If the five and ten-kilometre lockdown radius rules taught us anything, it was to appreciate our local joints and be thankful for our neighbourhood staples. So we suspect that Port Melbourne residents are more thankful than ever to have a charming local cocktail bar to call their own - Clooney by XO.
Clooney by XO specialises in signature cocktails, and has a focus on gin and whisky, with a swoon-worthy, extensive spirit selection sitting pretty on a backlit bar. You feel immediately welcome at Clooney. The staff are attentive and accommodating, and seem genuinely enthusiastic to welcome each new guest into the space. While the velvet banquettes and chandeliers feel a little out of place, given the bar sits among a series of take out shops on an otherwise ordinary suburban street, if you take it with a grain of salt, Clooney by XO puts in a good effort to transport patrons to the golden age of sophisticated drinking.
The dark wooden bar is particularly aesthetically pleasing, cluttered with a selection of whisky
carafes filled with various golden liquids, and bottles of bitters that look like necessary
ingredients for a magic potion. The plethora of perfectly placed bottles behind the bar hints at the fact that Clooney takes its drinks seriously.
The drinks menu is heavily focussed on the Clooney signature cocktails, with a limited selection of beers and wines available too. While the menu advises that most classic
cocktails are available upon request, it is hard to go past trying at least a couple of Clooney’s
innovative takes on the classics. For example, Clooney seems to have caught on to the trend of clarified cocktails which seem to be popping up around town, serving a Clarified Pina Colada. The clear and smooth drink distils the essence of the classic cocktail with aromatic and clean flavours of rum, pineapple, coconut and citrus.
The signature cocktails range from very adult, such as the Clooney Martini made with gin, sherry, Lillet, Citrus Oleo and orange bitters, or its take on an Espresso Martini made with rum, coffee liqueur, cold brew coffee and an orange cream float, to other fun and playful takes on standard drinks, such as the Pisco Sour reimagined with grilled pineapple.
The Aye Aye Captain is a whimsical, gimmicky concoction of rum, popcorn, citrus, toasted
marshmallow and Wonderfoam. Surprisingly a lot stronger on the acidic notes than the sweet
ones, the popcorn flavour is pronounced enough to delightfully coat your mouth with a buttery
feel, and make you suddenly wish your favourite movie was about to start.
While the options in the way of food are limited, the charcuterie and cheese boards are ideal for snacking on while you work your way through a couple more cocktails. There are a few pizzas on offer too, however, this is the kind of spot far better suited to pop in for a pre-dinner tipple, or a naughty night-cap on your way home.
Ogling over the whisky selection behind the bar, we figure the I Only Drink Whisky cocktail
must be a safe bet. Whisky, peach aperitif and jasmine and peach soda are meticulously
stirred, not shaken (the menu explains whether each drink is shaken or stirred), and served tall over a rectangular piece of ice, as long as the glass itself. This is the kind of refreshing and
delicate cocktail that goes down almost too easily. But any drink made with Starward Whisky,
one of our local favourites, would be hard to get wrong (an added fun fact: the Starward distillery is itself just down the road in Port Melbourne too).
You don’t have to spend long at Clooney to appreciate the enthusiasm and skill of the bartenders. However the care and consideration, and creative inventiveness of each drink does
come with a hefty price tag. While we know these prices are becoming more commonplace
among specialty cocktail bars, forking out a fifty for two drinks makes you feel entitled to hold
things to a very high standard that can sometimes be hard to meet.
Still, this is a spot that locals will continue to feel proud about calling a neighbourhood favourite. And it is clear that regulars are at the heart of the place. There is even a display of spirit bottles in alluring glass boxes in the corner, labelled with regulars’ names who pop in often to empty their own bottles. We suspect any Melbourne suburb would welcome a cocktail bar such as Clooney by XO, with enthusiastic and talented bartenders, an impressive selection of spirits and a convivial atmosphere on offer in which to enjoy a couple of creative cocktails.
Looking for more interesting bars to check out? Work your way through the 50 best bars in Melbourne.