Tales of the Cocktail, the international cocktail conference/festival, took itself on the road last week, traveling from its steamy New Orleans-in-July locale to the drizzly downtown of Vancouver for a one-day event (with parties on both the preceding and following days). That one day, however, was a microcosm of the Cajun Tales, replete with seminars — from cocktail luminaries like Allen Katz, the host of the cocktail hour on Martha Stewart’s Sirius station; Dave Arnold, head of culinary technology at New York’s French Culinary Institute; and Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, author of five books on Tiki drinks — demonstrations, tastings and, yes, lots of schmoozing and drinking.
The cocktail movement is spreading horizontally
The real star of the show, to my mind, was Vancouver itself (and its legion of young, smart and highly professional barkeeps). I have said for over a year now that the cocktail movement hit a ceiling in terms of the wild inventiveness and creativity that fueled its rise and that the only direction for it to go was horizontal — to spread from epicenters like New York; San Francisco; Portland, Ore.; and Chicago to places where telling the bartender you want the Last Word will get you a greenish beverage, not an ejection. Despite its cold, damp surface, Vancouver has a drinking scene that doesn’t lack for heat (lots to talk about beer- and wine-wise there too) these days. And for me, who had spent only one long night in British Columbia’s largest city 10 years ago, there’s no place more exciting a place than a city whose cocktail/bar scene is taking off.
One thing driving Vancouver’s transformation is an influx of bartenders from around the world, particularly around the Commonwealth. Two of the great early epicenters of the modern cocktail culture were London and Australia, whose nationals can happily gain easy work visas into Canada. As Jacob Sweetapple, bar manager for the excellent (and exceedingly popular) bar at the shiny new Farimont Pacific Rim hotel says, “A lot of the top bartenders in town have worked all over the world and have just ended up here at the same time. In fact, we were drawn here by the energy that we could see concentrating.”
Sweetapple, an Australian, has worked in London and Sydney and brings a worldly flair to his menu at the Fairmont Pac Rim’s elegant lobby bar. He says that Vancouver has blossomed right before his very eyes. “A year ago in a place like this I probably couldn’t have gotten away with even putting a classic like a Sazerac on the menu,” he says, gesturing to the vast, light-filled, airy hotel lobby, “but somewhere around three months ago, people started clamoring for things like that.” I was charmed by his negroni made with house barrel-aged vermouth, but his stately Valid Victorian cocktail was the one that won me over. Its pale pink hue makes it look like a ladies’ drink, but it doesn’t pull any punches. The cocktail — a combination of gin, ginger liqueur and peychaud bitters — has a dry sophistication and seriousness (recalling, say, an English grand dame like Helen Mirren) that belies its color, and its femininity is strong and invokes Vancouver itself (a feminine city, in a way, as it’s surrounded by and transected by water in the form of bays, canals, rivers and creeks).
Appropriately, Vancouver has a strong contingent of female bartenders led by Danielle Tatarin, the reigning president of the Canadian Professional Bartenders Association and the charismatic presence behind the excellent bar at The Keefer. A hotel and bar, The Keefer resides in rapidly gentrifying Chinatown, which asserts its presence not only outside the bar but in the cocktails themselves, displayed in The Dragon Fly — a creative combination of gin, dragonfruit, pearl sake, lemon, ginger syrup and homemade magnolia bark tincture — and the Opium Sour, which seasons a mixture of grapefruit, Makers Mark and tamarind with poppyseed tincture.
Chinese cuisine and culture is the direct source for the Keefer’s almost-neighbor, Bao Bei, which was perhaps my favorite stop in Vancouver. Owned and run by another young woman, the charming Tannis Ling, formerly a bartender at Chambar, Bao Bei (a Chinese term of endearment like “precious” or “darling” to which Ling was evidently referred when she was young) is a quirky, idiosyncratic establishment that seems to radiate a personality (likely Ling’s), and serves excellent Chinese bistro fare that makes great salty, savory accompaniment to a phenomenal cocktail list that likewise delves into Ling’s native cuisine. The Handsome Benny involves bourbon, maraschino, Punt e Mes and “smoky plum,” a soothing elixir in Chinese culture. The Kai Yuen Sour applied Chinese plum syrup to rye, lemon, bitters and egg whites; and the Scarlet Clue cocktail was a marvel of balance despite blending sizable amounts of Angostura bitters and Cynar.
Food and drinks go hand in hand
Food is a common theme in the Vancouver bar scene. I can’t remember a single establishment I visited for cocktails that didn’t also serve food. L’Abattoir, in Vancouver’s nighttime playground of Gastown, is one of the most acclaimed restaurants in town, but also has a gorgeous, cozy bar run by Shaun Layton. (I loved the Meat Hook: bourbon, maraschino, Punt e Mes, and smoky Ardebg 10.) Across the street, the Diamond throbs with energy and seems to serve as the city’s cocktail hub. Operated by two of the top bartenders in town, Mark Brand (formerly of Boneta) and Josh Pape (Chambar), the Diamond has an extensive menu and pulls in the crowds on weekend nights. Though it serves food, I must say that I didn’t see a plate either of the times I was in there.
And these are but a few of Vancouver’s cocktail beacons. There is amazing stuff to be had at the Refinery, West, Pourhouse, Chambar, Uva and many others. Furthermore, the service I experienced in Vancouver was quite good. I was impressed that the citywide uniform for male bartenders was business casual — shirtsleeves usually accompanied by a swank necktie (no retro curly mustaches and vests), giving an air of capability and professionalism, while inspiring confidence in customers that they’re being well taken care of. If there’s one thing that bartenders suffer from here, it’s the availability of the wide variety of spirits we see in most U.S. states, as the flow of liquor into B.C. is regulated by the government. And, often, what bartenders can get their hands on is extremely expensive relative to its price across the border. “It makes life difficult, for sure,” said L’Abattoir’s Layton, “but I think it’s also inspired us to be more creative, to do more with less.”
Indeed, you wouldn’t know they had less — the overarching mood at the city’s bars is one of joyful plenitude.
Valid Victorian From the Fairmont Pacific Rim
- Shake all ingredients with ice and strain into a chilled martini glass.
The Scarlet Clue From Bao Bei
- Shake all ingredients with ice and strain into a chilled martini glass.
Jordan Mackay is the wine and spirits editor for San Francisco’s metropolitan magazine 7×7 and writes The Juice column for Chow. In addition, he’s a contributing writer for Wine and Spirits magazine and a regular contributor to Decanter and the San Francisco Chronicle.
Photo: The “A Spot of Tea” cocktail from Vancouver’s L’Abattoir. Credit: Jordan Mackay