La Mula

La Mula cocktail at Bodega on Main.
Bodega on Main’s La Mula cocktail. Origami Social photo

• 2 oz Koch Espadín Mezcal
• 0.5 oz Lime
• 0.5 oz Hibiscus Syrup
• 1 oz Passion Fruit Purée
• 2 dashes Angostura Bitters
• Ginger Beer

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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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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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A botanical bonanza

The Alchemist tasting panel gathers for a round of international gins

The lineup featured gins from Japan, Italy, Spain and Canada, as well as the spirit’s traditional UK home. Dan Toulgoet photo

Summer is the season for refreshing gin cocktails, so it was only natural to think juniper for this issue’s tasting panel. Juniper, of course, is the signature flavour that defines gin, which is typically a grain spirit (though there are some fruit-based ones) that has been infused with botanicals that can include citrus peel, flowers, herbs, spices, stems, roots, seeds and fruits.

Think gin and you tend to think London Dry, the crisp, juniper-forward style developed in London in the 1830s. But there are a wide range of styles from all over the world. To sample a selection of them, we gathered at Tableau Bar Bistro with some of the city’s top barkeeps: Alex Black, bar manager of Wildebeest; Sabrine Dhaliwal, cocktail consultant and Pourhouse bartender; Adam Domet, bar manager of Pourhouse; J-S Dupuis, beverage director of Wentworth Hospitality; Robyn Gray of the Rosewood Hotel Georgia; and Ryan Johnson, bar manager of Tuc Craft Kitchen.

The panel blind-tasted 12 international gins. Here’s what they had to say.

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Bottled Up! with Rhett Williams

Rhett Williams. Dan Toulgoet photo

Meet Rhett Williams, a born and raised Vancouverite of the Northern variety, whose boozy beginnings were not actually so wet; with a background in music and years of studying chemistry in university, Rhett’s entry into the realm of spirits started with words before wood, as he found himself writing about cocktail history before his career behind the bar even started. He has since established himself as a staple in the industry, through years of working under the best and up to the top. His most recent venture as general manager at Dark Manor, which he helped open last year, has recently shut the doors. And what an adventure it was. These are the champions we need to see more of in Vancouver; those brave enough to take risks and open independent projects in a city of chains. For these lionhearts, when it doesn’t work out, they move on to the next project, slowly shaping the culture of Vancouver’s bar scene. Keep your eyes on Rhett, as his endless spirit (and dance moves) will without doubt take us somewhere new and exciting.

Laura: OK. Hi Rhett! It’s been a wild year for you. Tell me about what is going on in your world these days?

Rhett: Oh hi! Big life changes for me! I’ve never had so many transitions happening at once—personally and professionally. Excellent opportunity to make some positive changes and create healthy new habits. I’m excited to see where life and I take myself…

L: Now, you’ve had wet fingers behind the bars of some pretty awesome spots in Vancouver, from Pourhouse to Nightingale to Shameful Tiki to opening Dark Manor (which sadly just closed.) How did each spot contribute to your experience with working behind a bar?

Rhett Williams. Adam Blasberg photo

R: I was more than happy to start my life over again at the proverbial bottom of the totem pole at Pourhouse, an environment that encapsulated my romance with spirits and cocktails at the time. I had much of the knowledge, but this is where I learned the craft, so to speak. My mentors there, especially Christopher Flett and Brian Grant, gave me the big picture of hospitality: service, a commitment to quality, respect for your peers and your guests, and hard work. I learned most of what I know about this industry from my four years there, and I am ever thankful I had the honour of managing the bar for half that time amongst such great and respected company. The Pourhouse service-well on a weekend night is also where I got my chops and grace under pressure.

Nightingale was a wonderful experience in opening a restaurant, and in being more connected to the business side of things. Working with Cooper Tardivel and Alex Black was an honour, and I’ve never worked with so many friendly and lovely staff. I was learning about food and wine every day. It also challenged how much I had romanticized bartending; it was a great lesson in humility.

The Shameful Tiki Room is a very, very special place—such a unique and challenging bartending experience. It’s a testament to their creativity and insanity that it’s a functioning bar at all, haha. I’m not sure anything can throw me after having made that many drinks that are that complicated—alone—on that bar while that room is full. The prep was at times unreal, but Shea Hogan’s systems were inspiring.

The Dark Manor Inn was also a very unique experience. I had opened a restaurant before, but not with such a small team and with so much responsibility and control—and while still managing another business. This project definitely made me more aware of my limitations and stressed the importance of time and sanity management. Above all else, I’m honoured I was able to assemble such an incredible bar team. My fondest memory from that journey was designing the menu with Jason Earle, Jared Fontaine, and Rod Redford—the most collaborative process I’ve been a part of so far.

L: It was a solid effort getting Dark Manor off the ground, and we were all sad to see it close. I have much admiration for people who get things off the ground in this city, and often, just because something closes, it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t have opened. What was the most surprising part of your experience with Dark Manor? Anything in hindsight that you would have done differently?

R: Above all else the biggest challenge for us was location. I don’t think any of us anticipated the severity of this challenge, and given the option or the control, a different neighborhood would be the difference.

I’m proud of everything else we accomplished there. I think we created an amazing guest experience, and Rod Moore built one of the coolest rooms in town—by hand. I’m sad more people didn’t get to see it!

Rhett Williams. Erin Ireland photo

L: How would you describe the Vancouver bar scene? What makes it different from other cities that you’ve travelled to, or worked in?

R: I always felt our scene was inherently extra creative from the outset, mostly due to the lack of availability of so many products. When I started, I had to have my brother smuggle things up from the States like maraschino, violette, St. Germain, even American rye. Because of this we were forced to start thinking outside the box, recreate ingredients from scratch, and look to a more culinary approach. On that note, I think we also have had a consistently high level of service by virtue of almost every bar program being attached to great food programs—originally for licensing purposes, but the two just became integrated.

L: Do you think it’s hard for new bartenders to break into the scene in Vancouver? Any sage advice on getting started?

R: At the moment, I actually don’t. It seems we have more bar positions than bartenders at this point! However, finding the right one with an opportunity to learn and grow—this is definitely not easy. The importance of hard work, a drive to always be learning, and a sense of humility can’t be overstated.

My advice is to look for any position in programs you are excited about run by people from whom you want to learn. Be an apprentice or bar back at your favourite bar/restaurant, take the slow shifts, do what it takes to put yourself into an environment with the highest possible expectations and learn everything you possibly can. Read, watch, and ask questions. If you aren’t challenged, you’ll never evolve. Never get too comfortable.

L: I recently saw you shaking up some fancy cocktails at the Deighton Cup in the Rebel Yell tent. What’s the main difference between working behind wood, and working a tent at an event like Deighton Cup?

R: The main difference is that the attendees are not my guests but rather guests of the event. I still have some level of responsibility for their experience, but it’s much more of a smile-and-pump-the-drinks-out vibe. It’s definitely fun to work under changing conditions and environments and with new and different people.

L: Do you ever get the itch to compete in cocktail competitions?

R: Never. It’s a skill set I have not developed. They’re always fun to watch, but I have no desire to compete at this point. I’m probably the least competitive person you’ll meet anyway!

Rhett Williams, Whitney Wright photo

L: If you weren’t in Vancouver, where would you be?

R: San Francisco playing in a band with my brother, or southern Spain stuffing my face with Manchego.

L: The word Manchego is like Pavlov’s bell for me! Ha!

Okay, so bartending has a pretty wet and wild reputation as a job, particularly for those who have not worked in the industry. What is a misconception people have about bartending?

R: That it’s wet and wild—I have been fortunate to work in quite professional environments! Truly though, I feel the average person is unaware of how much sweat, blood, time, and passion this job demands.

L: Amen to that. And speaking of hard earned reputations, what would you say is the most underrated bar, or cocktail list, in this city?

R: I think “underrated” implies it is generally rated low, which is not true, but I always felt like Crowbar had a creative and super fun list and wasn’t talked about enough.

L: What’s your guilty pleasure drink?

R: A pitcher of slushy Margarita or a Bellini (also slushy, obvs.)

L: Yes! You and me, Cactus Club, ASAP! How about the most memorable drink you’ve ever had?

R: That’s a tough one, but the first that comes to mind is drinking a Sazerac at Arnaud’s French 75 in New Orleans and Chris Hannah asks if I want to enjoy it while walking through the museum upstairs.

L: That sounds like a fun night! What keeps you sane and balanced outside of work though?

R: The hours have always been one of the biggest challenges for me in this industry, and I feel this is an ongoing process. Exercise, yoga, fresh air, and taking some time every day for solitude.

L: …and Manchego cheese!

Rhett Williams. Katelyn Wells photo


Dog or cat? Dog

Negroni or Boulevardier? Negroni

Most overhyped bar trend?

Most despised bar term? Mixologist, cocktologist, cocktailian – any attempt at separating ourselves from the word “bartender.”

Most underutilized spirit? Eau de vie

First drink you ever had? Grandmummie’s gin & tonic 🙂

Pinot or Cabernet? Pinot

Go-to hangover cure? Carbs and electrolytes

High school prom song? Oh gosh I don’t remember that, but the first time I ever danced with a girl was to Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On”


Thanks for your time, Rhett!

At RauDZ, gin is in

Raudz Gin. Supplied photo

At RauDZ Creative Concepts, it’s not just about farm to table, but farm to glass. That’s why the Kelowna-based restaurant company has just launched its own craft gin, The Whole Truth, made by Okanagan Spirits and flavoured with locally grown botanicals.

It was inspired by The Truth, a variation on the G&T featured at RauDZ Regional Table on opening day a decade ago, back in spring 2009. The gin has plenty of refreshing cucumber and floral aromas, as well as the citrusy notes of mock orange, a native B.C. shrub that was foraged by Tyler Dyck, the CEO of Okanagan Spirits, at nearby Poplar Point.

The gin is available exclusively at RauDZ Regional Table, micro bar & bites, Sunny’s Modern Diner, and Terrafina at Hester Creek by RauDZ.

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. 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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