Cocktail capital of Canada? Vancouver raises the bar as cool destination

Cocktail capital of Canada? Vancouver raises the bar

VANCOUVER — On a rainy evening inside an illuminated geodesic dome that adds sparkle to Vancouver’s skyline, queues of gussied-up socialites are forming at 25 beverage stations manned by award-winning bartenders.

Patrons of the Science World fundraiser are sipping Mai Tai vapour through straws at one station and shooting glow-in-the-dark gin and tonics at another.

One particularly popular line is sampling a Powell Street Sour — essentially a twist on a whiskey sour topped with a vegan botanical foamer and bubbles of aromatized red wine.

“That’s the thing about Vancouver — the culture demands more from bartenders,” says Tarquin Melnyk, who runs the bar for Bambudda restaurant, as he assembles the concoction.

“Professionalism, exceptionalism, world-class talent and scientific technique. You have to be an absolute master of your craft.”

The inaugural Science of Cocktails charity, which ran in early February with proceeds providing underfunded schools free access to the landmark science centre, is a testament to Vancouver’s spirited drinking scene.

The splashy event featured the city’s most acclaimed bartenders and was one of its largest cocktail-centred affairs on record. Organizers easily served up praise that Vancouver may very well be the cocktail capital of Canada.

“There are some very creative, very brilliant, very scientific professionals behind the bar that are making some outstanding drinks,” said Jennifer Ingham, vice-president of development with Science World.

“You wouldn’t necessarily think Vancouver has that kind of scene.”

Ingham even believes its reputation for lame and cold nightlife is evaporating: “I think the city is becoming less ‘no fun.”’

The West Coast metropolis already boasts a renowned panoply of bars and restaurants clustered in distinct neighbourhoods from the swish Gastown to hipster Main Street.

But the city’s cocktail resurgence proper started in the mid-2000s, as a small community keen to move beyond pulling pints and slinging highballs began crystallizing, said Trevor Kallies, president of the Canadian Professional Bartenders Association.

Its status as a libation destination was stamped when the world’s premier cocktail festival, Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans, brought its first road show to Vancouver in 2011 — and returned in 2012.

“From there it’s just been steamrolling. You can’t have a chef open up a new restaurant without a bartender attached to it,” said Kallies, noting seats at the bar often fill up first.

“No one asks me what I’m going to do when I grow up anymore. They know I’m still a bartender, they know I love what I do and they know it’s working. People are getting it.”

Kallies said the average patron is far more educated about alcohol recipes than a decade ago, and their savvy has pushed Vancouver’s drink masters to keep raising the bar.

Kicking the scene up another notch has been a fleet of celebrity chefs who ensure sublime pairings and entrepreneurs who have opened micro-distilleries to produce unique spirits.

“We have amazing ingredients to work with. We can really boast about locality. There’s farm-to-table, there’s grain-to-glass,” Kallies said.

Secrets to staying competitive include bartenders who share tips with each other over an internal Facebook group, he added. They also frequently lend a hand across venues when, say, somebody’s down a bottle of Campari or an ice machine has broken.

Trends ebb and flow across the city, from cocktails on draft, to bottled, kegged or barrel-aged booze.

The city has even coined its own alcoholic beverage — dubbed the Vancouver Cocktail, of course — comprised of gin, sweet vermouth, Benedictine and orange bitters. It was created at the Sylvia Hotel in English Bay in the early 1950s, when the establishment was one of the tallest buildings in the area. Bartenders originally served the drink as a welcome cocktail during signature roof-top dinners in the summertime.

A selection of Vancouver’s barkeeps have also won international competitions, which translates into “healthy competition” among each other, said Grant Sceney, head bartender at the Fairmont Pacific Rim hotel.

Sceney, who was named the Canadian Bartender of the Year in 2014, attributes his successes to the local industry’s collaborative dynamic.

“Instead of keeping secrets, we were on the phone every day telling each other what we were doing,” he said of another colleague in the competition.

Vancouver has traditionally looked to cities such as New York, London and Paris for inspiration, while pacing other Canadian locales as a point of pride.

But Toronto has recently caught up, said Lauren Mote, who manages the Uva Wine & Cocktail Bar and won the top Canadian bartending honour in 2015.

“This keeps Vancouver on its game,” said Mote. “We can’t rest on our laurels anymore.”