Operation Dagger

Despite its tiny basement space, this underground cocktail bar packs an impressive punch. Staffed by Oxwell & Co’s Luke Whearty and Aki Nishikura, plus Yijun Juan (formerly of Ding Dong), it looks like a cross between an Aesop and Scandinavian furniture store, thanks to a wall full of brown bottles and an impressive 6,000- bulb light cloud installation (which the team hung up orb by orb).

To find it, seek out the glass door with a curious rectangle and upside-down crown scrawled on its lintel – for those in the know, it’s a symbol used in hobo code (loosely meaning ‘hassle us and we’ll give you something to go away’), a motif that plays throughout the venue – then bravely descend down the dingy staircase.

Inside, you’ll find that the trio are happier to feed you curious concoctions to coerce you to stay and challenge your drink preferences. There’s an emphasis on experimentation, much of which is done in the ‘cage’ at one end of the bar. Look out for limited runs of ‘dangerous water’ (another hobo term) creations such as house-made meads, infused spirits and a weekly bottled cocktail ($18) – during our visit, it was a special fizzy cocktail fermented with champagne yeast, which yielded a sweet apple pie-like flavour.

The menu currently offers only five cocktails (though they’re hoping to expand this to at least ten or 15) ranging from $20-$25. Each drink lists its ingredients, but not the spirits in play – ‘we want to get people to think outside the box, and not have them reject a drink because of their preconceived notion of a spirit,’ explains Whearty. Similar to Oxwell, basic spirits here are also redistilled and infused with different flavours – they’re then rebottled into the generic brown bottles in an attempt to shift the emphasis from brand names to the actual flavour. Look out for the spicy rye whisky rounded out by the sweetness of dried bananas, or the vodka infused with the pH-sensitive blue pea flower (harvested from Oxwell’s rooftop garden) and bright lemongrass, which is used in a theatrical champagne cocktail – when the bubbly is poured into the cobalt blue liquor, the mix magically turns pink: yay science!

Also recommended is the refreshing basil and pineapple ($20), which comes fortified with the crisp notes of pisco (grape brandy), as well as the Manhattan- Mexico ($22), which stirs coffee beans and cherry into youngish reposado tequila and shows off Whearty’s illustrious cocktail heritage (in addition to Oxwell, he also helmed Melbourne’s acclaimed Der Raum). Perfectly balanced, each flavour graciously waits its turn to show itself on the tongue, first with the mild bite of tequila, followed by a deep sweetness and the final lingering note of coffee.

For the total experience, ask for the omakase set ($120), which offers up to six different cocktails and bar bites like seven-chilli spiced puffed wild rice ($5) and kale krisps ($6). While the descent down a seemingly random, dark, neglected-looking staircase might require an act of faith to take, if you put yourself in the hands of the team here, you’ll certainly be in for a treat.

By: Natasha Hong, Time Out Magazine May 30 2014