Out of the past

Raise a glass to the resurrection of the Vancouver Cocktail

The Hotel Georgia (pictured), the Sylvia and the Waldorf all created signature cocktails in the 1940s and ’50s. Hotel Georgia photo

Gin, sweet vermouth, Bénédictine and orange bitters. It sounds simple, but so do many of the world’s legendary cocktails. And the Vancouver Cocktail deserves to be recognized among the classics.

What’s that, you say? Never heard of YVR’s hometown cocktail? You’re not alone. The Vancouver Cocktail joins a legion of forgotten drinks that have recently been rediscovered by dogged cocktail historians. In this case, that historian was bartender-turned-consultant Steve Da Cruz.

Steve Da Cruz dug into city archives to find the Vancouver Cocktail recipe. Katie Huisman photo

The Vancouver Cocktail joins a legion of forgotten drinks that have recently been rediscovered by dogged cocktail historians.

“It actually found me,” he recalls. In 2006, Da Cruz was working in a Gastown bar, back when Vancouver’s most historic neighbourhood was pretty much a wasteland for anyone searching for a proper drink.

Then, one day, Josiah Bates walked in.

Bates, now in his 80s, had grown up in Scotland. In the 1950s, he moved to Vancouver, where he joined the fire department, then was ordained as a prison minister, and eventually became a partner in the OK Boot Corral store near Gastown’s Gassy Jack statue.

“He’s a character,” Da Cruz says. “He’s got this thick Scottish brogue, and dresses like a cowboy.”

He also knows his spirits. He found a kindred soul in Da Cruz, and would bring him gifts of vintage spirits and equally vintage stories. Among them was the tale of the Vancouver Cocktail.

“He brought me the recipe one day on a napkin and said, ‘This is what we used to drink at the Sylvia Hotel,’” Da Cruz recalls. “So I made it, and it was delicious.”

The Sylvia Hotel was granted Vancouver’s first cocktail lounge licence in 1954. Rob Newell photo

Intrigued, Da Cruz dropped by the West End’s iconic hotel to ask about the cocktail. “And nobody knew what I was talking about,” he says. So he headed over to City Hall, where he found that, in 1954, the Sylvia Hotel was the first establishment in Vancouver to be granted a cocktail lounge licence. The Vancouver Cocktail was created in celebration: a fragrant, fruity-spicy-herbaceous white-spirit concoction that was surprisingly deep, rich and complex. A contradictory affair, it was indeed a bit like Vancouver itself.

SWEET GEORGIA: The recipe for the Hotel Georgia Cocktail was discovered in the hotel archives during renovations in 2011.

The Sylvia wasn’t the only hotel in the city with a signature cocktail. A decade earlier, the Hotel Georgia had created a delicately aromatic sour as its namesake tipple. The Waldorf Hotel, too, had a house cocktail that was so popular customers would phone in and have it delivered to them when they were out on the town. What people loved, Da Cruz notes, were its six extravagant garnishes. “It was more about the snacks.”

By the early 1960s, last call had rung for these classic cocktails. What killed them is up for debate. Trendy Tiki culture took its toll. So did the increasing popularity of vodka and wine. It didn’t help that the rebellious mood of the 1960s rejected anything that went before as square and, worst of all, old. In the case of the Vancouver Cocktail, perhaps it was the rumour that an excess of the drink may have contributed to the mysterious 1959 death of actor Errol Flynn.

Luckily for us, the Vancouver Cocktail has been dusted off again, just like the long-lost Vieux Carré in New Orleans and the Hanky Panky at London’s Savoy Hotel. Today, all these classic cocktails can once again be enjoyed in the cities where they were invented.

The Vancouver Cocktail is a terrific drink. But more than that, it is a taste of history in a glass—no small thing in a city that tends to forget it even has a past worth preserving. As Da Cruz says happily, “It’s an interesting story, filled with ill repute.”

—by Joanne Sasvari

Make the Vancouver Cocktail.

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