108 Chapel St, Windsor, Melbourne
Melbourne has loads of great bars, and – contrary to popular belief – not all of them are hidden down back alleys. Some even have signage (cue shocked gasps) and are on main roads. I know, I know – in a city that prides itself on hiding its best features, this is almost unthinkable. Still, Chapel Street has always been kinda brash, the sort of place that figures if you’ve got it, you might as well flaunt it, so it’s not that odd to find a good handful of bars doing just that up the Windsor end of the famed shopping strip.
The Woods of Windsor sits unobtrusively among a selection of trendy eateries and boho-chic shops, looking for all the world like it’s been there forever despite having been open for less than a decade. It doesn’t look like the kind of place that features avant-garde mixology, and yet that is exactly what it does. Surprise! Is it the moody dark wood panelling and taxidermied jackalopes dotted about the place that give it that feeling, or the relaxed banter of the well-informed bar staff, who seem unworried by an empty bar at 5pm on a Saturday, secure in the knowledge that the place will be heaving by 6pm? Perhaps it’s both; perhaps it doesn’t matter; perhaps I should simply say that I love this bar for all of these reasons, but also, perhaps a bit predictably, I love it for running a bloody good happy hour (most cocktails are AUD$14 until 6.30pm; a dozen oysters are AUD$20. Damn right I’m going back tomorrow).
And so, on to the drinks. We went for a White Negroni (pictured above left) and a Sloe Gin Negroni (pictured above right) to start the night, and despite my avowed hatred of negronis, I actually liked them both.
According to the menu (which, our moustachio’d bartender informed us, is due to change very soon), the White Negroni uses Suze instead of Campari and Lillet Blanc instead of vermouth, so, given my dislike of the bitterness of Campari, I figured I’d like it. And I did, but it was still quite bitter and I started to wonder if they’d snuck some colourless Campari in somehow. No, the bartender informed me, that was the Suze – a gentian-based liquor – that I could taste. Ah, gentian. I remember you from my days when I took digestive bitters for fun (TV wasn’t invented then) and I nearly vomited from how disgusting you tasted. Isn’t it lucky I have grown up (but clearly not a lot) since then. Anyway, the White Negroni won me over with its smooth lemon-y flavour, while the Sloe Gin Negroni really highlighted the ruby colour and sweetness of the sloe – yum.
Second round. By now the bartender had completely won our trust (it helps that, unbidden, he delivered a teeny bottle of Laphroaig so we could add drops of whisky to the oysters) and so, despite being determined to work our way through all the happy hour items on the menu, we went with his off-menu recommendations instead: a rum-based Scarborough and a mezcal martini. He’d invented the Scarborough and it had placed highly in a competition, he said, but we both preferred the mezcal martini, an unbelievably good blend of house-made pineapple shrub, mezcal and some kind of magic that allowed all the minerality of the mezcal and the sweet/sharp earthiness of the pineapple to really stand out on the palate. Brilliant.
Third round: we weren’t out of the Woods yet. Which was, of course, a very good thing. But hey, just so this review doesn’t go on forever, let’s just say that if you go down to the Woods today, you’re in for a big surprise – and it’s sure to be a good one.