All hail the Empress’ new reign

Victoria’s grande dame gets a makeover with a sexy new bar and a truly royal namesake gin

The new Q Bar at the Fairmont Hotel Empress in Victoria, BC. Fairmont Hotel Empress photo

The gin is sky blue – that’s right, blue – and it has a delicate floral aroma. Add a little tonic water, though, and it magically turns a beautiful royal purple.

“It’s spectacular, isn’t it? It goes from that nice blue, then you pour the tonic in there, it swirls around, and you get that nice pink colour,” says Peter Hunt, president of Victoria Distillers. “It’s certainly something fun for bartenders and mixologists to play with.”

The new Empress gin from Victoria Distillers, alongside a gin and tonic at the new Q Bar. Victoria Distillers photo

It certainly is, especially for the bartenders at Victoria’s Fairmont Empress Hotel, who worked with Victoria Distillers to develop the hotel’s new namesake gin. It officially launches this week and will be available for a suggested retail price of $46.99 at BC Liquor Stores.
But the Empress gin is just one of the exciting things happening at Victoria’s grande dame these days. The 109-year-old hotel is undergoing a multi-million-dollar makeover that has had traditionalists bemoaning the closure of the Bengal Lounge, the removal of a century’s worth of ivy and the loss of a pair of weeping sequoias.

A little ironically, removing all those layers of history has actually revealed the heritage character of the property—“renewed heritage,” is what Q at the Empress’ general manager, Albert Kirby, calls it—and nowhere is that more true than in the new Q Bar.

The new Q Bar at the Fairmont Hotel Empress. Fairmont Hotel Empress photo.

The décor is pretty swell. But it’s what the bar is serving that’s really exciting here. “Fairmont’s got this ‘classics perfected’ program, and this is the Pacific Northwest spin on that,” Kirby says. “All the cocktails have a classic base, but made with local ingredients.” For instance, there’s the 150 Royale, made with Sherignham gin, Odd Society crème de cassis and Sea Cider. Or the Northwest Collins, with its house-made fir bitters. Or the wide range of gin and tonics – gin is, not surprisingly, a big deal here, being the favourite tipple of both the old Queen and the current one.

But the star of the bar program is the Empress 1908 cocktail – and now the Empress gin. “In 2008, they created the 1908, a cocktail that represented the hotel’s 100-year anniversary. With the renewed heritage, we thought we’d have a renewed 1908,” Kirby says. The original drink featured vodka infused with Empress Blend tea; for the new cocktail, one of the bartenders created an infusion of both tea and butterfly pea flowers that made for a drink of appropriately royal hue. The butterfly pea plant is a vining flower that grows widely in Thailand and Burma. Aside from its vivid indigo hue, what makes it unique is its highly sensitive pH balance: The slightest change in acidity transforms it from sky blue to purple to magenta.

Meanwhile, Victoria Distillers had been talking to the hotel about creating a bespoke gin. It only made sense to adapt the bar’s floral infusion on a much grander scale. The gin is made with a bold bouquet of botanicals,

including ginger, coriander, rose, cinnamon, Empress Blend tea and, of course, juniper. “It’s got more juniper than the Victoria gin. And instead of lemon and orange, we use grapefruit,” Hunt says. But the botanical everyone will be talking about is the transformative butterfly pea flower, which Hunt sources from fair trade farmers in Thailand. “It’s not really a gimmick,” he says. “It’s just adding another element.”

Queen Victoria would approve.

—by Joanne Sasvari

Make the Empress 1908 cocktail.

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