North Van distillery wins worldwide attention thanks to Kaitlyn Stewart — but many have already fallen in love with its nutty liqueur
What might just be Vancouver’s coolest cocktail lounge isn’t in a fancy hotel or a downtown hipster hangout. Heck, it isn’t even in Vancouver and it isn’t, for that matter, actually a bar.
Sons of Vancouver is a micro-distillery located in the industrial area behind North Van’s Canadian Tire store. On weekends, its co-owners serve classic cocktails and tiki drinks in their 12-seat tasting room. If you haven’t heard much about them, you soon will.
Bartenders-turned-distillers James Lester and Richard Klaus have so far produced three products – a wheat-based vodka, chili-flavoured vodka and amaretto – and have rye whisky quietly aging in barrels. Of all those, a little surprisingly, it’s the amaretto that’s grabbed the world’s attention.
A couple of weeks ago, when Royal Dinette’s Kaitlyn Stewart won the Diageo Reserve World Class competition in Mexico, she used Sons of Vancouver’s No. 82 Amaretto in a signature cocktail she called Spilt Milk. When Esquire magazine ran the recipe on its website, the phone began to ring in North Van.
“It’s a pretty big deal for us,” says Lester. “I definitely sent that article to my mom.”
Amaretto is a sweet, nutty liqueur that often gets little respect, thanks to its ubiquitous use in all those questionable drinks that were popular back in the 1980s: Think Alabama Slammer, Blow Job, Orgasm, Flaming Dr. Pepper, Amaretto Sour. And don’t forget Blueberry Tea: “It’s my grandmother’s favourite cocktail,” Klaus says.
Amaretto is considered an almond liqueur but, Lester points out, “That’s not quite true.” It is actually made with bitter almonds, also known as almond kernels, which are inedible in part because they contain trace amounts of cyanide. (Rest assured, it doesn’t make its way into the liqueur.)
It originated in the area around Saronno, Italy, possibly in the 1850s or maybe as far back as the 16th century, depending on which story you prefer.
Although many commercial brands are syrupy sweet, the name means “a little bitter” and a quality amaretto should be a delicious balance of sweet, bitter and spice.
But it’s not exactly trendy. So why would two bartenders planning to open a whisky distillery want to produce amaretto, of all things?
“We’re big classic cocktail guys and amaretto is in a lot of older cocktails,” says Lester. Adds Klaus: “Basically, any whisky cocktail that calls for simple syrup, you can replace it with amaretto and it will be a better cocktail.”
They started with a recipe from Lester’s mom. From there it took them 82 tries to get the recipe right, hence the name.
What they concocted is a well balanced blend of blackberry honey, demerara sugar, vanilla, bitter orange oil and Turkish bitter almond extract.
“We’d love to use B.C. apricots, but the season is so short here and the quality isn’t as consistent,” says Klaus.
Local bartenders have fallen in love with the No. 82, and you can find it on back bars all over the city as well as in specialty liquor stores, where it retails for about $40.
Of course, you could also venture across the bridge to the distillery one weekend. There you can enjoy the amaretto in a number of cocktails, including a special one on tap that’s made with prosecco, amaretto and amaro from The Woods distillery, which is opening across the alley sometime in the next few weeks.
“We’ve been really lucky with the amaretto,” Lester says. “We’re safely an amaretto distillery at this point.”
• Sons of Vancouver Distillery is located at 1431 Crown St. in North Vancouver. The cocktail lounge is open Fridays, 5-9 p.m., Saturdays 1-9 p.m. and Sundays 1-5 p.m. For more info, visit sonsofvancouver.ca.
—by Joanne Sasvari