the hunt for Eau de Vie, a new age speakeasy, known for its whiskey collection and eclectic cocktail menu, complete with liquid nitrogen on tap.
We turned around and Malthouse Lane’s street sign was perched on the off-set side of a building, almost as if peering around the corner to see if we would come back. As we rounded the corner into the deserted laneway, it became apparent that this was the perfect setting for a speakeasy. The sloped concrete alley was mostly devoid of the street art and graffiti that is ubiquitous in Melbourne and only housed one restaurant, the French Brasserie; the rest looked like it was simply the driveway for the Adina hotel’s deliveries. Knowing that Eau de Vie’s address is 1 Malthouse Lane, it was encouraging to see that the French Brasserie was no. 2. As we reached the end of the laneway, however, there appeared to be nothing more there except for a single lantern hanging from a wall and a smooth, grey door that, had it not been for its brass handle, could have been mistaken for more wall.
“I think this is it… I’m going to try it”, I said to Dale as I meekly stepped toward the grey door. “Um… ok…” I heard him say as he stepped closer. I pulled the creaky door open to be faced with a makeshift wall, some sort of equipment covered in a black blanket, and the sound of people talking. I nearly shut the door, thinking we had accidentally stumbled upon a storehouse, but as my eyes adjusted to the dim interior, the shape of a host’s stand appeared next to the wall and a few flickering candles illuminated the interior of a bar. We had found Eau de Vie.
We were greeted almost immediately by an employee who looked like he would have been at home in the 1920s, with his khaki suit vest and neatly coiffed hair. We opted to sit at the bar to “watch the action” as the employee suggested, and were led further inside to a large room occupied by only two other people and the bartender. The dark wood interior was filled with brown leather chairs and low sofas and the walls were adorned with antique glass memorabilia, spotted with dozens of candles. The bar was lit by illuminated glass decanters, which were probably brand new during the era they were now meant to replicate.
Jeffrey, the General Manager with an impressive black beard and handlebar mustache, eagerly shook our hands when we said we’d never been there before. Initially, our time was spent letting our eyes fully adjust to the low light; browsing the menus, one of which was their 17-page whiskey menu; and gawking at the shelves that were filled with all the hundreds of whiskey bottles that a 17-page menu yields. Eventually we struck up a conversation with Jeffrey, who was busying himself with restocking in preparation for the night ahead of him.
“What’s your opinion of Japanese whisky?” I asked Jeffrey, having never considered before that Japan would have a whisky scene. Not missing a beat, Jeffrey offered a brief history lesson on the subject of Asian whiskys and how they were beginning to hold their own in a world traditionally dominated by Ireland, Scotland, and America. He explained how they are apt to vary due to less stringent laws regarding the aging barrels. We went with one of his recommendations, the warm, floral scented 12 year-old Hibiki which was beautifully smooth with a creamy vanilla aftertaste that made you unable to do much more than mutter, “wow”.
Sultry jazz lent itself to the ambiance as we sat there, letting the notion of delicious Japanese whisky filter through our imaginations. We finished the whisky and snacked on a plate of hearty bread, soft curd cheese, and garlic-brined olives. Jeffrey moved on to developing new cocktail recipes for the new opening of a second Eau de Vie in Melbourne. More people filtered in as the time passed, some looked as if they were unsure of what to expect like us, while others confidently strolled in with an air of privilege. Either way, we had all arrived and were now all equals in that dimly lit speakeasy – all in the know that fortune favors the bold behind the plain grey door.