Has Vancouver’s Cocktail Culture Peaked?

A decade removed from the dawn of Vancouver’s cocktail revolution, Scout spoke with bartenders past and present to get their thoughts on where our bar scene might be headed next.

It’s been a while since cocktail culture took hold in Vancouver. The actual date of its genesis is a subject of debate, but it had definitely taken hold by June 24th, 2009 — the day The Diamond was born.

Located in the heart of Gastown, the popular second-storey room caught everyone’s attention to what the idea of a proper cocktail bar could look and feel like. Drinks came first and food came second. Old Fashioneds were suddenly a thing. Vodka was not. The following year, The Keefer Bar would open with much the same excitement. And with heavyweight talents like Josh Pape, Charlie Ainsbury, Ron Oliver, Danielle Tatarin, Keenan Hood and Gez McAlpine staffing these bars, it wouldn’t be long before our little city was being lauded as a cocktail-lovers paradise.

Of course there were other restaurants and bars leading the way (eg. The George, Chambar, Pourhouse, Boneta, Bao Bei, L’Abattoir, etc.), but The Diamond and The Keefer helped shepherd in and maintain a new standard, making refined and thoughtful cocktail programs a must for any new restaurant or bar wanting to be taken seriously.


Bartending competition at The Diamond, Summer 2019

  • A friend at Boneta prepares with a beer goggle straw..
  • Guy and his every-three-seconds flash
  • Loot
  • Shaun
  • The crowd begins to materialise
  • Tannis and Ron
  • The judges: Tannis, Sophie, me, and Mike
  • Geoff and Josh
  • Nick Devine of The Cascade Room
  • Nick Devine of The Cascade Room
  • Bobby K
  • Bobby K
  • Bobby K
  • The crowd
  • The crowd
  • Bobby K
  • The crowd
  • Dani Tararin of DB Bistro
  • Dani Tatarin of DB Bistro
  • Keenan
  • Keenan
  • Zombie garnish
  • The crowd
  • Josh and Charles...
  • Josh Pape, Van Mag's Bartender of the Year
  • Um...
  • Charles introduces Phil
  • Charles
  • Charles pauses theatrically to taste...
  • Charles
  • Shaun Layton
  • Shaun Layton of George had the douchiest music, a trick played on him by The Diamond crew
  • Ron Oliver
  • Ron Oliver
  • Ron Oliver as a monkey...
  • The crowd
  • Brand Stanton of Uva goes to the dark side
  • Things getting messy
  • Guy goes paparazzi...
  • Wendy
  • Wendy
  • Wendy, sweetness personified...
  • "H"
  • "H"
  • "H"
  • "H"
  • Kurtis Kolt holds a "cocktail" prepared by Revel's "H"
  • The crowd
  • Geoff pours
  • Geoff multi-tasking
  • Lewis and The Kid
  • Charles Ainsbury announcing the winner
  • Charles Ainsbury announcing the winner
  • The winner is announced
  • Josh Pape, the winner
  • Josh Pape, victoriously soaked...

Ten years removed from these bright beginnings, finding a top quality craft cocktail at most bars and restaurants in this city is no longer a tricky proposition. The masses have caught up and the Negroni is here to stay. You might even find it on tap. So I’m curious to wonder: Has Vancouver hit the peak of its cocktail enthusiasm, and where do we go from here? For answers and opinions, I reached out to several Vancouver bartending legends.

How has the Vancouver bar community changed over the past 10 years?

Josh Pape, co-owner of The Diamond and Gooseneck Hospitality: It’s definitely grown and expanded. Ten years ago there was a smaller community which saw itself as a bit of a clique and as time has passed the industry developed to a point where you see it having become more inclusive as everyone seems to want to share and help each other.

Gez McAlpine, (formerly of The Keefer Bar) Regional Marketing Manager For Remy Cointreau: It’s gotten a lot bigger, that’s for sure. When I arrived here, that’s when the CPBA (Canadian Professional Bartenders Association) just started. It was a tight knit group of bartenders for sure and there was a cool sense of community. I think the community here is very healthy for sure. We have luxuries today that weren’t around a few years ago. We now have excellent bars doing rad shit all over the city. I now see people I came up with, who are running great programs, like Katie Ingram for Elisa or Amber Bruce for The Keefer Bar. So it’s nice to see that evolution there. However, for all the change we’ve had, the BC liquor licensing system and the amount of red tape is what holds back this city from really doing great shit. The Keefer was created under the guise of a boutique hotel bar. That would never happen now. BC could learn a thing or two from Sydney, where there they created a separate license just for small bars, which has helped enable a vast amount of growth for small entrepreneurs.

“No longer having to commit their energy to building a base of knowledge and excitement in the city, bartenders are now focusing on things like community engagement, mental health, sustainable imbibing, and inclusivity in the bar scene, all while keeping hospitality at the heart of all we do.” – Jeff Savage.

Alex Black, Bar Manager at Wildebeest: I think it’s become a bit more homogenized. I think when I started there was a definite separation from the neighbourhood bars and the Cactus Clubs of the world. However, over time I think this has changed where there is much more of a community with everyone working together and wanting to support the industry over all.

Shaun Layton, (formerly of L’Abattoir), co-owner Como Taperia: That’s a good question. With restaurants becoming bigger and bigger with Instagram having the reach it has, it certainly has grown the scene. Our community has certainly developed. We also have restaurants that are bars, due to licensing stuff. You kind of have to have a restaurant, because bars aren’t busy enough. When it comes to what has changed, I like that beer and wine are relevant now. I feel like bartenders were a bit too focused on cocktails for a bit there whereas now you see bars with more focus on other things.

Sabrine Dhaliwal, Pourhouse / Brand Ambassador Belvedere Vodka / Hennessy Cognac: The bar community in Vancouver has grown into an extensive supportive family. It’s less than 6 degrees of separation; everyone knows each other or has a mutual friend or mentor. Ten years ago, there were few cocktail bars or restaurants with outstanding bar programs; we had The Diamond, Boneta, West, Lumiere, Pourhouse, etc. Today, we have great bar programs in every neighbourhood, and that is very exciting.

Emmet Groves, The Diamond / Grapes & Soda / Hammer & Groves Cutleria: There’s definitely more social media focused bartenders that’s for sure. When I started getting into cocktails and the world of elevated bartending I noticed it, but there was just a few of them. But now it seems like they’ve multiplied. We now have way more pseudo fame bartenders. However, much like myself, I have seen a lot of people who’ve gone the opposite route as well and I see them shunning that side of things. I’m not a fan of this trend per se, but I think it deals with our overall issues with social media validation. Online credit for your achievements. So to answer your question, that’s definitely something I’ve noticed over the years.

Simon Kaulback on the bar at Boneta, Summer 2019 | Photo: Scout Magazine

Simon Kaulback, formerly Boneta / Mamie Taylor’s: We were a small tightly-knit community of bartenders who worked together. We looked to support each other. Maturing the Vancouver scene as you will. At that time, Gastown was doing some great shit. That tidal wave helped spread into the city where we now see brown, stirred and stiff cocktails everywhere. It’s like architecture where everyone borrows from everyone else, but in the end the overall experience has changed where we see so much more infusion of community and excellence. It’s been nice to watch the culture build and support itself. It’s a huge entity now where you can’t open a restaurant or bar in this city without having a strong cocktail program. Vancouver’s now widely fighting way above its weight class; you see things like what the guys up at Botanist are doing now. I mean, I bowed out at the right time. I was more about the experience than what I see these guys now doing — which I’m in awe of.

Amber Bruce, The Keefer Bar: Over the past 10 years we have seen the cocktail culture grow from a few people and a few places implementing progressive cocktail menus, to the casual-dining chains offering proper Negronis. With the introduction of many new cocktail books and online publications the ease of access to good information has increased. The community has grown as well. With help from brands, big and small, and organizations like the CPBA, staff from all over the province have the opportunities to meet up for tastings, educational seminars and mixers.

Max Borrowman, Pourhouse / Open Outcry: The availability of products has gotten better. It still sucks, but it is better overall. Back then, I think that everybody was doing classic cocktails, or tweaks on classics, whereas now you see some pretty unique and elevated programs. Just look at the guys at Botanist this past year. Amazing for them, that team and this city. There’s definitely been a move towards cocktails on tap. Plus the growth of RTD’s (ready to drink) has been huge — whether that’s good for bars and restaurants is yet to be seen. You’ve also seen the chains having jumped into the fray with elevated cocktail programs, which has been great to see. Overall, the community has gotten way tighter. The stuff the CPBA has done has seriously brought us all together. Social media has helped as well. It’s definitely made the bartending community better. Following friends and other local bartenders has helped me keep up and it’s way less pretentious now. A lot of the bartenders are more excited to give excellent guest experiences which has brought the whole community up.

Mike Shum, Lobby Lounge, Fairmont Pacific Rim Hotel: Ten years ago you had a group of individuals, like Josh (Pape) and Shaun (Layton) who were spearheading amazing programs, whereas now you can find quality almost everywhere. The first thing I think of is how cocktail competitions have changed, how they feel less personal. They’re more polished. Everyone has an idea of how to win. Everyone knows what is going on now. They’re harder to win now because now when you show up, everyone is ready to go and it’s great to see, but it shows how much people care and how advanced we’ve come.

Julia Diakow at Tacofino’s Taco Bar in Gastown, Fall 2015. | Photo: Tacofino

Julia Diakow, (formerly of Tacofino) Sales and Marketing Manager, Sovereign Canada: We’ve really seen the culture of craft cocktails come a long way. From local craft beer being available on nearly every bar menu in the city to carefully concocted drinks, it’s pretty incredible the leaps and bounds we’ve taken as a community. I’ve noticed how inclusive the bar scene has become as well. Restaurants are so supportive of each other, and fellow bartenders have become more like family than just familiar faces you visit after your shift is over.

Jeff Savage, Botanist / Diageo World Class Canada Winner 2019: I’ve been able to view Vancouver’s cocktail culture from the outside for a number of years now, before having the good fortune to now be a part of it. Vancouver bartenders were always the best of Canada, and always showed up in full force at any competition or national cocktail event. There were big names doing big things, and building a community that was more comprehensive and successful than anywhere else. Now, most of those big names have moved into different positions and have allowed others to fill their places. This next generation of bartenders have taken the mantle and grown it further — focusing on different styles of drinks, service and experiences. No longer having to commit their energy to building a base of knowledge and excitement in the city, bartenders are now focusing on things like community engagement, mental health, sustainable imbibing, and inclusivity in the bar scene, all while keeping hospitality at the heart of all we do. Vancouver’s cocktail scene has entered an exciting stage in its development, one where hospitality professionals are exploring what is possible, and are working hard to grow Vancouver’s international spotlight.

Adam Domet, Pourhouse: At least in my seven years of bartending the local community has changed immensely for the better. It seems as though there are more and more bartenders at every tasting and every competition. The enthusiasm for cocktails and bartending in general is growing. While we’re all competitive by nature, a strong sense of community encourages not only to challenge each other but to celebrate our successes as well.

Do you think cocktail culture has peaked in Vancouver?

Pape: I would say maybe that a style has sort of peaked. Bar programs seem to be moving more into a simpler approach with bartenders using 3–4 ingredients.

McAlpine: No. Absolutely not. I was in London two weeks ago and to see what they’re doing and where we are going is exciting. However, the Vancouver bar scene and the laws we have are not conducive to any growth. A lot of this falls on the high price of rent and I don’t mean to harp on this again, but our restrictive liquor laws. It’s a fucking nightmare.

“Peaking means we’re no longer being creative. But has it gone through a golden era? Maybe.” – Simon Kaulback.

Black: I think it is very dependant on how you would define cocktail culture. I believe long gone are the days where we put all our effort into a well made drink with 11 ingredients. Overall, I think we care more about the content of what we’re creating as many of us are looking to be better team members and better hospitality providers. Our focus has also broadened where you see better beer and wine emphasis. So in a sense the old idea of focused cocktail culture in a way might have peaked, which is probably a good thing, as we’re more focused on simplicity and a better sense of execution.

Layton: I think yes and no. I would lean more on yes. I think bartenders are advancing more on other things. Whereas before they were just all about cocktails. Nowadays you need to have a full range of talent to be a good bartender. You need to know about food, wine and beer. Maybe just the cocktail thing has peaked as bartenders are beginning to understand that it’s a big game. Guys and girls who were big early on are doing great things, like opening restaurants and being brand ambassadors, like Lauren (Mote — Global Brand Ambassador for Diageo), Gez or Josh.

Sabrine Dhaliwal at West, Winter, 2015. | Photo: West Restaurant

Dhaliwal: No, I think we are always raising the bar. As many people know, we have many challenges with our liquor distribution and having access to products, and we continue to find solutions to these challenges and move ahead. As mentioned before, we are a family, sharing tips and tricks to enhance the cocktail and most importantly, the guest experience.

Groves: Cocktails have always been popular. Since their inception over a 100+ years ago, they’ve been desired. They were popular up until the mid 20th century, that was until the advent of processed food changed how we made them. People stopped using fresh ingredients. Mass produced food was the norm and people bought it. Certain items had a longer shelf life, like lime cordial. Plus it was cheaper. And so eventually the whole market responded to the demise of that. Think of how McDonald’s started. They used to use real milk in their milkshakes up until Ray Kroc realized that using powdered was cheaper and easier to transport. As we have with many of our past sins, it took us awhile to shun the processes of past generations. Fresh is now in and thank God for that. […] Five years ago you wouldn’t open a restaurant without a great bar program. But now you see most restaurants shunning that idea for just simple menus. But on the other hand, today you can walk into pretty much any dive bar around and find a bartender who can make you a good Negroni. Call it the age of information. It used to be that you had to study to learn how to bartend. Well now you can find everything online.

Bruce: Cocktail culture is evolving, and I don’t really believe in “peaks”. It will form, reform and adapt, to trends, desires and interest, and hopefully it won’t jump the shark entirely. I think the constant flipping of craft cocktail menus will slow down, and the general consumer will relax into their favourites.

Borrowman: Definitely not. I think the sky’s the limit. We don’t have a lot of the stuff that both New York and London have, but we’re doing not bad. My new project (Open Outcry), for example, will be providing tableside cocktails, which is a fun new example of a trend from a larger city arriving here. We still have so many cool and creative bartenders, and I just see them continuing to push the limit with how they do things. Think of all the great teams out there who probably have similar excellent ideas on the way. I mean, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Shaun Layton opening another awesome spot. I’m excited and I see great things for this city and our beverage community.

Shum: I don’t think so. Consumers are more educated now. Unfortunately everyone’s stuck on drinking Old Fashioneds which I’m kinda bored of. Hopefully consumers will realize there’s better drinks out there. But the cool thing for sure is how people know what cocktails are. For some of us it may have peaked, but for consumers, their enthusiasm couldn’t be higher. RTDs (ready to drink cocktails) have taken hold and that’s really changed things. We’re definitely still growing. From a consumer standpoint, a person who’s used to ordering a Gin and Tonic now may order a Moscow Mule or a Negroni. Case in point: My Dad loves Old Fashioneds. For years he was a Beer and Gin and Tonic kind of guy.

Kaulbach: No. Impossible. Peaking means we’re no longer being creative. But has it gone through a golden era? Maybe. I think this city has created some legendary cocktail bars, but like anything they’ll change and evolve. Again, I’m so impressed by such things as Mind The Bar and the evolution of zero proof drinks. The industry has answered the requests of the masses, and instead of saying no, we’ve responded enthusiastically. Traditional cocktail culture has maybe taken a back seat, but overall we’re better. The younger generation is definitely doing things I would not have thought of and that’s exciting.

Diakow: I wouldn’t say that cocktail culture has necessarily peaked but I will say that I think it has changed. It went from bar lime and vodka sodas to the complete other side of the spectrum, with smoked to order Old Fashioneds and insane infusions augmented with Estonian honey liqueurs (paraphrasing, of course). It seemed that a few years ago, we were so starved for creativity and then the flavour profiles of cocktails became more gimmicky than truly enjoyable. Now, we’re seeing a revert back to simpler cocktails, but using far better spirits and mixers.

Savage: Definitely not. Has it peaked in places like New York, London, or Chicago? We still have space for new, exciting cocktail spaces, and bold, unique experiences. With some of the recent wins our bartenders have achieved, the world is just starting to turn its eye towards us. Now is the time to push harder and continue to build something even more exciting.

Enns: I don’t believe the culture has peaked. I think we are continuing to grow with more cocktail programs being offered across the city.

Domet: Absolutely not. I think, if anything we’re continuously reaching new levels; both from a bartender’s perspective and from that of the cocktail enthusiast. You can look to the success of Chris (Enns) and now Jeff (Savage) recently on the national scene, also Kaitlyn and the Botanist team on the international stage. Vancouver bartenders are pushing themselves further competitively all while being incredibly supportive of one another. We are only getting better. The knowledge of our guests is growing too. So many more cocktails are being called for by name, along with amaros and other liqueurs being ordered and enjoyed. I think this is a direct result of the hard work and dedication put in by the bartenders and servers at venues like The Diamond, Pourhouse, Chambar, Boneta, Keefer Bar, L’Abattoir, West and The Lobby Lounge, to only mention a few over the last decade.

Gez McAlpine at The Keefer Bar, Summer 2011 | Photo: Scout Magazine

How do you see Vancouver cocktail culture evolving over the next 5–10 years?

McAlpine: I would hope to see more small bars. Vancouver has a great culture of hotel bars, but the success of the small bar, which has really taken off around the globe is something we’re missing. People love that element of their secret spot and we could definitely use more of those places. The small bar is something that hasn’t really hit Vancouver yet and I sure hope it does. There’s a whole lot space to grow there.

Black: I think that we’re gonna have to figure out a new system to rely on. This is going to piss of some people, but for a long time there, Vancouver cocktail culture was the only one worth paying any attention to in the nation. I think we were very reliant on that pole position for so long and I think we’ve lost a little of what made us great. I mean, cities like Victoria, Calgary and Saskatoon are doing really excellent things — I think we’re gonna have to get very creative with how we build our community because some of the brands are pulling out. The Toronto market doesn’t work here. I think it’s time for Vancouver to show a little hubris and flex its muscles. Botanist just won another title. I mean, someone from Vancouver wins everything. But our coverage in the media and our programs aren’t there yet. We might need to start taking some risks as we often hide behind customer service. We need to educate our customers on how they can try new things — and expect new ideas. We have very intelligent book-smart bartenders and I believe we are capable of being one of the best cocktail markets in the world. We just need to show it.

Dhaliwal: I have a few ideas as to what it could be; this has a lot to do with liquor laws relaxing a touch. I do think it will stay true to our reputation of having excellent service. The cocktail trends will change, and I hope that we continue to be leaders in this front. We are fortunate to have access to great non-alcoholic products to enhance our beverage programs, the limit is our imagination and creativity. I’m hoping to see more ready to drink cocktails on menus, and hopefully a larger selection in liquor stores.

Groves: Evolving? Culture? Well, I don’t really view it as an evolution per se. Cocktails, like anything, wine, beer, music — it’s fashion. Maxim magazine and Don Draper brought the Old Fashioned back from the dead. All it will take is one ad to change things. I see it as a cyclical kind of thing. Things fall out of favour and then they come back.

Bruce: RTD’s (ready to drink) are making highballs and some cocktails easier to access for the general consumer, but they will never replace the experience and social aspect of going to the bar. I would like for it to be easier to acquire liquor primary licenses. Our restaurants have great bar programs, and part of that is because we have limited cocktail bars in the city. In a way, it has evolved our food and beverage scene more holistically than some other cities. However, I think that the lack of liquor primary licenses, is holding us back from being able to open small neighbourhood bars, and just generally focus on a bar program on its own.

Borrowman: I see sustainability being a big thing, zero proof cocktails as well. To be honest, I see a lot of restaurants closing and that has more to do with costs and population than anything. It’s survival of the fittest, unfortunately. But that means I also see plenty of opportunity for new faces and new entrepreneurs jumping in and doing some great stuff.

Shum: I feel like it’s gonna stretch in various directions. Douchey baller cocktail bars will dominate on one end, while on the other, we’ll get some rad dive bar with some simple cool drinks. The industry is definitely moving forward, as the city grows, we’ll begin to see different models emerge as new ideas and bars take risks.

Diakow: I think we will continue to see craft cocktails on menus, but there will be more of a focus on aperitif type spirits coming back into vogue. We’ve already begun to see it in many restaurants; great bartenders sourcing out high end spirits like vermouth, port, and bitters.

Savage: I see inclusivity and sustainability at the heart of whatever comes next. Incorporating different identities and palates, all with an eye to stewarding our forests and our oceans. Vancouver is a hub of international business and trade, and its cocktail scene will get recognized for the exciting things its bartenders are doing.

Domet: I can see it improving without a doubt. What I would hope for is that with the success of the culture in Vancouver, that we will continue to influence the province and the rest of Canada. With an ongoing partnership from our provincial government, we can keep getting better and grow not just cocktail culture in Vancouver, but also the hospitality and tourism community as a whole.

Josh Pape and Shaun Layton at Wildebeest, Summer 2013 | Photo: Scout Magazine

Layton: Evolving with everything beverage. More themed bars, like what we’re doing here at Como — trying new things. I’d love to see more bars with cool themes that work with the restaurant identity. Bao Bei is like that. Staying on brand and finding a direction.

Kaulbach: Because I’m not in the industry anymore, it’s a harder question for me to answer. I don’t want to give a lame answer where you’ll see more wine on tap cocktails and such but I think what will happen will surprise us. The young talent here will create trends I can’t predict. I’d like to see less pretentiousness, less attitude, more “Here, let me excite you.” I do wish that the legality of things and the way we’re allowed to operate would change. If so, I believe you’d see a burst in creativity. I think here in Vancouver, the parameters would fly wide open. I wish the government would ease off on the regulation and trust the maturity of the industry to flourish. I really love the positive progression the industry has taken recently. From Mind The Bar to hospitality associations, it makes me excited to see these things and this shows me that the industry is moving in a great direction.


 

As someone who’s uniquely positioned to both report and work in the Vancouver bar industry, the responses I’ve gathered here highlight and mirror many of my own thoughts on this topic. I moved to Vancouver in 2009 from Saskatoon, which was right when the market for premium cocktails started to take shape.

I saw first-hand this groundswell of talent and their eagerness to forge a new path for cocktail culture in Vancouver. I have vivid and fond memories of tasting my first Don Draper cocktail (the bourbon delight of L’Abattoir’s Shaun Layton), and how I marvelled in its intricacy and the fancy pants glass it was served in. It made me excited to go out for a drink. And as more and more top flight programs emerged, my curiosity as to who was doing what only intensified.

I’ve known most of the people I interviewed for this piece for years now. We’ve shared stories and many a drink. Their roles within the bar community at large, whether back in 2009 or now, still loom heavily, as it was through their efforts that this city’s drinking culture was moved forward. Hell, we even had Tales of the Cocktail for a few years! That doesn’t happen unless you’re creating something special.

The boom may have come and gone but the groundwork has been laid out for a more sustained progression. Our expectations have risen and with that so too have our bartenders. I expect great things as we progress into the next decade. Where we’ll end up is yet to be determined, but I expect it will taste good.


Interviews condensed for length and clarity | Top image via L’Abattoir.

There is 1 comment

  1. Restrictive liquor laws always come to a forefront but why is this the case? I mean sure our local bars can’t get some rare mezcal from the heart of the Lacandon jungle but at the end of the day will this make or break a customer’s experience – nah.

    Now when it comes to making a small bar economically viable this would be amazing. Need more flexibility with liquor primaries for sure.

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