FOR Andre Bishop, it all started with Saturday morning TV.
"My fascination with sake really began with watching Japanese cartoons on TV when I was a kid," he says. "I then moved on to all the other cool stuff coming from Japan, the gadgets and technology, when I was a teenager, so by the time I hit my 20s I was thoroughly obsessed. Then I actually went to Japan for the first time and had my first experience of sake in the izakayas there and that sealed the deal."
That deal and obsession now has its best expression at Kumo Izakaya, Bishop's Japanese bar/tavern in Brunswick East with its 80-ish varieties of sake and impressive lists of shochu and umeshu, served alongside izakaya-style bar food. It is, "the realisation of a long dream to create a temple to sake".
It is also part of a trend in bars around Melbourne where the owners, obsessed or savvy or both, choose to narrow the focus of their businesses and take on the role of specialists.
For Brooke Hayman, co-owner of the CBD's Chez Regine, it's all about whisky. At present, Chez Regine stocks about 250 varieties, mostly from Scotland and Ireland. By August when the bar is renovated and renamed Whisky & Alement, more than 400, some extremely valuable and rare, will be on the list. In fact, Hayman says, the reason they've decided to renovate is "we can't actually fit all the whisky we have on the shelves".
Her fascination started when she was living in Ireland and it is the amazing number of "flavour profiles" that keep her travelling regularly to tiny distilleries in Britain and Ireland.
"With whisky you get a lot of different flavour profiles compared to any other spirit. I think it's more interesting than any other spirit," she says. "Depending on how it's aged or what barrels it's stored in, something is always moving and changing. It's like wine in that way."
At Fitzroy's Kodiak Club, co-owner Nathan Debritt is not only specialising in American whiskeys bourbon, rye, Canadian and corn but recently opened a small bar atop the Kodiak called Little Blood that is pouring a selection of nearly 90 tequilas.
Debritt's experience working in bars in the US and on cruise ships in Mexico has given him a well-rounded education in his product, but while he admits to being a fan of American whiskey (he stocks more than 100 of them, most from Kentucky), his decision to specialise was pragmatic. "We were looking around for a point of difference for our bar, a way to make it stand out and be noticed and American whiskey seemed to be a glaring omission on the bar scene."
Given Melbourne's packed bar scene and its increasing specialisation, one might surmise that bases are pretty covered but Andre Bishop begs to differ.
"I've just got back from a five- day tour of shochu distilleries in Japan and it was amazing, a whole different world," he says. "It's going to become more and more popular in Australia I think. I see a shochu revolution in the next couple of years."