High, low or deeply dive-y, the cocktail scene is très magnifique
The Montreal bar scene has always been one of Canada’s best. But it was hit harder than most by the toughest COVID restrictions in the country. The city is rebounding with a number of great new cocktail spots that take us back to the future.
Whether it’s sweet, vanilla-scented bourbon, spicy rye or smoky peated malt, we love whisky, the “water of life” that transforms humble grains into sophisticated spirits. And one of the best places to sample whisky of all sorts—and the drinks in which it shines—is at the third annual Vancouver Cocktail Week, March 3 to 10.
Sip, sample and learn about whisky at these events.
Ontario’s Paradigm Spirits Co. wins Whisky of the Year at the 2024 Canadian Whisky Awards
For nearly a century, residents of London, Ontario, smelled toasty corn aromas coming from what was formerly a grain facility and then a Kellogg’s Cornflakes factory. These days, it’s the scent of whisky mashes — and victory — that’s wafting from Paradigm Spirits Co., a distilling and blending enterprise located in that space since 2020. It won Whisky of the Year on January 18 at the 2024 Canadian Whisky Awards for its 2022 Heritage Collection: 19 Year Single Grain Oloroso Blend Whisky bottling.
Or is it? This soaringly popular Chinese spirit is as loathed as it is loved
There are a few spirits that are often called the “next big thing,” but, for whatever reason, never seem to quite make it to the major league.
Rakia, aquavit and even rum are all often pegged as promising new future “it” spirits. After you hear their names thrown around for a decade or so, though, it starts to make sense to take the trend forecasters with a grain of salt.
These days, an oft-cited “one to watch” is baijiu, a spirit from China with a lot of different personalities that a few prominent bars are going all in on. The most notable are Laowai in Vancouver and Toronto’s Hong Shing, both of which have built a cocktail program around baijiu. In addition, several bars and restaurants in Toronto feature baijiu in cocktails or straight up, including Chinatown’s Big Trouble and the acclaimed restaurants MIMI Chinese and Sunnys Chinese.
Montreal’s Poincaré Chinatown also sells a Baijiu Caipirinha and there’s an entire venue in Edmonton named Baijiu—although it’s worth noting that they only currently have one cocktail with this divisive spirit on the menu, the Baijiu Sour.
With the Dry-uary season upon us, here are some favourites for those taking a break from cocktails, or looking for some fresh 2024 drink-spiration.
When renowned a popular U.S. drinks writer began curating a list of non-alcoholic spirits on his Alcademics blog (pioneering brand Seedlip was the first entry), it felt like a novelty niche on the cocktail scene. Today the list is approaching 200 brands, and with so many non-alcoholic alternatives on the market, including many Canadian brands, it can be hard to know what to try.
But first, to tackle the elephant in the room: why can non-alcoholic products cost the same as traditional, boozy ones? High-quality products often use the same distillation process as traditional spirits, which are then de-alcoholized (those with allergies, note: de-alcoholized spirits can legally still contain less than 0.5 per cent alcohol: about the same as a ripe banana, and less than soy sauce). That means a more involved, often more expensive, production process. Others are developed in a complex process of combining flavours, textures and botanicals to re-create the taste and mouthfeel of alcohol.
Amongst these favourites, we’ve leaned into low-sugar, low-additive Canadian brands, because although there are fewer international barriers to shipping these products than with alcohol, why not support local?
Find these top bartenders at guest shifts, seminars and the Green Garden Gala.
Vancouver Cocktail Week is your best chance to meet — and learn from — some of the world’s greatest bartenders, and you don’t even need to get on a plane to do it. From March 3 to 10, the third annual VCW welcomes some of the most skilled, talented and highly awarded barkeeps from London, Singapore, Argentina and other corners of the planet, and you will definitely want to sample what they are shaking up.
Among them is the legendary Jesse Vida, famous from NYC’s The Dead Rabbit (named World’s Best Bar by Tales of the Cocktail) as well as his days as head bartender at World’s 50 Best Bars-recognized Atlas in Singapore. He’s now partner in the agave-forward Singapore speakeasy Cat Bite Club, and ready to share all his hard-learned lessons at a seminar and guest shift at Laowai.
A top 10 list on how to be a great guest on a distillery tour or tasting-room visit
Distillery tasting rooms are hotspots in any city’s drinking scene. Author Janet Gyenes naturally included some in Vancouver Cocktails (new in October from Cider Mill Press; a Toronto edition is forthcoming). Distillery bars are a different breed: “You’re basically in someone’s workshop… Respect the skill and craft that goes into distilling,” Gyenes says. “Let’s face it: most people don’t know if you’re supposed to swirl spirits like you would with wine, if you should sniff or spit or do something else altogether.”
For 165 years, J.P. Wiser’s has been synonymous with Canadian whisky. But who says an old brand can’t learn new tricks? It’s just launched a bold new look across its entire portfolio, one that captures its heritage while looking ahead to the future.