Smooth Operator

The Sidecar cocktail is a sophisticated, classy concoction, so why is it so often overlooked?

Ritz Paris bartender Frank Meier may have invented the Sidecar in 1923. Ritz Paris photo.

The Sidecar is one of the great Prohibition-era classics, a boozy-but-vibrant three-ingredient cocktail that fulfills our desire for both the depth of brown spirits and the bright acidity of citrus. It should be a rock star among cocktails, yet where Old Fashioneds, tiki drinks and even the horrible Gimlet have made their comebacks, the Sidecar has somehow eluded its just recognition amid the modern cocktail revival.

It’s time for that to change.

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The Cosmopolitan

Our man at the bar, John Burns, savours a Southside as he mulls the value of drinking local

Illustration by Ryan Mitson

Barstools are for boasting. And when you’re alone, they’re for wool-gathering, your privacy on public display. Random thoughts assail you — unless you’re just there to watch the game, which is fine but for the purposes of this column let’s assume no high-def.

I’m at a bar now, in fact, just me and no TV, making notes on napkins the way you do. This is not unusual. Over the last 18 months I’ve warmed my share of seats, and I’ve written about some of the highlights in these pages, usually from notes on the backs of napkins very like this one. Those 18 months happen to have included a fair amount of travel, and so the cocktails I’ve described have often gone down in other cities, in bars very like this one.

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There’s new life in the old tomcat

Gin’s dark past comes to light as distillers go back to the drink’s barrel-aged roots

Early gin was stored and shipped in barrels, so it was naturally darker. Modern barrel-aging aims to add vanilla and spice complexity to gin’s botanicals. Dan Toulgoet photo

To the superstitious, a black cat is a bad omen. But to underground drinkers during Prohibition, spotting a sign depicting an old tomcat meant you’d hit the gin jackpot.

A precursor to the crisp and clear London dry gin, Old Tom gin was stored and shipped in wooden barrels, so it had a naturally darker hue. Sometimes it was sweeter or more resiny, thanks to the addition of sugar or, yes, turpentine. Swill or not, Old Tom was probably better than no Tom.

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The Cosmopolitan

There’s a cocktail for every mood and moment, says John Burns, our man at the bar

Illustration by Ryan Mitson.

To me, cocktails are mood on ice. They elevate a moment, enhance life. They’re the pocket squares of gastronomy, the clever patterned socks that tie it all together and keep the same old interesting. In that way, they distill our best selves.

When I travel, I always treat myself to an interesting bar off in some neighbourhood (thanks for the research, city magazines!) and in preparation, run through the questions. What will I wear? What time of day will I visit? And, of course, what will I order? The whole sums to this: For these precious minutes, who will I be? Cary Grant? Steve McQueen? (Hey, don’t laugh at other people’s self-delusions.)

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Fear not the fairy

Laying bare the legends and lore behind absinthe

Bar manager Simon Ogden draws off some absinthe from the fountain at the Veneto Tap Lounge in Victoria. Meghan Kirkpatrick photo.

“After the first glass, you see things as they are. After the second, you see things as they are not. Finally, you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world.” — Oscar Wilde

Absinthe, the fabled Green Fairy that ran amok through Paris at the height of the Belle Époque, remains the most polarizing spirit on the bar shelf.

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Searching for Margaritaville

Mastering this quintessential summer cocktail can be as difficult as tracking down its origins

“On the one hand, it’s hard to mess it up. But on the other hand, it’s hard to perfect,” says Ryley Zucca of La Mezcaleria about the Margarita. Dan Toulgoet photo.

It’s the taste of a perfect summer afternoon: that citrus bite, the peppery hit of tequila, the touch of salt like the spray of a random ocean wave.

We’re talking about the Margarita, of course; the quintessential summer cocktail that holds a mysterious past. When it comes to this particular dame’s history, no one really knows what the truth is.

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The Cosmopolitan

Our man at the bar, John Burns, explores the mystical properties of Magical Drinking

Illustration by Roxanna Bikadoroff.

The rest of the world has moved on, but I’m still hung up on Game 7 of the 2016 World Series. Top of the eighth, the Chicago Cubs were ahead 6–3, then gave away three runs for the Cleveland Indians to tie it up heading into the ninth. When play resumed in extra innings after a rain delay, Cubs second baseman (and series MVP) Ben Zobrist hit an RBI double for the go-ahead run that brought a 108-year drought to its end.

Relief Cubs pitcher Jon Lester let in those three runs, but that’s OK. The guy’s a hero (a story for another time), and more germane to a cocktail magazine, he secured this historic victory through magic. When the Cubs started their pre-season in April, the Commons Club in the Virgin Hotels Chicago offered the Never Quit: a fundraiser cocktail for Lester’s favourite charity, with vodka, peanut syrup and leaf alcohol, topped with Old Style lager. The twist: the vodka was macerated with Lester’s pitcher’s mitt. Yes, it was a drink of fake grass, peanuts and leather, which sounds terrible — like a Moscow Mule minus all the good bits — except, to repeat, it appeared in the same season that Lester helped shutter a century-long curse. Coincidence? I think not.

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Ballot Box Booze

The history of the cocktail is indelibly entwined with modern politics

J-S Dupuis, bar manager at Boulevard Kitchen and Oyster Bar. Lou Lou Childs photo.

It may not be immediately obvious, but politics and cocktails have an affinity to rival gin and vermouth.

J-S Dupuis, bar manager at Boulevard Kitchen & Oyster Bar agrees. “The history of spirits and politics — they’ve always gone hand in hand.”

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Pisco Fever

The South American grape brandy offers bartenders so much more than a simple sour

Katie Ingram, head bartender at L’Abbatoir. Lou Lou Childs photo.

Katie Ingram is a sucker for history. The head bartender of Gastown’s L’Abbatoir is talking pisco, the South American spirit that shows up in sours the world over, and in no time at all, she’s taken us right back to the Ice Age.

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Out of the past

Raise a glass to the resurrection of the Vancouver Cocktail

The Hotel Georgia (pictured), the Sylvia and the Waldorf all created signature cocktails in the 1940s and ’50s. Hotel Georgia photo

Gin, sweet vermouth, Bénédictine and orange bitters. It sounds simple, but so do many of the world’s legendary cocktails. And the Vancouver Cocktail deserves to be recognized among the classics.

What’s that, you say? Never heard of YVR’s hometown cocktail? You’re not alone. The Vancouver Cocktail joins a legion of forgotten drinks that have recently been rediscovered by dogged cocktail historians. In this case, that historian was bartender-turned-consultant Steve Da Cruz.

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