The sprawling, buzzing city of Sydney is home to a wide array of great cocktail bars that aren’t to be missed if you love a speciality spirit.
Sydney’s cocktail bar scene is diverse and understated, ranging from prohibition-style, underground joints hidden down laneways to flashy, harbour-side terraces. And these unique establishments are going above and beyond the classic cocktail bar model and pushing the envelope by focusing on distinctive flavours and striking presentation.
Waterfront bars in Sydney are easily accessible for most, with their proximity to the sparkling harbour. A handcrafted cocktail can be enjoyed on a sun-soaked terrace next to one of Sydney’s many bays, or while gazing at the impressive backdrop of the Opera House and Harbour Bridge.
Small, clandestine underground bars were the preserve of Melbourne until Sydney’s liquor licensing laws changed all that, pushing the New South Wales capital ahead with its proliferation of compact yet innovative cocktail bars. Now, finding yourself outside an unmarked door down a non-descript lane in Sydney can lead you to a quirky, inconspicuous basement bar with an electric atmosphere.
Whatever your predlilections, whether you fancy taking it underground in secret drinking dens or embrace the outdoors in waterfront watering holes, these are Sydney’s best cocktail bars.
The Swinging Cat
You’ll find the Swinging Cat hidden beneath the pavement in Sydney’s CBD and oozing New Orleans-esque charm. Embodying the atmosphere that makes the Louisiana city so unique, eye-catching design elements such as gas-lit street lamps, plush lounge chairs and velvet-lined entryways look like they are straight out of the New Orleans’ French Quarter. With American, Cajun and Creole cuisine, you can comfort your appetite with soul food such as Louisiana Hot Dogs or Smokey Mac n Cheese. Patrons can sink a frosty amber ale after work or kick back for longer with a Sazerac cognac cocktail and some soulful live music.
44 King St, Sydney CBD
The Baxter Inn
Located deep under Sydney city in a tucked away courtyard accessed via an unmarked back alley, the Baxter Inn is a sophisticated basement bar reminiscent of an old Boston pub. High-end whiskey bottles adorn the back-lit bar in their hundreds and are only surmounted by the incredible knowledge of the bartenders who climb library ladders to reach your favourite tipple. The whiskey collection here is recognised as one of the world’s best, displayed on the ceiling-to-floor encyclopaedic menu boards, and offering every kind of rare bottle and blend under the sun.
152/156 Clarence St, Sydney CBD
Seeking a drinking space outdoors? Head to Cruise Bar, one of Sydney’s premier Circular Quay bars, which revels in its unbeatable harbour location, offering spectacular views of the Opera House and Harbour Bridge. Spread across three levels, this waterfront cocktail oasis has several unique spaces to relax in, including the casual yet elegant outdoor deck and an old-Orient-inspired Junk Lounge for dinner. Dining and drinking options range from decadent seafood platters with chic cocktails to easygoing Aperol Spiritz and Paella happy hours.
Level 1, 2 and 3, Overseas Passenger Terminal, Circular Quay West, The Rocks, Sydney
The Doss House
Situated in the historic Rocks area, The Doss House is a heritage, underground whiskey bar with an intimate vibe and a dapper vintage interior. The historical charm of Sydney’s oldest suburb is paired with fine whiskies and classic cocktails in a unique old-world interior made up of five cosy bar spaces, including an outdoor terrace and a former opium den.
Patrons can enjoy live music in the main area, or those looking for a warm, intimate atmosphere can sink into a leather Chesterfield, perhaps with some Woodford Reserve and a charcuterie board for company.
77/79 George St, The Rocks, Sydney
Gaze upon waterfront harbour life at Opera Bar, arguably Sydney’s most iconic cocktail bar. Sitting up close next to the harbour, with unrestricted Harbour Bridge and Opera House views, the ambience is breezy, chic and relaxed and reflects the city’s sunny disposition. Seasonal and fresh is infused into the menu in both their food and cocktail options, which includes such delights as spritz cocktails, citrusy pale ales, rock oysters, seafood platters, sliders and crudités – all designed to be enjoyed in the sunshine set against that perfect harbour backdrop.
Circular Quay/Macquarie St, Sydney
Shady Pines Saloon
Shady Pines Saloon is a Nashville-style, low-lit cocktail bar with a focus on craft ales, speciality whiskeys and bourbon. Once you’ve found the entrance in a nondescript alley with no door signage, the first thing you may notice is that vintage taxidermy is the dominant décor theme. Drawing inspiration from old dive bars, the vibe here is Southern-style laidback and friendly with a focus on small-batch whiskey that evokes the hard-living men of the highway. Cocktail options include an Old Pal (whisky, sweet vermouth and Campari) or for straight spirits, nip a little Eagle Rare bourbon.
4/256 Crown St, Darlinghurst, Sydney
Employees Only Bar
Employees Only Bar is the Sydney outpost of the famous New York City speakeasy bar, and is located in a heritage-listed, semi-hidden basement in the heart of Sydney’s CBD. Dark timber and plush velvet set the scene inside, creating a prohibition-style vibe, while signature tarot readings and occasional burlesque dancers help make this a place to remember.
The menu is inspired by New York bistros, featuring oven-baked bone marrow, truffle fries and signature steak tartare. The bartenders here help give the place a distinct personality and serve up timeless cocktail classics like the Manhattan as well as masterful creations such as The Amelia with Wyborowa Vodka, and St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur.
9a Barrack St, Sydney CBD
Cantina OK is a rustic-chic, Mexican Micro Mezcal bar proudly serving hand-sourced, hand-made, one-of-a-kind agave spirits and cocktails. The bar’s MO is that they collect and share rare mezcal so you can enjoy one-of-a-kind and once-in-a-lifetime spirits. They believe that every mezcal is different and Micro Mezcal is complex.
At this standing-only, mezcal mecca, humbly situated behind a roller-shutter garage, the walls are embellished with clear bottles of agave spirits on step-shelves. Order a margarita or a cocktail and it’ll be served to you with hand-shaved ice and hand-pressed limes. This is a cocktail bar run by people who engage with the spirits they sell and simply love what they do.
Council Pl, Sydney CBD
Maybe Sammy takes its inspiration from the opulence of the roaring 50s — the era of fashion, fun, and Hollywood glamour embodied by the Rat Pack. A jubilant mood fills the globally recognized and award-winning bar, whose team deliver flawless service and high-quality cocktails. Patrons can take it easy listening to live jazz bands or attend a launch party of the latest distillery collaboration.
On the menu, you’ll find the legendary Martini, which can be tried in miniature twists on the original during the bar’s daily happy hour. Whatever mood you’re in, there’s something to suit you, from a refreshing apertivo highball to a premium pour cocktail. A New York Sazerac containing Tesseron XO Lot 53 Cognac and Willet Family Estate Rye Whiskey will set you back nearly $100. Or enjoy a vintage-dated cocktail such as a Rob Roy or a Vesper Martini created using antique spirits from their private collection.
115 Harrington St, The Rocks, Sydney
This unique basement bar tucked under Clarence Street will transport you to sunny Havana with its old-Cuban charm and fresh rum-based concoctions. Named after the Caribbean’s last sugar baron, Julio Lobo, the Caribbean-themed bar serves a hand-picked collection of 250 types of rum, including some of the rarest and oldest variations known to man. And it’s this evolution that The Lobo loves to showcase in their cocktail creations.
The red and green interior is weathered-chic, with a mix of rattan furniture, banana palms and squishy Chesterfield sofas. Plunge into the rum-heavy cocktail list and choose your drink based on the personal tasting notes from Lobo’s in-house Rum Journal. There are twists on classics such as the Old Fashioned or the Singapore Sling. Or try a White Negroni Daiquiri or A Sour Dispute containing spolon Blanco tequila, Vida mezcal, coconut horchata, pineapple, egg white and a dash of black walnut bitters. Soak all the rum up with their bar snack offerings of moreish empanadas or Cuban sandwiches.
Basement lot 1/209 Clarence St, Sydney