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Busy tinkering with cocktail recipes for my upcoming spirited dinner on Sept. 13 at the Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts. Five gourmet courses, each paired with a cocktail, some classic, some creative, only $75. Serious good deal – you should see the menu the school has come up with! Just working on the recipe for the Pomme Pomme, made with Schramm potato vodka, apple juice, lemon, honey and rosemary. Delicate but complex. Could be delicious. Have to have another one to be sure . . .


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Betcha didn’t even know Vancouver had a signature cocktail that dates back to the 1950s. Well, the word’s getting out. Read my In Good Spirits column in Saturday’s Vancouver Sun to learn how some of the city’s best barkeeps took the Vancouver Cocktail on the road to Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans.

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After a year-long hiatus, One for the Road is back in action. Lots of great adventures to share, plus new features and fun stuff. Stay tuned . . .

If you love cocktails and you live in or near Vancouver and you haven’t bought your tickets to Tales of the Cocktail on Tour yet, what the heck are you waiting for? The fab New Orleans cocktail fest is coming to Vancouver March 13 to 15 and will feature parties, seminars, demonstrations, celebrity bartenders, a bar crawl and more cocktails than you can shake a Hawthorn strainer at. Tickets are only $155 for everything – that’s an amazing bargain. Go learn more at the Tales of the Cocktail website. And see you for the opening round at the Fairmont Pacific Rim on March 13!

L’Abattoir‘s bar manager sums up his new barrel-aged Martinez in one, succinct word: “It’s elegant,” says Shaun Layton. It’s also pretty darn delicious. The oak cask where the gin, vermouth, bitters and maraschino have lain for the past few weeks has rounded out all the cocktail’s hard edges. It’s also added a faint hint of vanilla and an even fainter whiff of smoke from the scotch the barrel contained before this. This is one fine cocktail.

Barrel-aging cocktails is the hottest new thing to happen to drink. The trend started in London (as so many boozy trends do), with bartender Tony Conigliaro of 69 Colebrooke Row. The idea is to take a spirits-only cocktail like, say, the Manhattan or the Negroni, and age it in either oak or glass for several weeks to add new depths of flavour. Shawn Soole at Clive’s in Victoria has been doing it for a while, Jacob Sweetapple at the Fairmont Pacific Rim has some cocktails in bottles and Layton has just uncorked his first batch at L’Abattoir.

He’s working on some other drinks – I for one will be back for the barrel-aged Hanky Panky – but in the meantime you should head down there and get your aged Martinez before they’re all gone.  With only 200 drinks at $15 a pop, they won’t last long.

There are strange things done in the midnight sun . . . and most of them involve liquor of some sort. Man, the folks up here in the Yukon can sure put it back, and I can see why.

In the winter, there’s about three minutes of daylight, plus freezing cold temperatures, and all the activities are the sorts of things that seem like a better idea after a few beverages, like ice fishing, dogsledding, snowmobiling, running marathons in minus-30-degree weather, that sort of thing. Then in summer, there’s almost no night, so it’s a 24-hour party. Woo-hoo!

Whitehorse and Dawson City are wild. They’re filled with the kinds of joints that have lists of 101 shooters with such dubious names as Kitty Litter (don’t ask) and more variations on special coffee than wines by the glass. Plus, of course, there’s the legendary Sour Toe Cocktail served at the Jack London bar in Dawson’s Downtown Hotel, a slug of booze garnished with a human toe. Yes, a real one. Rumour has it the toe tastes much nicer since they started preserving it in rock salt rather than formaldehyde, but of course, you’re not supposed to actually ingest the toe, just let it kiss your lips. In any case, ew.

The folks up here play hard and work hard; they’re tough and fun and funny, really great company. But the best thing about them is their great hospitality. Everyone seems super friendly and generous, and don’t be surprised if they buy you a round of Fireballs or B-52s.

If you want more info about travel to the Yukon, visit the Tourism Yukon site here.

The Toronto Temperance Society on College Street tries to recreate a retro speakeasy feel as it serves up some of the city’s best cocktails.

The Toronto Temperance Society on College Street tries to recreate a retro speakeasy feel as it serves up some of the city’s best cocktails.

Time was – and it wasn’t that long ago – it wasn’t so easy to get a decent drink in Toronto. It was, after all, “Toronto the Good,” where the lingering hangover of Prohibition lasted until the ’70s.

You’d never know it now, though.

This city has become a party town everywhere from its chic-again hotel lounges to its sleek wine bars, hipster hangouts and the countless gala events surrounding festivals such as the Toronto International Film Festival, which ends this week.

If you’re planning to travel to Toronto (which you probably are, since, as any Torontonian can tell you, it is The Centre of the Universe), here are just a few places to check out.

Read the rest of this entry »

Although the Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival has been going for a couple of days, this morning’s plenary was the official kickoff (well, that and the Bacchanalia gala last night, I suppose). This morning was our first chance to really explore wines from the two theme countries, New Zealand and Argentina, and all I can say is what a great way to start a day, not to mention a festival.

We got to taste 14 different wines from the two very different countries, while the producers and their reps got up and told us a little about how they were produced. The wines ranged from the exquisite champagne-like Argentinean sparkler Bodega Vistalba Progenie Extra Brut NV ($54.99, special order only) to the tropical fruit explosion of the Babich Family Estate Vineyards Cowslip Valley Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand ($21.99) to the big, bold Argentinean reds such as the Bodega Catena Zapata Adrianna Malbec ($86, special order) or the  luscious Xumek Syrah ($22.99) or the exotic lavender-and-pepper bouquet of the Crossroads Winery Elms Vineyard Reserve Syrah from New Zealand’s Hawke’s Bay ($32.99, special order).

What was particularly interesting is that all the wines were chosen as truly tasting of the terroir, the land where they were produced. And there is no way you could confuse, say, a syrah from New Zealand, with its lean, dry, floral notes,  with a big, bold, juicy and peppery Argentinian one.

I know this split theme has been a bit of an organizational headache for the fest, but I have to say, it’s  brilliant from the perspective of an attendee. I have a very happy palate right now, and since I’m heading off to the Tasting Room followed by a very intriguing wine launch and a celebration of some local icons, i figure things are only going to get better as the week goes on.

So yesterday I spent the afternoon at the Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festivals’ discussion: What’s In Your Wine? A Symposium on Truth in Labelling. And an eye-opening experience it was, though not, I suspect, for the reasons the organizers had planned.

As Boneta’s sommelier and co-owner Neil Ingram summed things up: “The most interesting thing I thought about the symposium was everything that wasn’t discussed.” He was referring partly to the whole cellared in Canada imbroglio which organizers dismissed as something that everyone knew had been dealt with. Well, obviously not everyone did know, because there were more than a few angry mutterings about the fact that that one apparently taboo issue was the main reason they’d come to the symposium.

But Neil was also referring to the irony that the discussion kept coming back to the over-arching importance of the consumer — who wants more and more information disclosed — but the panelists all emphasized how little they wanted the consumer to actually have the kind of information they’re demanding.

As one winemaker from Argentina said, “It is not an industrial product. People are not going to read a manual before they drink a glass of wine.” Well, perhaps no, but really, what’s the big deal about identifying a set of generally important health, environmental, provenance and other criteria and popping them on a label? After all, some 90 per cent of wine-buying decisions are made at the shelf.

To me the most bizarre thing was the language that was being used about the whole issue of disclosure, words like “disaster” and “catastrophe.” Really? REALLY? Sticking a calorie count on a label would be a catastrophe? Explaining that even though your winery is in, say, Cowichan Valley and your grapes come from Washington State would be a disaster?

The really frustrating thing about all this is that disclosure rules are coming, like it or not. The European Union already has pretty stringent rules about this stuff, and now that the giganto conglomerate Wal-Mart is demanding this info, governments are likely to follow. So why wouldn’t winemakers get ahead of the curve and establish those rules for themselves, rather than wait for someone who doesn’t understand the business to do it for them?

Just wondering . . .

Mark Brand's winning drink

Mark Brand's winning drink, Angela the Grand Dame, at the 2010 Mixlympics.

Sunday may not have been a great day for Canadians at the hockey arena (or the curling rink or the ski slopes, for that matter) but we did manage to bring home the gold in one area where we excel — drinking. Or, to be more precise, making great cocktalis that can compete with the best in the world.

Sunday was the day of the much-anticipated Mixlympics, where 10 bartenders from Vancouver, Toronto, London, Paris and Stockholm competed in a black box cocktail contest at George Ultra Lounge in Yaletown, organized by George’s bar manager, Shaun Layton.

The rule was they had to use the sponsor spirit, Martin Miller Gin, and at least one of the five black box ingredients. Those ingredients were just a tad on the challenging side: a blood orange, Campari and vanilla preserve from Vista d’Oro farms; Venturi-Schulze balsamic vinegar; “White Dog,” the overproof raw spirit that, when aged in oak, becomes Maker’s Mark bourbon; R&b Brewing’s Icehole Celebration Lager; and a raw, unshucked oyster. Plus, of course, they had George’s entire menu of spirits, syrups and fresh ingredients to play with.

The bartenders were secreted away upstairs in Brix until it was time for them to compete. Then, two by two, they were brought down to the bar, shown the black box ingredients and given exactly 10 minutes to concoct four drinks for the judges.

These guys are pros, and each of them produced exceptional drinks that would have worked on any bar list anywhere in the world. But the judges (including myself) wanted to be wowed. We were marking on taste, of course, but also presentation, execution, originality, balance and performance. More than that, though, we wanted to see something with both forethought and spontaneity, something that really made the most of the ingredients they were given. Secretly, we all figured that anyone who used the oyster in a halfway decent drink would win.

Not surprisingly, most of the guys did variations on the classics: a couple of flips, an updated Aviation, a twist on the Breakfast Martini, that sort of thing. Also not surprisingly, the French guys did fruity, slightly sweet drinks. The Brits were a bit boozier and more astringent. And the Vancouver guys, who are used to making do with a limited booze selection but terrific fresh ingredients, were just a bit more risk-takingly creative than the rest.

London's David Greig withe the second place drink.

London's David Greig with the second place cocktail.

Now, if the winner was based solely on taste, London’s David Greig would have won hands down for the fantastic, multi-layered flip he called the New Björk Sour (a reference to Martin Miller gin, which is distilled in England then sent to Iceland to use their pure water). The judges also went crazy for another Londoner’s drink, Joe Stokoe’s luscious variation on the Aviation, which he called the Aeroplane Blonde.

But it was Vancouverite Mark Brand, owner of Boneta and The Diamond, who carried the day. First of all, he killed with his presentation glass — a commemorative wine goblet from the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, garnished with a slice of orange peel carved into a Maple Leaf and soaked in Campari.

Mark Brand

Mark Brand gets serious.

Not only that, but he was one of only three competitors to use more than one black box ingredient. He made bitters a la minute by crushing juniper berries and other spices, wrapping them in cheesecloth and briefly soaking them in White Dog. And then his drink, which he named Angela The Grand Dame for Martin Miller’s famous still, was fantastic, just a completely fresh, exciting flavour, very unusual yet very drinkable, just a sophisticated, grown up drink.

David Greig came in second with that luscious flip and Vancouver’s Jay Jones was third with his Tie Down, a great, boozy, flavourful variation on a Martinez or a Pall Mall.

And the guys are set for a rematch — they’re already planning the next Mixlympics for London in 2012. See you there!

Jay Jones

Jay Jones (centre) with the third place cocktail.