“Welcome to Vancouver Cocktail Week! I’ve been waiting to say this for a long time.”
Dave Mitton, the Canadian whisky global ambassador for Corby Spirit and Wine Ltd., was in Vancouver last week to lead a master class on rye and blended whiskies at Gastown’s Clough Club.
But before he began his deep dive into our national spirit (did you know that more Canadian whisky is consumed in Texas than all of Canada?) and allowed us to wet our whistles with eight revelatory tasting samples, he took a moment to recognize the significance of the inaugural five-day event, presented by The Alchemist magazine.
“Vancouver was the first city in Canada to kick-start the craft cocktail renaissance,” he explained. “Back in the early 2000s, when I owned a bar in Toronto, all the guys from Bay Street were sending back their Manhattans because the drinks were too strong. Prominent food writers were giving us the thumbs down because we served local beer and wine. Nobody was interested in serious cocktails. But here in Vancouver, you were way ahead of us and this week has been a long time coming.”
Cheers to that!
Vancouver Cocktail Week, jam-packed with more than 70 events, wrapped up on Thursday with the Fun City Gala at the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver’s newly renovated rooftop bar.
I don’t usually write about food or drink festivals after they’re over. But booze holds such an important place in Vancouver’s spirited history – the city was founded in the Gastown saloon district, for Pete’s sakes.
Against all odds (including antiquated liquor laws and limited supplies in liquor stores, which forced local bartenders to make regular runs to Seattle to buy basics like bourbon, bitters and crème de violette) the Vancouver bartending community has thrived.
It attracted the attention of Tales of the Cocktail, the world’s premier trade conference and festival based in New Orleans, which held its first off-site Tales on Tour here – in 2012.
There have been other cocktail and spirit festivals in B.C., including Victoria’s Art of the Cocktail, Hopscotch (centred around whisky) and B.C. Distilled. Central Canada has Toronto Cocktail Week (a consumer event) and the Toronto Cocktail Conference (for industry only).
But Vancouver Cocktail Week, which played host to events for both trade members and the general public, came racing out of the gates with unparalleled ambition. There were seminars on how to carve ice spheres, nerdy technical classes on macerations and infusions, walking tours of Gastown animated by actors, cocktail-pairing dinners galore and elevated happy hours at bars all over the city.
The event was originally scheduled for last year. It was postponed by the pandemic, but the timing couldn’t have been better.
Cocktails at home were one of my greatest joys during those long two years of social isolation. I know I’m not alone because liquor sales soared and the interest in home bartending reached new heights. Now that public-health restrictions are easing, we are all emerging into the public sphere ready to take our rightful seats at the bar more curious, jubilant and thirsty than ever.
In the meantime, here are a few tips and trends to watch out for.
Lamb poutine pairs beautifully with buffalo-milk punch
The festival kicked off to a sunny start with Sunday brunch for 140 people at Botanist Restaurant. All five courses were paired with cocktails created by some of the city’s top mixologists. In an unusual reversal of the customary order, chef Hector Laguna created his dishes to match the drinks rather than vice-versa. I don’t know of many chefs who would be willing to play second fiddle to his bar team. But this isn’t Laguna’s first cocktail rodeo – he and Botanist head bartender Jeff Savage have been holding exclusive cocktail dinners throughout the pandemic and I highly recommend you book one.
Some bartenders say it’s easier to pair food with cocktails than with wine. “A wine is what it is, but with cocktails you can manipulate the ingredients. It gives you more room to play,” says The Chickadee Room’s Sabrine Dhaliwal, who paired duck prosciutto tartin with a bold, coffee-bittered, cognac-based libation.
But some drinks on this menu sounded so complex, it was hard to imagine they would work on their own, let alone with egg-yolk jam and braised lamb belly. Max Curzon-Price’s Float Like A Butterfly, Sting Like A Bee is a case in point. The buffalo-milk punch was made with cherry-blossom tea, rum, grappa and calvados. The drink was round, floral and clear but creamy. And when paired with Laguna’s lamb belly poutine, served on a bed of broken-down pave potatoes with Full Moon Valley cheese, the citrus notes burst through as bright as a new dawn. It was one of the best drink-and-food pairings I’ve experienced.
Great cocktails don’t require alcohol
“Ten years ago, nobody would have imagined that non-alcoholic cocktails would be a thing,” said Kaitlyn Stewart, Canada’s first World Class Global Bartending Champion, at Monday’s Diageo World Class seminar.
But the trend is here to stay, she emphasized. Many bars now list alcohol-by-volume, or ABV, measures on their menus. And it’s forcing bartenders to get more creative.
It’s not so easy for home bartenders who don’t have all that hard-won creativity at their fingertips. And I, for one, have had a bottle of Seedlip zero-proof distillate stashed at the back of a kitchen closet for more than a year with no idea of how to mix it.
Ms. Stewart had tons of interesting tips to share – use no-alcohol modifiers like verjus, switchels, shrubs and different types of sugars (molasses, honey, maple syrups, agave) for depth and complexity. Discover more at: diageobaracademy.com
You need a high-speed juicer for fluffy drinks
“What do you think about Oregon grape?” The question was posed by a home drinks enthusiast, not a professional bartender. And it amazed Robyn Gray, the managing partner at North Vancouver’s Queens Cross Pub, who co-hosted the highly technical Ms. Better’s Bitters seminar on Extractions, Infusions, Macerations and Powders.
But this question and others from the deeply engaged crowd speaks to just how serious home bartenders have become throughout the pandemic. (Oregon grape, by the way, is a bittering agent, sometimes substituted for gentian, that grows wild in West Vancouver’s Lighthouse Park.)
Of the many tips I learned that night, one of most interesting was that I can make my own fluffy orange juice Garibaldi, the drink made famous by New York’s Dante bar, with a high-speed Breville juicer.
More importantly, “The best bars in the world don’t become the best because they do all that science-y stuff,” said co-host Tarquin Melnyk. “They become the best bars because they build communities and places where people want to get together.”
After two years of this pandemic, I think we could all use a drink. So get out there and support your local pub, bar and craft cocktail emporiums. They’re back and they’re ready to welcome you.
Plan your weekend with our Good Taste newsletter, offering wine advice and reviews, recipes, restaurant news and more. Sign up today.