SYDNEY, Australia - In a colonial-era alleyway just steps from where white settlers first landed in this port city, advertising executives, fashionistas and lieutenants from the music industry gather around an upstairs bar, drinks in hand.
For most sophisticated places in the world, cocktails after work in an intimate setting would be hardly extraordinary.
But in boisterous, booze-loving Sydney, the founding British officers and the convicts they supervised were a raffish lot who trafficked in rum and left a legacy of beer-swilling pubs that have remained the norm into the 21st century.
Small bars with soft lighting and attentive service signal a revolution in drinking habits. The new spaces offer drinks beyond beer, beautiful glassware instead of tumblers the size of vats, and delicious small bites to eat.
Bulletin Place, the boîte at the top of the stairs, and dozens of others - The Barber Shop, The Rook, Lobo Plantation, to name a few - have opened in response to recent changes in the drinking laws that encourage alternatives to the city's so-called beer barns, run by politically powerful hotel and brewery companies.
The changing landscape is no accident. The progressive lord mayor of Sydney, Clover Moore, championed legislation in 2008 that slashed the price of bar licenses from tens of thousands of dollars, affordable for the liquor industry but beyond the reach of others.
A follow-up law in 2012 cut the cost further, enabling aspiring bar owners to open a place with room for up to 60 people for several hundred dollars. The City Council then ran workshops on how to navigate the intricate laws of the powerful state Office of Liquor, Gaming and Racing, long the preserve of the big pub owners.
Now, disused nooks and crannies in neighborhoods all over downtown Sydney have been gentrified and converted into cool bars whose cachet often depends on their low profile, not to mention their eclectic menus of drinks.
In contrast, the city's traditional pubs are highly visible on the street - rowdy, in-your-face venues.
'Making it easier to open a small bar, we have helped operators turn neglected spaces into quirky venues where people meet, have a drink and a bite to eat, enjoy some live music or even read a book if they want,' said Ms. Moore, who considers the new bar scene one of her proudest achievements after a decade in office.
Sydney's hard-drinking style came right from the start.
'Colonial Sydney was a drunken society, from top to bottom,' Robert Hughes wrote in 'The Fatal Shore,' his classic account of Australia's convict origins. 'Men and women drank with a desperate, addicted, quarrelsome single-mindedness.'
Although Mr. Hughes counted women among the early heavy drinkers, by the 20th century Sydney pubs were mostly men-only affairs. The brave women who dared to appear were relegated to side saloons, with the clamor from the beery male arena next door blasting through the walls.
Campaigners for temperance never succeeded in imposing prohibition. The closest they got were laws that for nearly 50 years in the 1900s mandated the closing of bars at 6 p.m.
Instead of civilized consumption in the early evening as the campaigners envisioned, however, the measure spawned a mad rush known as the six o'clock swill, when men downed as many beers as possible in a rapid-fire drinking spree before the last call.
In time, Sydney hotel bars, with their décor of tiled walls reminiscent of public lavatories and carpets sticky with spilled alcohol, were allowed to stay open until 10 p.m.
By the 2000s, some freewheeling areas of the city boasted 24-hour drinking.
As an antidote, many of the small bars have cultivated special themes (for example, Cuba circa 1950s at Lobo Plantation). They pride themselves on well-stocked inventories of rare and expensive liquors, and talented mixologists who often toss in slices of Australia's fresh fruit.
At The Rook, an aerie on the seventh floor of a nondescript office building, 70 varieties of gin are on hand, some dating to the 1940s. A favorite is a new entry, Broken Heart Gin, distilled in New Zealand and poured from a squat, round bottle decorated with a red heart cleaved in half.
The bar's Juniper Society invites guest ginmakers to its monthly gatherings to discuss small-scale distilling. Australia might be known for its culture of beer and wine, but gin is gaining in popularity, said Ashley Henman, the bar's daytime manager.
The drinks are an important draw at The Rook, she said, but so is the unobtrusive locale.
'People like the fact there is no sign,' she said. 'They bring their friends here to show off, saying, 'I am going to take you to this little bar no one knows about.' But of course everyone knows about it.'
Across the street from The Rook, another supposedly hidden bar, The Barber Shop, invites patrons to enter via a two-chair men's hairdressing salon.
The salon and the bar are part of the same enterprise, with the hair cutting and shaving adding a 'bit of theater,' said Mikey Enright, the owner, who encourages male drinkers to break for a shave.
A veteran bar manager from London, Mr. Enright took over a dilapidated computer repair shop and remodeled it with Art Deco overtones, Chesterfield couches, comfortable chairs, many stools and vases of fresh flowers.
'In London and New York, people tend to go out every night and have two or three drinks instead of saving up for six drinks or more on a Friday and Saturday night,' Mr. Enright said. 'Sydney is coming around.'
Mr. Enright is a gin aficionado, too. He serves gin-based drinks in crystal goblets imported from the Czech Republic, and adds 28-millimeter ice cubes from a high-end Japanese icemaker.
Soon, he said, he will be installing a modern-day version of the Victorian-era Imperial Shaker, a six-foot-tall, hand-cranked machine adorned with four gleaming cocktail shakers that can turn out 12 drinks at once.
In the last year, new restrictions on drinking in the badlands of Sydney's red-light district, Kings Cross, have further crimped business in the big, traditional hotel bars. Drinkers must order their last glass by 1:30 a.m. and leave by 3.
'The older pubs are beginning to diminish,' said Richard Roberts, an adviser to the Sydney City Council who worked on the legal changes that made the new scene possible. 'With small bars, we have a good model around food and experience, as well as drinks.'