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Get the first look inside Bar Hugo – the new West End wine and vermouth bar from a tipple-savvy tandem

West End’s bar scene is welcoming another player to its midst this week, with Bar Hugo officially opening to the public tomorrow, Thursday June 13. Boasting a warm timber-heavy aesthetic and a beverage list laden with artisanal vermouths, creative low-ABV cocktails and a wine list bursting with absolute belters, Bar Hugo is on track to become a local favourite very quickly. We got a sneak peek inside – come and have a look around …
Jun 14, 2024, updated Jun 14, 2024

West End isn’t short on neighbourhood watering holes. In fact, there’s probably one for every taste. Love a joint with loads of vinyl, natty wines and produce-driven eats? You’re covered. What about a wine bar serving pescatarian and vegetarian-friendly nosh? There’s a spot for you. Love a tiki bar? Check. Karaoke and cocktails? Check. Speakeasy-style whisky specialists? Check.

What about vermouth? Well, as it turns out, West End now has a bar dedicated to that, too.

This week, a daring drink-pouring duo is pulling back the curtains on Bar Hugo – a brand-new bar serving vermouth, wine and low-ABV cocktails. The Hardgrave Road hideaway is the brainchild of Nick Sebar and Shaun Kelly, a pair of seasoned pros who have combined their experience and personal predilections into a venue that’s both an approachable local haunt for West End residents and a travel-worthy destination for discerning drinkers.

The Bar Hugo site, nestled a few doors up from Little Red Dumpling, is completely unrecognisable from its previous life as Sol 9 Thai after a multi-month fit-out process transformed the site completely. Shielded behind mustard-hued curtains is a bar and dining area that exudes warmth. A timber-clad interior absorbs the yellow hues of LED lights, which radiate from the back bar and from underneath the epoxy-coated timber bar top (a centrepiece of the space purposefully kept clear of clutter and glassware). Nine stools are arrayed along the bar, while six four-seater tables line the opposite wall – the black leather of the furnishings matching the matte-black ceiling above.

“It’s homey and familiar, or comfortable, I suppose,” says Nick of Bar Hugo’s aesthetic. “From day one, that was always the theme – this is an open and bright space in the afternoon, and then as soon as the sun goes down it becomes more cosy and warm.”

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An airy back deck is also open to guests seeking a breezier perch, while a leafy garden space downstairs will also soon be transformed into an alfresco seating area. The duo has also had a private-dining and event space custom built into the building’s lower level, itself also accoutred with yellow leather banquettes and more timber panelling.

“We’ve only been open a couple of days so far, but the back deck has been super popular – even in the middle of winter,” says Shaun, who was recently maître d’ at Bacchus Restaurant. “It’s such a nice spot to go out and just sit, have a drink. And obviously once we’ve got the backyard up and running, hopefully for spring and summer, that back section is going to be a very sought after in the afternoon.”

As Brisbane’s bar scene has deepened, a greater scope and appreciation for specialty has emerged. These days, you can find bars focusing on everything from tequila and mezcal to amaro and sherry, with sips once considered obscure and esoteric now being pushed into the spotlight. For Nick, previously the manager of esteemed Fortitude Valley cocktail bar Savile Row, vermouth’s versatility is not only what sparked his personal interest in the aromatic fortified wine, but made it an interesting libation around which to build a bar offering.“You can absolutely push it in a lot of directions,” says Nick. “Obviously, vermouth on its own is a bitter drink. But that being said, there are so many different aspects that can change, like the sweetener aspect of it, the dosage can be higher or lower, the botanicals – all of that stuff.”

Where vino and vermouth were always envisioned as the twin pillars upon which Bar Hugo’s offering would rest, as the drinks list began to coalesce Nick and Shaun decided to lean further into the specialisation.

“We were saying that Bar Hugo was always going to be a wine and vermouth bar, but the focus on wine and vermouth has become a lot stronger, I think,” says Nick. “Initially we were going to have one of every spirit, just to fill all gaps. But as we kept going, I fell out of love with that idea and we just really knuckled down on wine and vermouth.”

Bar Hugo’s vermouth selection is broad, encompassing sweet, almost dessert-style vermouths, all the way to the super-bitter aperitifs. The list is arranged into categories, with varieties sorted by dry, bianco, rosato and sweet designations. The selection incorporates vermouths from across the globe, with bottles from Athens, Catalonia, Mosel and British Colombia sharing shelf space with Australian drops sourced from Adelaide Hills, Samford Valley and Tamborine Mountain.

Nick’s cocktail menu filters a few of these options into a tight list of six concoctions (four low-ABV cocktails and two zero-alc options). A Tender Hook uses Apple vermouth with fino sherry and grapefruit bitters, the Bedrooms & Hallways is an ambrosial amalgamation of ruby red Rinomato, Mancino sweet vermouth, grapefruit and almond, while the Everything Goes swirls together Dubonnet, Mancino sweet vermouth, Angostura bitters and absinthe. The house signature Hugo Spritz is a refreshing number worth a try, mixing Aubrey elderflower liqueur with Threefold limoncello, prosecco and lemon soda. Though Bar Hugo’s cocktail list is vermouth centric, classic stir-down cocktails are also available, with martinis also a key area of specialty. The only beer at Bar Hugo is XXXX Gold in cans, available alongside tins of Witches Falls Pink Lady cider.

On the wine front, Shaun has assembled a tidy list that ticks most boxes, with around 19 options available by the glass backed by a full list tallying more than 40. Boutique Australian producers like Unico Zelo, Mac Forbes, Sven Joschke and Gentle Folk are visible alongside vino from Europe and New Zealand, with the list deftly mixing classic and contemporary.

“I’m really happy with how the list has come along,” says Shaun. “We’ve got a lot of your classic styles of wine, the Barossa shiraz, a nebbiolo from Italy and your oaky chardonnays – all of those things that people want out of a wine bar. But then there’s also a lot of fun and challenging stuff there as well, so if people do want to come in and experiment with something new, we’ve got options.”

Bar Hugo’s food menu is a concise and prep-heavy affair, with small, easily plated entree-style dishes giving diners the option to snack or feast, depending on their hunger levels. In addition to charcuterie plates and cheese platters, Bar Hugo’s kitchen also turns out poached tomato on toasted sourdough with cured egg yolk and herb dressing, tuna crudo with mandarin vinaigrette and chilli threads, roast potatoes with tom sauce, and broccolini with garlic oil, kaffir lime zest and chilli.

With West End’s dining and drinking scene currently in the midst of a boom period, Bar Hugo’s arrival means residents have another easily accessible spot to add to their weekend rotation. For Nick and Shaun, they hope their wine and vermouth bar becomes a fixture of the scene, regarded as an easygoing option for impromptu sips or protracted potation sessions.

“From a local’s perspective, I would want [Bar Hugo] to be that place people think of when they don’t want to cook or just want to have a drink quickly after work,” says Nick. “If people make the journey, that’s great, but we’re catering to the neighbourhood – for people who want to walk up the street and pop in. Bar Hugo’s here.”

Bar Hugo officially opens to the public on Thursday June 13 – head to the Stumble Guide for operating hours and other details.

Topics: West End
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