Beneath Driver Lane
Adam Ioannidis from the SMWS Australia team catches up in Melbourne with Beneath Driver Lane partner bar owner Hamish Goonetilleke and bar manager Kealán Brady to learn how they shaped the venue into what it is today
Beneath Driver Lane (BDL) is The Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s latest partner bar in Australia, and the second in Melbourne. It offers a unique and escapist experience without leaning into gimmicky aspects that tempt other establishments. Venue owner and chief Hamish Goonetilleke (pictured above) is no stranger to the hospitality industry, having previously run Marmalade in Prahran and the Rum Diary Bar in North Fitzroy.
Hamish wasn’t sure what he’d do to make the venue unique before he first visited the old GPO bank vault at 3 Driver Lane.
“For all my bars I’ve never actually come up with an idea before finding the space,” he says. “I think there has to be some sort of ‘organicness’ about the business feeling right in the space.” Organic is the keyword, as BDL is an effortless experience from start to finish. The bar opened in late 2017 and has periodically expanded its offerings from boutique events, masterclasses and tastings to whisky lockers, live blues acts and most recently its own membership program — The Basement Barrel Society.
ABOVE: the atmospheric basement at Beneath Driver Lane
DOWN IN THE BASEMENT
Wander along Driver Lane and you’ll find a door, where behind it a short staircase leads down to a basement. The descent allows your eyes to adjust to the dim lights and ambience that awaits. A large automatic door will open before you’re “greeted by about 100 candles” casting a yellow haze over the exposed-brick walls and floorboards.
To your left: the vault — adorned with a Bushmills sign at the top, which houses some of the bar’s finer and rarer drops and is reserved for small-format private tastings. To your right, a narrow hallway allows a glimpse of the bar itself and leads you further into the space where you’re greeted by staff who offer you a table or a seat at the bar. This is where the room opens up; there are thick pillars hugged by circular tables, booths lining the walls, while tables and chairs are scattered around the floor. The largest booth at the front of the venue converts into a stage on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, when blues trios, soloists, quartets and duets grace the stage and elevate the atmosphere. Head down on a Saturday night and you’ll likely see couples and friends dancing between the tables like it was a '40s war-time flick.
“For me, it was always about an authentic experience here,” says Hamish. “I looked at all these pictures from New Orleans back in the day, and it was always like a room with all small tables everywhere and a bit of a hubbub of activity, so we tried to replicate that.”
When I ask Hamish why he decided to follow the road of a live blues and more whisky-centric bar having come from a rum bar he says: “It felt right. This space felt whisky to me.” The bar’s inception very much followed a holistic approach; every element is there because it needs to be, and you can feel it when you’re sipping on a drink under the dim lights. If you manage to secure a seat at a booth, simply flick the light switch and a bartender will swiftly come to take your order. If you’re sitting at a table or at the bar, then you can order from the bar and watch the mixologists work their magic firsthand.
BEHIND THE BAR
Hamish is not alone in having a prior background in hospitality in BDL’s senior team, as bar manager Kealán grew up in the industry in Northern Ireland. Kealán has been with the bar for almost two years and, while he spent most of his career in the UK working in tequila and gin bars, he didn’t find the shift to whisky all that difficult. “My family all grew up in hospitality, so it was natural to slot in. I did already have an appreciation, I think my palate just matured a bit more. The thing that really kicked it off for me was we did a Bushmills training back at home, and being from Northern Ireland it’s far more accessible for us.”
As well as the recent addition of SMWS bottles behind the bar, BDL also has a healthy selection of whisky, bourbon, rum, wine and beer, not to mention the carefully curated seasonal cocktail menu. The extensive beverage selection is complemented by a snack menu ranging from small and medium bites to keep you going throughout the evening (some of which are even available in the earlier hours of the morning).
So, what’s the bar’s specialty? It’s not just the space or the cocktail menu and spirit selection, but what the team has done with it. It’s the experience that accompanies each trip.
Having previously been a bank vault some years ago before housing two other bars, the space is transcended by the BDL team to offer an unmistakable and unforgettable experience. “It’s an emotional space,” Hamish says. “It’s a large space but it’s also very intimate.”
Being that it’s a blues bar through and through, music plays a hefty part in creating that experience and establishing the atmosphere. While this can sometimes be an overlooked aspect for a venue, BDL delivers not just with their live offering but also with the pre-recorded tunes coming through the speakers between sets and beyond. You expect a selection of various blues sub-genres because it’s a blues bar, but the music feels right in the space chosen. You can understand what Hamish felt when he first saw the space — it screams blues and whisky.
A NEW PARTNER
BDL joined The Scotch Malt Whisky Society in late April as Melbourne’s second partner bar — a relationship that was consummated by combining what both parties each do best: delicious single cask whisky, unforgettable experiences and live blues. Our Blues in the Basement night saw over 70 members and friends enjoy Society drams and live blues during our Music & Malts months!
As a proud SMWS partner bar, Beneath Driver Lane offers 10 per cent off their entire back bar to all Society members, just flash your membership card and you’ll be golden. Their own Basement Barrel Society membership also offers some exciting perks and offers if you frequent the bar, such as monthly deals, exclusive events, and discounts off a whisky locker. So be sure to check that out on their site.
Beneath Driver Lane is open Tuesday – Sundays, 5pm till 1am and 4pm – late on Saturdays. It is located at 3 Driver Lane, Melbourne VIC, 3000.
ABOVE: watch our interview with the Beneath Driver Lane team
We encourage all members to drop past for a dram, cocktail or bite to eat and say hi to the fantastic team behind the bar, whether you’re based in Melbourne or just visiting