Variations on a theme

Five Vancouver bars that offer immersive fun along with your cocktail

Key Party interior
At Key Party, the 1970s are in full swing with retro-inspired cocktails like the B52 and a vegan Grasshopper. Photo courtesy of Key Party

Step into ABQ London bar and you’re no longer in the city’s Hackney district but an RV where people in goggles and yellow hazmat suits “cook” their own molecular cocktails. Taking its name from an episode of Breaking Bad, ABQ is a trip inside lead character Walter White’s mobile meth lab.

With its dry ice and gas masks, the spot is just one example of the kinds of immersive experiences that are making theme bars so popular around the globe. In Paris, for instance, there’s L’Urgence, a medical-themed bar that uses test tubes as tumblers. And New York’s Oscar Wilde pays homage to the playwright through marble statues, Victorian-era furniture and drinks that go by names like the Selfish Giant and Ugly Peacock, nods to his life and work.

In fiercely competitive markets and uncertain times, places that serve their slings and sours with a chaser of escapism have an edge, a draw that sets them apart and helps keeps them afloat.

Vancouver, too, is home to several bars that do more than pour masterfully mixed drinks by creating otherworldly settings. The Shameful Tiki Room was one of the first, its kitsch décor and Mai Tais having rekindled the city’s passion for tiki culture.

The city’s growing collection of theme bars extends far beyond Polynesian beaches, however. Here are a few to consider next time you’re looking for a delicious liquid getaway.

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The Fire at the Mill

The Black Lodge's The Fire at the Mill cocktail.
The Black Lodge photo

This cocktail was created by Edmonton’s James Grant, and is featured on the list at The Black Lodge.

• Mist/rinse of peaty whisky
• 1 oz rosemary-infused gin (see note)
• 1 oz Scotch whisky
• 0.5 oz medium dry sherry
• 0.5 oz ginger syrup
• 0.5 oz lemon juice
• 2 dashes Angostura bitters

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Spiced Apricot Sour

Key Party's Spiced Apricot Sour
Key Party photo

This cocktail from Key Party is sweetly spicy and just sophisticated enough.

• 1.5 oz chai-spiced rye (see note)
• 0.5 oz apricot brandy
• 1 oz egg white
• 2 oz lemon juice
• Generous bar spoon of apricot preserve
• 0.5 oz simple syrup (see note)
• 2 dashes orange bitters (available at Gourmet Warehouse, Welks or Modern Bartender)

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Lust

Hail Mary’s photo

A divine take on one of the seven deadly sins at Hail Mary’s.

• 2 oz bourbon
• 0.75 oz simple syrup
• Splash of peach schnapps
• 2 oz fresh lime juice
• 1 egg white
• Dash of Angostura bitters

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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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Cool Canadiana

At Timber, Jonathan Dennis plays with flavours that hail from coast to coast to coast

Dan Toulgoet photo

As an all-Canadian pub-style restaurant, it’s no surprise that Timber has a pretty great beer selection. “But with the Canadiana theme, you can do so much more,” says restaurant manager Jonathan Dennis, who also oversees the bar program. “There’s a lot of people who want to have a killer Canadian cocktail as well.”

And that’s just what he is serving up at this friendly neighbourhood hangout on Robson at the gateway to Vancouver’s West End.

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Some like it hot

Canada’s artisan distillers are bringing their own spiced heat to the party

Istockphoto.com photo

Don’t look now, but Canada’s distillers have been gently plotting to spice things up for all you unsuspecting folks out there.

For instance, did you know that Fireball Cinnamon Whisky—which has taken off in a big way in the U.S.—has replaced Jägermeister as the masochistic shot of choice? It just doesn’t seem to be what you’d expect from a laid-back kind of land like Canada. But it turns out we Canucks were dabbling in pyrotechnic tippling well before its propulsion into pop-shot culture.

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Spicy Moscow Mule

Sons of Vancouver’s Spicy Moscow Mule. Photo courtesy of Sons of Vancouver

Sons of Vancouver Distillery turns up the heat with their spicy take on the Moscow Mule

• 1 oz Vodka Vodka Vodka
• 0.5 oz Spicy Chili Vodka
• 5 oz Dickie’s Ginger Beer

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The New Ice Age

Oversize cubes, spheres, sticks, flakes and pebbles: It’s not just frozen water anymore—artisanal ice is a full-fledged cocktail ingredient

Istockphoto.com photo

The artisanal iceman cometh, and he’s not at all cold. With a short reddish beard, bright blue eyes and a friendly face, Dex James is downright warm, as he performs what looks like a magic trick. In the Dang Good Ice storefront in the Fraserhood, he pours water on a mammoth, crystal-clear, square-sided stick of ice in a highball glass and…it disappears.

Artisan ice can be the nearly invisible ingredient that helps deliver cocktail perfection—including king cubes so beautifully clear, one of the tenders behind the Fairmont Pacific Rim lobby bar tells me that imbibers of its white Lucky Negroni frequently ask, “Where’s the ice?” Juleps with flakes or pebbles from a Scotsman ice machine, rocks drinks over chunky Kold Draft cubes or cocktails crowned with a flawless diamond or sphere are just a few of the signs of the new ice age in B.C. bars.

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