This op-ed comes courtesy of Alex Black, the award-winning Bartender and Spirit & Cocktail Educator behind the media desk at Mind The Bar.
In 2006, a modern-day sporting gentleman by the name of Joe Bates sat down in front of bartender Steve da Cruz at the Sylvia Hotel and single-handedly re-birthed the Vancouver Cocktail. Da Cruz made it his mission to spread the gospel of the cocktail throughout the beverage world, which he did quite successfully. The cocktail can now be made at any decent drinks den in the province and has been placed on menus around the world.
But, nearly fifteen years after it rose from the ashes, it turns out we’ve been making it wrong.
The drink’s history, up until now, was thought to have been birthed at the Sylvia when it was granted the city’s first Cocktail Lounge licence in 1954. The medieval-themed lounge was referred to as the ‘Tilting Room’ but wasn’t allowed to have an actual name due to the bizarre laws surrounding licensing at the time. Since old cocktail menus of the era seemed to back up the fact that there was a cocktail called the ‘Vancouver’ being made in the city in 1954, it would stand to reason it was being made at the only cocktail bar in the city. Right?
Well, although the Sylvia was Vancouver’s first cocktail lounge, there were other bars making drinks long before it. They were just very hard to get into. You see, when Prohibition laws came into effect in BC, they affected the public in different ways depending (as most things tend to do) on the level of affluence one had. While most of the population was hit with restrictions and forced into temperance, those who could afford the luxuries of private members’ clubs continued imbibing relatively unrestricted. Members of the Vancouver Club, for example, were still drinking well-made cocktails made by master bartenders before and after the city went dry, and it just so happens that one of those bartenders, a fellow by the name of Joe Fitchett, was mixing up the Vancouver Cocktail long before the Sylvia was even a hotel.
Sometime between 1928 and 1942, Mitchell Publishing – which was located on Pender St at the time – released a book called About Town, which catalogued some of Vancouver’s favourite recipes for both food and drink. Chef Antoine Bernhart of the Vancouver Hotel lent his skills to the food recipes while Mr. Fitchett consulted on the drinks, of which just so happened to be our city’s eponymous libation.
A mixture of Gin, French Vermouth, Benedictine and orange bitters is listed, revealing exactly how we’ve been making the Vancouver Cocktail wrong all these years. It’s been with the wrong vermouth. This is easy to understand when you thumb through other cocktail recipes from the past and see that vermouth is often listed without any indication of the style. But, I hear you ask, ‘What if the book just mixed up the styles?’ Great question, and the answer lies within the book itself, where a few pages before the ‘Vancouver’ we’re gifted with The Fitchett Cocktail, Joe’s own variation on the Vancouver made with Italian Vermouth instead of French.
So, to recap, for the past fifteen years we’ve been making the ‘Fitchett Cocktail’ but calling it the ‘Vancouver Cocktail’. Thanks to an undated recipe book from a Vancouver publisher (that has no listed author) we now know that we can safely erase all we thought we knew about the Vancouver Cocktail and start rebuilding the story from scratch. How? That’s what I’ve been trying to accomplish for the past few months. Mitchell Press doesn’t have any records that were helpful, and there’s not a ton of information on Joe Fitchett kicking around. We know that he was credited as the creator of a few drinks in About Town, but the Vancouver was not one of them. As such, we can deduce that the drink was being made before his tenure as ‘head bar steward’ at the club, and possibly coming from beyond its venerable walls.
Hopefully, with this new information, we can count on someone to help fill in the blanks, or maybe it’ll take another 15 years before someone stumbles across something that erases it all and leaves us with more even questions.
Great sleuthing! Looking forward to trying the proper Vancouver cocktail.
Quality info. This is what I hope for from this site.
I was googling to remind myself of the Vancouver cocktail recipe and now I am shook. Impressive detective work. Btw the EUVS site lists About Town as a 1925 publication, although I see no date in the book except a reference in one of the recipes to an event in 1922.
The dry vermouth version seems identical to another cocktail by the name “Ford.” I’m trying to learn classic cocktail names and this is confusing: are they coincidentally the same? Are most bartenders familiar with both?