A botanical bonanza

The Alchemist tasting panel gathers for a round of international gins

The lineup featured gins from Japan, Italy, Spain and Canada, as well as the spirit’s traditional UK home. Dan Toulgoet photo

Summer is the season for refreshing gin cocktails, so it was only natural to think juniper for this issue’s tasting panel. Juniper, of course, is the signature flavour that defines gin, which is typically a grain spirit (though there are some fruit-based ones) that has been infused with botanicals that can include citrus peel, flowers, herbs, spices, stems, roots, seeds and fruits.

Think gin and you tend to think London Dry, the crisp, juniper-forward style developed in London in the 1830s. But there are a wide range of styles from all over the world. To sample a selection of them, we gathered at Tableau Bar Bistro with some of the city’s top barkeeps: Alex Black, bar manager of Wildebeest; Sabrine Dhaliwal, cocktail consultant and Pourhouse bartender; Adam Domet, bar manager of Pourhouse; J-S Dupuis, beverage director of Wentworth Hospitality; Robyn Gray of the Rosewood Hotel Georgia; and Ryan Johnson, bar manager of Tuc Craft Kitchen.

The panel blind-tasted 12 international gins. Here’s what they had to say.

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Bottled Up! with Rhett Williams

Rhett Williams. Dan Toulgoet photo

Meet Rhett Williams, a born and raised Vancouverite of the Northern variety, whose boozy beginnings were not actually so wet; with a background in music and years of studying chemistry in university, Rhett’s entry into the realm of spirits started with words before wood, as he found himself writing about cocktail history before his career behind the bar even started. He has since established himself as a staple in the industry, through years of working under the best and up to the top. His most recent venture as general manager at Dark Manor, which he helped open last year, has recently shut the doors. And what an adventure it was. These are the champions we need to see more of in Vancouver; those brave enough to take risks and open independent projects in a city of chains. For these lionhearts, when it doesn’t work out, they move on to the next project, slowly shaping the culture of Vancouver’s bar scene. Keep your eyes on Rhett, as his endless spirit (and dance moves) will without doubt take us somewhere new and exciting.

Laura: OK. Hi Rhett! It’s been a wild year for you. Tell me about what is going on in your world these days?

Rhett: Oh hi! Big life changes for me! I’ve never had so many transitions happening at once—personally and professionally. Excellent opportunity to make some positive changes and create healthy new habits. I’m excited to see where life and I take myself…

L: Now, you’ve had wet fingers behind the bars of some pretty awesome spots in Vancouver, from Pourhouse to Nightingale to Shameful Tiki to opening Dark Manor (which sadly just closed.) How did each spot contribute to your experience with working behind a bar?

Rhett Williams. Adam Blasberg photo

R: I was more than happy to start my life over again at the proverbial bottom of the totem pole at Pourhouse, an environment that encapsulated my romance with spirits and cocktails at the time. I had much of the knowledge, but this is where I learned the craft, so to speak. My mentors there, especially Christopher Flett and Brian Grant, gave me the big picture of hospitality: service, a commitment to quality, respect for your peers and your guests, and hard work. I learned most of what I know about this industry from my four years there, and I am ever thankful I had the honour of managing the bar for half that time amongst such great and respected company. The Pourhouse service-well on a weekend night is also where I got my chops and grace under pressure.

Nightingale was a wonderful experience in opening a restaurant, and in being more connected to the business side of things. Working with Cooper Tardivel and Alex Black was an honour, and I’ve never worked with so many friendly and lovely staff. I was learning about food and wine every day. It also challenged how much I had romanticized bartending; it was a great lesson in humility.

The Shameful Tiki Room is a very, very special place—such a unique and challenging bartending experience. It’s a testament to their creativity and insanity that it’s a functioning bar at all, haha. I’m not sure anything can throw me after having made that many drinks that are that complicated—alone—on that bar while that room is full. The prep was at times unreal, but Shea Hogan’s systems were inspiring.

The Dark Manor Inn was also a very unique experience. I had opened a restaurant before, but not with such a small team and with so much responsibility and control—and while still managing another business. This project definitely made me more aware of my limitations and stressed the importance of time and sanity management. Above all else, I’m honoured I was able to assemble such an incredible bar team. My fondest memory from that journey was designing the menu with Jason Earle, Jared Fontaine, and Rod Redford—the most collaborative process I’ve been a part of so far.

L: It was a solid effort getting Dark Manor off the ground, and we were all sad to see it close. I have much admiration for people who get things off the ground in this city, and often, just because something closes, it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t have opened. What was the most surprising part of your experience with Dark Manor? Anything in hindsight that you would have done differently?

R: Above all else the biggest challenge for us was location. I don’t think any of us anticipated the severity of this challenge, and given the option or the control, a different neighborhood would be the difference.

I’m proud of everything else we accomplished there. I think we created an amazing guest experience, and Rod Moore built one of the coolest rooms in town—by hand. I’m sad more people didn’t get to see it!

Rhett Williams. Erin Ireland photo

L: How would you describe the Vancouver bar scene? What makes it different from other cities that you’ve travelled to, or worked in?

R: I always felt our scene was inherently extra creative from the outset, mostly due to the lack of availability of so many products. When I started, I had to have my brother smuggle things up from the States like maraschino, violette, St. Germain, even American rye. Because of this we were forced to start thinking outside the box, recreate ingredients from scratch, and look to a more culinary approach. On that note, I think we also have had a consistently high level of service by virtue of almost every bar program being attached to great food programs—originally for licensing purposes, but the two just became integrated.

L: Do you think it’s hard for new bartenders to break into the scene in Vancouver? Any sage advice on getting started?

R: At the moment, I actually don’t. It seems we have more bar positions than bartenders at this point! However, finding the right one with an opportunity to learn and grow—this is definitely not easy. The importance of hard work, a drive to always be learning, and a sense of humility can’t be overstated.

My advice is to look for any position in programs you are excited about run by people from whom you want to learn. Be an apprentice or bar back at your favourite bar/restaurant, take the slow shifts, do what it takes to put yourself into an environment with the highest possible expectations and learn everything you possibly can. Read, watch, and ask questions. If you aren’t challenged, you’ll never evolve. Never get too comfortable.

L: I recently saw you shaking up some fancy cocktails at the Deighton Cup in the Rebel Yell tent. What’s the main difference between working behind wood, and working a tent at an event like Deighton Cup?

R: The main difference is that the attendees are not my guests but rather guests of the event. I still have some level of responsibility for their experience, but it’s much more of a smile-and-pump-the-drinks-out vibe. It’s definitely fun to work under changing conditions and environments and with new and different people.

L: Do you ever get the itch to compete in cocktail competitions?

R: Never. It’s a skill set I have not developed. They’re always fun to watch, but I have no desire to compete at this point. I’m probably the least competitive person you’ll meet anyway!

Rhett Williams, Whitney Wright photo

L: If you weren’t in Vancouver, where would you be?

R: San Francisco playing in a band with my brother, or southern Spain stuffing my face with Manchego.

L: The word Manchego is like Pavlov’s bell for me! Ha!

Okay, so bartending has a pretty wet and wild reputation as a job, particularly for those who have not worked in the industry. What is a misconception people have about bartending?

R: That it’s wet and wild—I have been fortunate to work in quite professional environments! Truly though, I feel the average person is unaware of how much sweat, blood, time, and passion this job demands.

L: Amen to that. And speaking of hard earned reputations, what would you say is the most underrated bar, or cocktail list, in this city?

R: I think “underrated” implies it is generally rated low, which is not true, but I always felt like Crowbar had a creative and super fun list and wasn’t talked about enough.

L: What’s your guilty pleasure drink?

R: A pitcher of slushy Margarita or a Bellini (also slushy, obvs.)

L: Yes! You and me, Cactus Club, ASAP! How about the most memorable drink you’ve ever had?

R: That’s a tough one, but the first that comes to mind is drinking a Sazerac at Arnaud’s French 75 in New Orleans and Chris Hannah asks if I want to enjoy it while walking through the museum upstairs.

L: That sounds like a fun night! What keeps you sane and balanced outside of work though?

R: The hours have always been one of the biggest challenges for me in this industry, and I feel this is an ongoing process. Exercise, yoga, fresh air, and taking some time every day for solitude.

L: …and Manchego cheese!

Rhett Williams. Katelyn Wells photo


Dog or cat? Dog

Negroni or Boulevardier? Negroni

Most overhyped bar trend?

Most despised bar term? Mixologist, cocktologist, cocktailian – any attempt at separating ourselves from the word “bartender.”

Most underutilized spirit? Eau de vie

First drink you ever had? Grandmummie’s gin & tonic 🙂

Pinot or Cabernet? Pinot

Go-to hangover cure? Carbs and electrolytes

High school prom song? Oh gosh I don’t remember that, but the first time I ever danced with a girl was to Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On”


Thanks for your time, Rhett!

At RauDZ, gin is in

Raudz Gin. Supplied photo

At RauDZ Creative Concepts, it’s not just about farm to table, but farm to glass. That’s why the Kelowna-based restaurant company has just launched its own craft gin, The Whole Truth, made by Okanagan Spirits and flavoured with locally grown botanicals.

It was inspired by The Truth, a variation on the G&T featured at RauDZ Regional Table on opening day a decade ago, back in spring 2009. The gin has plenty of refreshing cucumber and floral aromas, as well as the citrusy notes of mock orange, a native B.C. shrub that was foraged by Tyler Dyck, the CEO of Okanagan Spirits, at nearby Poplar Point.

The gin is available exclusively at RauDZ Regional Table, micro bar & bites, Sunny’s Modern Diner, and Terrafina at Hester Creek by RauDZ.

Ginned up

The evolution of terroir-driven made-in-B.C. gin

Some of the botanicals used to make gin; juniper, in the centre, is the only one that is absolutely essential. istockphoto.com photo

When news arrived that Sooke’s Sheringham Distillery had scooped Best Contemporary Gin in the World at the prestigious World Gin Awards, I, like so many others, was truly thrilled. After all, what an achievement for the relatively neophyte distillery perched on Canada’s wild and westernmost edge.

But there was also a personal connection, as the awards were judged at London’s Honourable Artillery Company, right across from where I used to stay at my Uncle Ricky’s apartment.

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Sheringham Cherub

Photo courtesy of Sheringham Distillery

With elderflowers as early harbingers of summer, Sooke meets St-Germain in this house recipe from Sheringham Distillery.

• 1.5 oz Sheringham Seaside Gin
• 0.5 oz St-Germain elderflower liqueur
• 0.25 oz maple syrup
• 0.25 oz lemon juice
• 0.5 oz loganberry or strawberry purée
• 0.75 oz sparkling elderflower juice such as Bottle Green
Garnish: Lemon peel

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A cooler cooler

Supplied photo

Love it or hate it, the cooler is the quintessential drink of summer. Typically a fruity, fizzy, vodka-based cocktail in a can, it’s the ultimate in convenience for all summer’s camping trips and backyard BBQs.

But sophisticated it ain’t. Until now.

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Three parties, one marriage

It’s wedding season. Here’s some advice for keeping the party going from a bartender who’s seen it all.

David Wolowidnyk. Ben Duffy photo

The notion of having three different parties to celebrate a marriage sounds like a great idea to many brides-to-be, but for some, the stress can be overwhelming. And as the bartender tasked with making the party happen, I’ve seen it all, the good, the bad and the really messy.

If you’re the one planning the party, you’re probably thinking something along the lines of: “OMG, what am I going to serve? Maybe I can get that hot bartender to create custom recipes, buy the ingredients, prepare everything, and bartend each of the parties.” Anything is possible—for a price, of course.

But before you get started, here’s what I’ve learned from the parties I’ve either tended or attended.

The shower

The bridal shower, an afternoon sprinkled with feigned innocence knowing that your grandma, mom and nieces will be there, runs a risk that one friend may drink a little too much and confess some indiscretions or possibly gift you a Kama Sutra book, detailing all the fun you will have, noting some of the pages not to miss. This is not that type of party. It is meant to be a sea of pastel-clad women, eating cute little cucumber sandwiches and tiny flaky pastries, sipping on bubbly rosé and perhaps a Pimm’s Cup or an Aperol Spritz. Floral cocktails also tend to be a hit with this crowd. They’re fresh and lively, delicate yet complex and low in alcohol. Shots are not OK here, unless it is grandma who instigates.

The bachelorette party

The bachelorette party, now this is when a bride can let loose with the girls. Debauchery is common. Do not invite anyone you can’t be your true self around because skeletons will likely come out to play even if you don’t want them to. This is not a drinking marathon; walk instead of run your way through the vodka sodas. It’s going to be a long night. Drink water before, between and after the shots or, better yet, show some restraint and limit the shots. The last thing you want is to be the one spilled into the taxi while the night is still young.

The wedding

My favourite wedding receptions have a modest yet thoughtful drink selection, catering to a wide range of preferences. A couple of craft beers, one crisp and clean, the other with a hoppy bite. A few decent wines—one white, one red and possibly a rosé—that aren’t begging to be paired with food. (Pro tip: Sticking to white wine eliminates the inevitable stains on clothing and teeth.) The cocktail selection should be simple, with a maximum of five choices, including the reception cocktail served upon arrival. At least one cocktail should be light and low in alcohol. Also offer one that is a little fruity, another that is spirit forward and one that is tart and dry. There are a lot of positives to batching cocktails for large parties, notably keeping things consistent and expediting service. But having cocktails prepared to order adds a level of personalized service that may be more important to you.

Whatever the occasion, leave the stress behind, leave the bartending to us, and have some fun!

Try this floral bubbly drink for any of your summer gatherings.

—by David Wolowidnyk


David Wolowidnyk’s Schwing pairs perfectly with any summer party.

This floral bubbly drink created by David Wolowidnyk is ideal as a reception cocktail for any of your spring flings.

• 1 oz gin or vodka
• 1 oz Aperol
• 0.5 oz lemon juice
• Dash orange flower water
• 2 oz sparkling wine

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