For those in the tiny club of Canadian drinks journalists, an event like Vancouver Cocktail Week (VCW) provides a rare opportunity to nerd out on niche, unexplored and trending topics in drinks.
While professional drinks writers regularly get to sample spirits, taste cocktails and interview bartenders and experts, rare are the opportunities to, well… completely nerd out. My friends tire pretty quickly of a nuanced debate on which Italian amari is more bitter, the ideal proportions of a house vermouth blend for a Manhattan and the finer points of making directionally frozen, diamond-clear ice. But at VCW 2022, all this and more was possible—served up with guided tastings and dinners were seminars deep-dive enough to satisfy even minutiae-thirsty writers and drinks superfans.
I led my own portion of a VCW educational event: a segment of the Gastown neighbourhood’s immersive Prohibition Walking Tour. I lead a “progressive” tasting in building a shot of rye into a Bittered Sling (and happily, sponsored by the eponymous Vancouver brand we had top-quality bitters to use), an Old Fashioned and finally a Manhattan; then I traced the evolution of the modern dry Martini back to the sweeter Martinez. But for my own edification, I focused my event picks on niche topics, from amaro and vermouth to ice and advanced cocktail techniques (like macerations, infusions, special juices and powders).
Scenes from Spirited Walking Tour in Gastown, led by Forbidden Vancouver. Supplied photos
Luigi Bosco, bar manager at Vancouver’s northern-Italian focused Carlino restaurant and bar, crystallized my mission when, during his excellent seminar on vermouth’s evolution in cocktails, he said, “These ingredients—vermouth, amari, ice— are the building blocks of great cocktails.” I understand those cocktail foundations more thoroughly after VCW 2022: here’s some of what I gleaned.
Bitter is Better
Priya Shah was rocking a blazer with a giant candy-pink bow on the back, a symbol of Campari’s bitter spirits bring to a cocktail: a burst of candy-coloured flavour, plus a welcome dark note in both aperitivos and amari that brings sweet, strong and sour cocktail flavours into balance. In a master class at Vancouver’s Giovane Bacaro, we experienced the slow-food pleasures of a multi-course pairing of small plates with bitter-kissed drinks.
Whereas we think of a North American happy hour as the punctuation mark to a work week, Shah said, “I think of aperitivo hour as the start of your night.” A fizzy, lower-proof Aperol spritz (in an adorable little bottle, a signature drink of Kitchen Table Group’s Matthew Morgenstern) was born to pair with salty cicchetti, like fried-sage chips. A skewer of juicy Wagyu beef and cipollini onions made a savouy pair with an Averna-focused Amaro Old Fashioned, “to cut through some of the fat,” Shah said. The pairing of a big, briney raw oyster served with an ultra-chilled “direct” martini, served Harry’s Bar-style in a shot-style glass, was “the new dirty Martini” one attendee quipped.
By the end, we all agreed: bitter is better.
Listening to Italian bar manager Luigi Bosco detail the history and development of vermouth in his homeland was enough of a draw, but the opportunity to be among the first to sample Lynx Vermouths—brand new to the Vancouver market—was catnip to the industry-heavy audience of bartenders and insiders at this event.
A blend of wine that’s fortified with spirit, plus aromatized with spices, citrus, vanilla and herbs (which must include wormwood or vermut, the bitter bark that possibly gives the drink its name), “Vermouth is to wine what gin is to spirits,” Bosco said. It has an ancient history that traces back to medicines made in ancient Greece, India and China.
Though vermouth has been integral in cocktails since their birth, Bosco explained that the modern taste for “dry” drinks (the opposite of sweet) limited vermouth’s popularity until recently. Just visit Spain, Portugal or much of continental Europe to see that hip young drinkers order it on the rocks, with a citrus twist or olives, as a modern session drink: most vermouth is less than 20 per cent alcohol by volume.
Lynx is special not only because it uses quality grape varieties (like Sauvignon Blanc, from the Cesconi winery in Italay; and red grapes for its red vermouth—most vermouth is made from neutral white grapes and coloured) but for its lovely complexity. The red smells of plums and port, oranges and violets; the white has a bouquet of citrus and blossoms, backed by green herbs. Though lovely in cocktails, it begs to be sipped alone—and could help kick-start that trend (already in full swing at places like Como Taperia) in Vancouver.
Extractions, Infusions, Macerations and Powders
Bartender Tarquin Melnyk is well known for his work representing Ms. Betters Bitters and the transformational craft cocktail bar he created at Long Table Spirits. His brother-from-another-mother Robyn Gray is the creator of the Inception Negroni at Prohibition, which you can now find at his home turf, Queen’s Cross Pub in North Vancouver. The two energetically presented an in-depth seminar on advanced ways of creating and extracting flavour. “This is really the foundation of craft bartending,” Melnyk said.
This event was a Willy Wonka-style dive into techniques: The two bartenders explained that they considered turning the dried Campari and Chartreuse powders they created into a jelly doughnut filling and topping. We learned about “slow-juicing” fruit and vegetables to get “fluffy,” highly flavoured juice: one cocktail contained a bell-pepper juice as vegetal as a quality tequila. We learned about sustainable methods like making a citrus stock from used lemon and lime rinds, and simple techniques like infusing Grand Marnier with exotic cola nut, saffron and vanilla bean to create a dramatically new liqueur. The ethanol (alcohol) in spirits and liqueurs is “the perfect extractor of flavours,” said Gray. “But you have to know what you’re extracting.”
Highlight drinks included a version of the Moonwalk (reportedly the first drink Neil Armstrong had post-moon landing: a Champagne cocktail with rose blossom, bitters and Curaçao), a fat-washed Maker’s Mark as smoky as a plat of barbecue (“Fat is a flavour conductor,” Melnyk explained) and an intensely spiced, almond-smooth Trinidad Sour.
All Things Ice with Kodama Ice
Though phantom-clear, nearly invisible cubes have graced upscale Vancouver bars for a few years, at more than a dollar each they haven’t been affordable for all bartenders and local spots. “Ice can be the most overlooked ingredient” in a cocktail, said Kodama Ice founder Jason Browne, a longtime bartender who’s committed to bringing ice as high quality as the spirits and ingredients in craft cocktails to the masses.
His bartending journey includes formative experiences in Japan, where hand-carving spheres, diamonds and cubes has been mainstreamed over 40 years. Browne traced the history of cooling (back to 1000-BC Egypt) and ice (originally harvested in clear slabs from U.S. lakes, and pioneered by entrepreneur Frederic Tudor), and announced we’re in “The new ice age” of craft bartending, kicked off perhaps 20 years ago.
While happy to chat thermodynamics, Browne started by butchering a massive slab of tempered, clear ice (it must rest at room temperature to be cuttable without splintering) into gorgeous cubes, diamonds and globes. Then he put three-prong icepicks, the standard tool of the trade, into everyone’s hands to carve their own asteroid-like spheres. Hosted by the top craft-spirit distiller and cocktail bar Resurrection Spirits, we were happily able to drop those spheres into a grain-forward rye Old Fashioned, where it quickly disappeared into nothing but a big chill.
—by Charlene Rooke