Sipping, Dining and Learning at Vancouver Cocktail Week

The Baijiu seminar by Hope & Sesame co-founders Bastien Ciocca and Andrew Ho ran through the major styles of baijiu, and how to use it in cocktails. Charlene Rooke photo

The Seminars

Chinatown speakeasy Laowai opened its freezer-style door to an international cohort of bar colleagues, who gave daytime seminars recounting their personal journeys to world-class status, then held court in the evenings with guest shifts showcasing their creations.

On March 3, the co-founders of Chinese bar Hope & Sesame, hospitality school pals Bastien Ciocca and Andrew Ho, recounted their journey bringing the first speakeasy-style modern bar to southern China, in Guangzhou. Today, they have several bars plus a spirits consultancy (catering to the likes of Ralph Lauren’s hospitality group) in their mini-empire, ranging from café-fronted speakeasies to heritage-themed Chinese bars and elegant, tasting-menu cocktail flights. Their San You bars feature all-Chinese spirits and produce, a perfect segue to their brief session on baijiu, the Chinese spirit in which Laowai specializes (with 50-plus bottlings, the largest selection in Canada). Illustrated with bottlings from SinoCan agency, Ciocca and Ho ran through the major styles of baijiu, and how to use it in cocktails. Bartenders in the room took notes on creating split-base cocktail and using baijiu smartly, as in Hope & Sesame’s famous Moutai Milk Punch, a clarified cocktail with Black Forest Cake flavours, served later that night of Laowai.

Vincente Gutierrez and Oscar Blanco of Madrid’s Salmon Guru gave a talk on the bar’s current Reset: a total configuration of the menu and drinks concept. Charlene Rooke photo

On March 6, in their khaki military-style jackets, Vincente Gutierrez and Oscar Blanco served as lieutenants for Salmon Guru founder Diego Cabrera. Their lively presentation captured the neon, rock-and-roll spirit of the pioneering Madrid bar, and the subject of the talk was the bar’s current Reset: a total configuration of the menu and drinks concept. The two recounted previous incarnations of the menu, from one featuring VR-generated menu animations and wacky dragon- and beetle-shaped serving vessels to today’s internationally informed concept, guided by the team’s travels and collaborations around the globe. Several of their bars feature drink-serving, counter-height “hubs” versus traditional bar-height perches that hide away some of the bartenders’ work, and feature fancy back bars of bottles. The two explained how it provides more intimate hospitality and service, and divides the energy around a room, rather than just focusing it at a few seats at the bar. To complement the modern — an ice room for cutting their own clear cubes and spheres to Guru Lab where Cabrera can often be found concocting new ingredients and potions — they also run Viva Madrid, and 1856 café reinvented for modern times (with Dark Side speakeasy above), where mostly local guests “elbow up to the bar” for coffee, beer, sherry, tapas and more.

The Tastings

Carlino hosted a European Vermouth tasting, led by UVIC’s Dr. John Volpe. Charlene Rooke photo

On March 5, Carlino hosted a European vermouth tasting, featuring bottles by Cesconi in Italy, Kir-Yianni in Greece and Spain’s Valminor, seen in some of Vancouver’s fine restaurants and bars. University of Victoria professor Dr. John Volpe hit just the right note between nerdy and academic, challenging a room of seasoned palates to taste three white and three red vermouths, matching them to a list of key flavour and eventually identifying their countries of origin. He recounted the medicinal history of vermouth, originally a flavoured wine using herbs and botanicals with powerful homeopathic qualities, namely the bittering agent wormwood (currently being studied as a potential treatment and cure in modern medicine, he noted). Lynx Italian vermouths were lush and rich; Spanish Entroido bottlings were perfectly balanced between tart and botanically bright; and Greek Veroni red and white vermouths were wildly herbaceous and complex. Though some bartenders in the room were no-doubt formulating cocktail inspiration, these vermouths were lovely enough to drink on their own, and shone in cocktails paired with an Italian-inspired Carlino lunch.

James Neil led an industry-only tasting of top Bowmore bottlings at the Gerard Lounge. Charlene Rooke photo

On March 6, Beam-Suntory international whisky brand ambassador James Neil hosted an intimate group of invitees to the Gerard Lounge for a tasting of top bottlings. He introduced the latest, third edition of the Bowmore x Aston Martin Master’s Selection 22-year-old bottlings with a multisensory tasting using sound, smell and taste to profile the delectably chocolately, peppery and slightly maritime-salty dram. A display of fruit, spices and other flavours challenged guests to identify them in the key range of Bowmore bottlings. Other treats awaited on the bar, such as a Bowmore 29, a past edition of Bowmore Master’s Selection and a decadent bottle of the latest Legent, American bourbon blended with Japanese elegance: in this case, using sherry-heavy casks from Yamazaki.

The Dinners

The Omakase Experience at AMA, a cocktail and raw bar, featured dishes paired with Kujira whisky. Charlene Rooke photo

On March 5, relative newcomer AMA (a cocktail and raw bar unexpectedly located above Nammo’s Greek restaurant on the Drive) showcased both its kitchen and bar at a spectacular Omakase experience, with Kujira whisky. Made from rice rather than barley or other cereal grains, Kujira pairs beautifully with the fresh and playful cuisine at AMA. An appetizer of Hamachi and tobiko sandwiched in rice wafers was the perfect bar bite to accompany a lemon-mint infused sake. Delicately fatty cuts of bluefin were beautifully balanced with a Kujira 10-year-old whisky matured in bourbon barrels, its sharp and peppery notes enhanced with chili-infused sake and citrus foam. Grilled Kurobuta pork chop found its match in a peaty, mirin and soy-kissed sour with Kujira 5-year-old.

An Undergrowth cocktail (reposado, candy-cap mushroom, maple, tea), paired with olive-oil poached snails with kombu and sunchokes. Charlene Rooke photo

On March 5, the female-powered Bar Swift swept in from London to Botanist for a cocktail pairing dinner featuring both bars swapping courses and flavours with chef Hector Laguna. Botanist’s hot pairings included Undergrowth (tequila with candy-cap mushroom, sherry, maple and black tea) with a creamy pot of olive-oil poached snails with kombu and sunchokes; and a coconutty lobster tom yum, paired with a gin, coconut water, spice and lemon Coco-Nuts. Swift’s signature rough-hewn, hand-carved ice chilled drinks like a rosé aperitivo, tequila, Campari and prune-liqueur Desert Rose (paired with grilled tenderloin). Swift’s Droplet was a refreshing lime sherbet, gin, akvavit concoction that perfectly offset flavours of charred amberjack with black truffles.

—by Charlene Rooke

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