Looking back at the year that changed Vancouver’s cocktail culture

The Olympic flame isn’t the only legacy of 2010—so is Vancouver’s vibrant cocktail scene. Istockphoto.com photo

When Vancouverites look back at 2010, we think of the Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games, a rain-soaked Wayne Gretzky and all those red mittens. But the really big news that year could be found at the bottom of a cocktail glass.

Proper cocktail bars were finally opening all over town. Global spirits brand reps started showing up to dole out samples. The organizers of Tales of the Cocktail reached out to see if Vancouver would be a good site for Tales on Tour. (Spoiler alert: Yes, in 2011 and 2012.) And Imbibe  magazine discovered “a Galapagos of mixology, a place where cocktails have evolved independently from the rest of the drinking world.”

Ten years later, we revisit the year that changed the city’s cocktail culture.

Justin Taylor brulées a cocktail at Yew Seafood + Bar. Photo courtesy Justin Taylor

The scene

“Honestly, 10 years, it’s been a bit of a blur,” says David Wolowidnyk, who was bar manager at West Restaurant in 2010 and is now restaurant manager at Homer Street Café.

“George [Ultra Lounge] was still really cool because there weren’t a lot of bars that focused on cocktails,” he recalls. “The Diamond had just opened . . . then Keefer Bar opened in February, and it was exciting because there was another venue focused on cocktails especially.”

“We were in Chinatown before Chinatown had any restaurants, coffee shops or condos,” recalls Danielle Tatarin, who opened The Keefer Bar and based its apothecary-style concept around traditional Chinese medicine. Four years later, The Keefer was the first Canadian bar included in the globe’s top 100 bars by World’s 50 Best; today, Tatarin lives in Mexico where she owns a mezcaleria and distillery. “I really pushed myself and my staff to create a space that was inclusive, interesting and somewhere people loved to sit and enjoy a well-made drink,” she says.

Justin Taylor, who is now general manager at The Cascade Room, but was then the head bartender at the Four Seasons, remembers: “It was the explosion of cocktail culture and a lot of really damn good restaurants opened.” Among them: Bao Bei, Corner Suite Bistro Deluxe, Revel Room, the Fairmont Pacific Rim Lobby Bar, The Refinery, Calabash, Uva, L’Abattoir, The Cascade Room, The Diamond and Pourhouse.

“We opened in September of 2009 so we barely had time to get our shit together before the world descended,” recalls Jay Jones, builder and original bar manager of Gastown’s Pourhouse, now Bar Development Leader at JOEY Restaurant Group. “Pourhouse became that beacon saloon in Gastown.”

“There were six or eight reputable places to go and they were all restaurants,” remembers Josh Pape, who opened The Diamond in June 2009 and is now a partner in Gooseneck Hospitality. “You couldn’t really order cocktails by name. If you ordered a Mojito or a Negroni, you’d never know what you would get.” He adds, “It’s funny to think how far it has come.”

Dani Tatarin pours drinks at the groundbreaking Keefer Bar circa 2010. Facebook.com/TheKeeferBar photo

The players

Behind the bar were what Taylor calls “the OGs of bartending,” people like Lauren Mote, Mark Brand, Wendy McGuinness, Cam Bogue and Nick Devine. And they were building a real community.

“A group of dedicated bartenders came together and formed the CPBA [Canadian Professional Bartenders Association] in 2009, but really, it was 2010 that it started to take root and grow, influencing a larger community and encouraging growth and sharing information,” Tatarin says.

“There were competitions everywhere,” Taylor says. “The Giffard competition was huge; it was the first one that took you somewhere. Those things really helped put us on the map because they really showcased everybody.” The most memorable competition was likely the Bartender Mixlympics, organized by Shaun Layton at George Ultra Lounge, which featured several international bar stars in town for the Winter Games.

“Everybody pushed each other in a positive kind of way. It was a time for us to really build the community,” Wolowidnyk says. “I don’t think any of the key players ever thought, hey, I made it. But we’ve come so far.”

The legacy

Today, Vancouver’s barkeeps have better access to products, better knowledge behind the bar, better informed consumers and infinitely better access to information via apps and social media.

The idea that bartenders could be cool and on the cover of magazines, but also make a career of it—2010 was the real turning point

“The idea that bartenders could be cool and on the cover of magazines, but also make a career of it—2010 was the real turning point,” Jones says. “It took a lot of people and a lot of effort and a lot of camaraderie to establish that culture. It all just led to us being a real family.”

“The people who are opening restaurants today have to go into it understanding a cocktail program,” says Taylor. “That third element of cocktails has to be there. You can even see it in the chain restaurants.”

“It was a time of inspiration, learning what to do and what not to do,” says Wolowidnyk. “It’s still happening. It’s still vibrant. There is a great rapport between bartenders. It’s about helping each other rather than pushing each other down.”

“I’m reluctant to say that The Diamond changed things, but when we opened the ethos was educational,” Pape says. “We were a good place to train guests and make people understand that this is what a cocktail should be. You can take pride in what you do and still have fun.”

And, he adds, “I think it’s all very exciting now. It feels like it’s in really good hands.”

The Old Fashioned cocktail. Dan Toulgoet photo

Cheers to 2010’s signature drink: Along with everything else, 2010 ushered in a respect for the classics, but there was one cocktail above all that epitomized the year.

Jay Jones remembers putting the Old Fashioned on the menu at Pourhouse and watching it take off. “At that time and that place whisky was starting to make its mark,” he says. “It’s hard not to argue that the Old Fashioned had a coming out party in 2010.”

—by Joanne Sasvari

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