Culture Club

Talented bartenders have put Vancouver’s cocktail scene on the world map.

Wendy McGuinness says local spirits must earn their place on her back bar. Fred Fung photo.

In the mood for a Sazerac? How about a Negroni punch bowl mixed with local gin and vermouth, or a playful spin on Arctic Ungava with a dash of citric acid and spritz of Laphroaig perfume? Whatever your poison, it can be found in Vancouver, home to one of the most vibrant cocktail scenes in North America.

It wasn’t always this way. The depth and breadth of the city’s spirited talent is all the more remarkable when you consider how far the community has come in 15 years with scant resources.

Jay Jones was one of Vancouver’s first cocktail pioneers. File photo.

Back at the turn of the millennium, when most seemingly sophisticated bars were still shooting Margaritas out of soda guns, two lonely trailblazers stood out from the crowd: Chris Stearns at Lumière and Jay Jones at West (then called Ouest) strove to mix cocktails that were as ambitious as the food coming out of their respective kitchens, incorporating bitters, sourcing then-obscure spirits such as absinthe, and introducing long-forgotten classic recipes.

“It was a challenge at the start, trying to persuade our patrons that a drink experience could be more than just some simple flavours that get you drunk,” recalls Jones, now the beverage manager for Vij’s Restaurant Group.

We were smashing drinks with clubs and lighting things on fire.

It didn’t take long for the ball to start rolling. In 2004, the new Belgian-themed Chambar Restaurant, which injected fine dining with a splash of fun Euro flair, knocked it out of the park immediately upon opening, with a serious cocktail program backed up by its kitchen.

The now-cult classic Blue Fig (gin infused with roasted figs and served with a slice of blue cheese), the lavender syrup for sours, the Campari powder, the paper-thin dried pineapple garnishes—and many other elements that turned Chambar’s cocktail program into a citywide sensation—were cooked up in collaboration with pastry chef Eleanor Chow.

“That was one of the things that helped us take the program to the next level,” says former bar manager Wendy McGuinness. “Eleanor really understood how to utilize fresh ingredients and highlight flavours. She helped us all take the simplicity of a well-made cocktail and make it more of a showpiece.”

Over at George, the city’s first London-style cocktail bar, British transplant Nick Devine was also learning to adapt to the limited supplies on local liquor store shelves by mixing syrups and infusing his own spirits (which wasn’t technically legal).

“People were blown away when they saw all the fresh herbs spread across our big wooden work table,” recalls Devine, who had come from London’s famed Soho House. “We were smashing drinks with clubs and lighting things on fire.”

A collegial rivalry pushed local mixologists to be ever more innovative. Lou Lou Childs photo.

The flames fanned, a lively cocktail culture ignited across the city. The diaspora from Chambar, and to a smaller extent George, spread to Gastown and smaller neighbourhood nooks where nothing more ambitious than a highball had previously been served. Boneta, The Diamond, Pourhouse, L’Abattoir, Bao Bei, The Keefer Bar, The Cascade Room, The Refinery, Uva, The Granville Room—the list of serious cocktail spots kept growing.

“Because Vancouver is a small big city we all knew each other and hung out together,” says McGuinness, explaining how the friendly rivalry pushed their competitive edge in a collegial way.

The restrictions forced them to be creative. And the world began noticing.

Yet, for many years, it remained difficult to source certain essential ingredients. When not raiding farm fields for the local fruits and produce that typified Vancouver’s market-fresh kitchen cocktails, local mixologists were making regular runs to Seattle to buy bourbon, bitters and
Crème de Violette.

The restrictions forced them to be creative. And the world began noticing.

In the lead up to the 2010 Winter Olympic Games, Imbibe Magazine welcomed Team Canada onto the international cocktail podium with a glowing two-page feature. In 2011, Tales of the Cocktail chose Vancouver as the site of its first satellite festival outside New Orleans. And, two years ago, the Diageo Reserve World Class invited Canada to compete for the first time. Vancouver’s Grant Sceney (bartender at the Fairmont Pacific Rim) placed fourth.

The explosion of the local spirit industry goes hand in hand with that coming of age.

“Not every distillery makes it on to my back bar,” says McGuinness. “They have to earn their place. But the ones that do are really advancing the city. When an international guest sits at your bar, you can proudly pull out a vodka and make a killer Martini and say ‘Hey, we make this here. We don’t just have great cocktail bars, but great spirits as well.’”

—by Alexandra Gill

Make the Blue Fig cocktail.

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