Small city, big drinks scene: Why Vancouver’s flourishing cocktail culture is world-class
It’s happy hour in Vancouver’s Gastown and I’m sitting at the bar at L’Abattoir, with a Paper Seaplane in hand. It’s an expertly balanced cocktail with local amaro, Calvados and, strangely enough, a syrup made from oats and avocado pits. Since it pairs perfectly with my Pacific oysters, I’m in my happy place. But one thought keeps distracting me — namely that this drink has no business being this good.
I’m not so much worried about the avocado pit. My cognitive dissonance springs from the fact that L’Abattoir is situated on a cobblestone street between “Blood Alley” and “Gaoler’s Mews,” in a neighbourhood where visitors take selfies next to an old-timey steam clock.
Even though I’m clearly drinking in an area that verges on tourist trap territory, every cocktail I sample, from the espresso Manhattan at the Pourhouse to the bespoke drinks served from a teapot at Guilt & Co., is pretty darn good.
It’s the same with the rest of Vancouver, where the cocktail scene is bigger — and better — than it ought to be, given the city’s size. Home to just about 660,000 people, Vancouver has eight of the spots currently listed on “Canada’s 50 Best Bars.” By contrast, Edmonton and Ottawa, both about 50 per cent more populous than Vancity, have three and zero bars on the list (respectively). And, unlike a lot of cities that have shuttered their cocktail festivals, Vancouver Cocktail Week in early March was an unqualified success.
I know, because I used that cocktail week as an occasion to learn first-hand what drives this city’s stellar drinks scene. And after 17 bars, three cocktail dinners and countless conversations with bartenders, I’ve found some answers.
“I think the fact that we’re a port city is a big asset here,” explains Dave Bulters, bar manager at L’Abattoir. “It gives us access to unique ingredients, since each [shipping] container, whether it’s full of seafood, spices or fruits like kumquats, lychee or dragon fruit, comes straight to us, so it’s fresh off the boat. There’s definitely a Pacific influence.”
Obviously, this goes way beyond the use of ingredients like avocado pits in cocktails. Bulters, who moved here from Australia seven years ago, says you can spot influences from all over the Pacific Rim in coffee culture, restaurant design and, of course, cuisine, thanks to both trade routes and immigration patterns.
All these factors have helped the city’s cocktail culture flourish. The cuisine likely deserves the most credit, though, since Vancouver’s famed sushi, curries and dim sum allow for more creative drink pairings, compared to the hard-and-fast rules of matching wine with meat and potatoes. That opens the door for cocktails at dinner. Everyone cites Bao Bei and the Keefer Bar, which both serve up cocktails and dim sum, as an important part of the rise of cocktails in Vancouver.
“It’s such an international scene here,” says Taylor Smith, bar manager at Gotham Steakhouse & Bar at the St. Regis Hotel downtown. “The Asian influence on our cuisine is obviously huge, and that’s part of the reason people are so open to experimenting and trying new things.”
Even though I’m all about wine with dinner, I tried one of Smith’s cocktail-and-steak pairings at Gotham. Not only was it great, but my berry-forward gin cocktail had the bonus of being far more Instagrammable than my usual glass of red.
Looks matter in Vancouver, where every bar pays attention to esthetics, be it serving drinks finished with a blowtorch at places like the buzzy, new Chinatown spot Laowai, or pouring cocktails that change colour over stamped, clear ice in the more rarefied lounges like the ones at Hawksworth and Nightingale.
Bright red and pink twists on classic Italian aperitivo rule several of the big hotel bars, including H Tasting Lounge at the Westin Bayshore, and the Spritz, the lobby bar at Opus Vancouver, an absolutely stunning Yaletown hotel. The latter also offers a “bar butler,” as well as custom in-room bars for guests who want to practise their own mixology.
Everyone, not just bartenders, seems to be into food and drink at a slightly elevated level in Vancouver, thanks in part to the availability of fresh, local ingredients.
“The biggest thing is simply that the growing season is practically year-round, so it’s easy to get locally grown, fresh herbs and berries and even forage for things like salmonberries or mushrooms, which are making their way into cocktails,” says Aaron Banni, a bartender at the Spritz. “We don’t have to worry about importing too much other than tropical fruits, so it’s easy to get anything whenever you need it.”
This has ripple effects, he adds, since plentiful seasonal ingredients, such as stone fruits, barley and honey, also supply the booming craft spirits industry, which helps stoke creativity. Can’t find a specific European ingredient for a drink? Not a problem when there are local craft distilleries like the Woods Spirit Co. and Odd Society, which both make versions of amaro, an Italian liqueur that can be hard to get in some markets.
None of this would work without a tight-knit community full of bar stars, though, which everyone cites as the final key ingredient. Many Vancouver cocktail bartenders are globally recognized, including Kaitlyn Stewart, who was named Diageo World Class Bartender of the Year in 2017, and Lauren Mote, who co-founded Bittered Sling, a cocktail bitters company with international distribution.
“Everyone knows everyone and we’re all working together,” says Alexa Gervais, a bartender at Nightingale downtown. “At heart, we’re all just a bunch of alcohol nerds.” Alcohol nerds who, by virtue of the size of the city, are all on a first-name basis.
“It’s always in the back of your head that, a couple of years down the line, you could very well wind up working with this person,” Gervais continues. “And so you want to stay in their good graces.”