Just over the Canadian border, three hours by car north of Seattle, Vancouver shares the mild coastal weather with that city rather than the stereotypical snowiness of the nearby ski town of Whistler. The cocktail scene in this cosmopolitan city of 600,000 inhabitants is exploding in size and the number of great bars, and in the creativity used in making drinks.
Clearly bartenders are keeping up with international trends, as tobacco bitters, smoky flavours, carbonated cocktails, barrel-aged drinks, dehydrated Campari and bottled cocktails are found in various bars throughout town. The fact that Tales of the Cocktail has chosen Vancouver as its second location means bartenders here are getting exposed to some of the most notable speakers and topics in the business, and it shows.
Local drinkers also seem thrilled with the options. In the majority of these twelve bars patrons are seen ordering off-menu or "bartender's choice" options.
Many of the best cocktail bars are within walking distance of a few others, clumped into the historic-yet-hip Gastown District or down the neon-lit party corridor of Granville Street, making bar-hopping efficient and cab rides necessary only at the beginning and end of the night.
Address: 2881 Granville Street, Vancouver, BC
Tel: +1 604 738 8938
Type: Fine Dining Restaurant Bar
Stylish modern restaurant West has a sophisticated cocktail programme with bar manager David Wolowidnyk at the helm. The drink menu is divided into categories of seasonal, originals, aperitif cocktails, and classic & antique cocktails, made with techniques including barrel-aging, foams, bottled cocktails, and even a drink with blow-torched bananas. The resulting drinks are elegant and subtle, as opposed to some of the more bombastic cocktails you'll find in other Vancouver bars, but they still wow with their depth of flavour.
Service is fine dining quality as well, with bartenders seeming to know every customer's name and refilling water glasses promptly. When busy, two bartenders will work in concert on a single drink, hovering over the glass or one shaking while another prepares the garnish, like plating a meal.
The bar area is a narrow pathway beginning at the front door and leading into the dining area, with a half wall separating it from the rest of the room. It can feel tight unless you're sitting at one of the dozen or so barstools, making the bar's only flaw that there isn't more of it. 4.5/5
Address: 1115 Granville Street. Vancouver, BC
Tel: +1 604.687.8001
Type: Cocktail-Driven Restaurant
The Refinery is a restaurant that feels like a lounge, located up a flight of stairs above busy Granville Street. There are just a couple seats at the bar and the rest at communal and individual tables, meaning that almost everybody is sitting down for drinks and food in groups of friends, to a soundtrack of upbeat party music. The casual restaurant has a full menu but a focus on charcuterie, some of it made in-house.
Also made in-house are syrups, preserves and vermouths for cocktails, mainly created with local ingredients. The 'Green Chartreuse pop', for example, is made from a syrup of green herbs like mint and cilantro meant to mimic the flavour of the famous liqueur, and is then fermented into fizziness using champagne yeast. This is added to a version of a Last Word made with tea-infused gin. Other tempting ingredients include grapefruit-fennel bitters, yuzu marmalade, and blackcurrant tea syrup. For all the homemade ingredients, the focus of The Refinery remains at the tables where good times are shared with friends, rather than on trainspotting the mixologist. 3.5/5
Address: 957 Granville Street, Vancouver, CA
Tel: +1 604.633.0056
Type: Cocktail bar
Located on wild, neon-lit Granville Street, the Granville Room is a cocktail bar built for the neighborhood. Inside, it has a design common to many speakeasy bars, with brick walls, wooden shelves, and Edison bulbs, but the flat-screen televisions and blaring house music overrule the décor. So too, does the crowd of twenty- and thirty-something revelers out to get good and loaded while sharing some bar food. It may look like a classic cocktail bar but the vibe is more like that of a party pub.
Speaking of classic cocktails, the list offers ten of those (Aviation, Last Word, Mai Tai, etc.) and five "modern classics" created by bartenders like Audrey Saunders (Gin-Gin Mule) and Tony Conigliaro (Wink). For the most part, the crowd eschews this menu in favour of more typical high-volume bar drinks like vodka-sodas. Consider this a fun, high-energy bar with good cocktail options rather than a cocktail bar that happens to be fun. 3.5/5
Address: Rosewood Hotel Georgia, 801 West Georgia Street, Vancouver BC
Tel: +1 604.673.7000
Type: Fine Dining Restaurant Bar
One of several sipping spots in the Rosewood Hotel Georgia, the fine dining restaurant Hawksworth serves "contemporary Canadian cuisine" in an elegant yet hip setting that opened in 2011. The bar, separated from the main dining area by a fire feature, also serves as a lounge. Populating it is a combination of business travellers, tourists, hotel guests, couples on dates, and friends out for fancy drinks. They sit on cream-colored leather curved couches in the corners, at tall tables in the middle of the room, or in one of the few seats at the bar.
Bartenders give attentive service, refilling waters and offering a complimentary snack of crispy nori. The list of spirits is impressive for a small bar -it doesn't look like it could all fit on the few shelves. On the cocktail menu there are five-dollar aperitifs and digestifs, encouraging drinkers to imbibe European-style. The rest, mostly priced twelve dollars, include both seasonal and spirit-forward cocktails, many mixed with fortified wines like vermouth, sherry, and Madeira. Drinks are carefully executed and soft and supple in flavour. 4/5
Address: 135 Keefer Street , Vancouver
Tel: +1 604 688 1961
Type: Cocktail bar
This long, narrow, dark bar looks like something between an apothecary and a Shanghai tunnel. The black room is illuminated with white backlit anatomical diagram artwork and red and white light accents, all of it coming together very stylistically. Above the bar sits rows of jars filled with herbs and roots along with scales and other apothecary tools, driving home the theme. The crowd can skew a little older than bars along Granville (Keefer is in Chinatown), with cocktail-loving people aged anywhere from 25 to 60 coming in for house "prescriptions" served out of lovely antique-appearing glassware.
Those prescriptions include a few Asian ingredients like lapsang souchong tea and "yun zhi syrup" along with many more familiar fruit ingredients such as apricot, pineapple and pear. In fact, most drinks tend to have a touch of the familiar as well as the unusual in them: a nice mix. Keefer doesn't take itself too seriously - bartenders are all very friendly and the music ranges from Huey Lewis to hip hop to Queen. They've achieved something difficult at Keefer- pulling off a stylish, serious cocktail bar that is also great fun to be in. 4.5/5
Address: 217 Carrall Street, Vancouver, BC
Tel: +1 604 568 1701
Type: Restaurant bar
The bedroom-sized bar at L'Abattoir is separated from the upstairs restaurant by half a level, giving bartenders licence to set the mood separately from what's happening above. The odd little space is bright and has brown and white floor tiles, giving it the appearance of an open kitchen. Back bar shelves are not horizontal but slanted in a zig-zag pattern, and drinks are served in a mish-mash of miscellaneous vintage glassware. It's a strange jumble of themes, perhaps disorientating enough to open drinkers' minds to new cocktail experiences.
The list is split into classic cocktails (including a few lesser known ones like the Treacle and Alfonso) and house originals. A few of those cocktails follow the restaurant's nomenclature with names like Slaughterhouse, Meat Hook, and the Butchertown Cocktail. They all taste better than they sound.
Most drinks are adventurous and boldly flavoured, like the citrusy Banana Daiquiri that comes with a smoky float of Ardbeg, or the slightly puzzling Gastown Swizzle made with gin, Aperol, passion fruit, lime, and a float of Fernet-Branca. The list is filled with smoky flavours and homemade ingredients including stout liqueur and tobacco bitters. However serious the cocktails, the atmosphere in L'Abattoir's bar is friendly and congenial, as drinkers make conversation about the wild ride on which their palates are being taken. 4.5/5
Address: 900 Seymour Street, Vancouver, BC
Tel: +1 604 632 9560
Type: Cocktail bar
Don't let the name fool you: Uva is not a typical, stodgy wine bar by any stretch of the imagination. On one visit a rowdy industry crowd was engaging in "bone luges" (Google it); on another customers were doing body shots off a woman laying on the bar in honour of a bartender's birthday. Uva has a full liquor licence and a short cocktail list that includes a batched Sazerac that's blended with previous batches like the sour mash method of making bourbon, as well as two tequila cocktails out of eight on the menu.
When not hosting service industry workers, the bar functions as an espresso bar by day. For lunch and dinner, the Italian food menu changes daily and offers a tasting menu along with charcuterie and other bar bits. At night, Uva often sees sudden swarms of people entering and then vacating the bar an hour and a half later, before and after shows nearby, so the crowd and atmosphere can be drastically different on subsequent visits. Oh yes, and they serve wine here too. 3.5/5
Address: 12 Water Street, Vancouver, BC
Tel: +1 604 684 1844
Type: Restaurant Bar
Four-year-old Boneta in its second location is found in a sort of a mini-mall in Gastown, across the aisle from a clothing store. The open kitchen restaurant has a scattered industrial look to it, with a mélange of glass, concrete, new and old woods, and modern light fixtures in the space. There is an additional outdoor patio open in summers. Crammed into one end of the restaurant is the small bar and lounge area, served by a bar split between cocktail and coffee drink service.
Dry, food-friendly cocktails make up much of the menu here, and include intense flavors like the very bitter Vested Bartender (that was served by a vested bartender) with both Cynar and Fernet in it, and the Gaoler's Sour that includes homemade Forbidden Fruit liqueur along with roobios syrup, rye, egg white, and grapefruit bitters. There are also three "borrowed" cocktails from the likes of Erick Castro (San Francisco), Nathan Weber (Seattle), and Chris Hannah (New Orleans). With all the smoke flavours and bitter ingredients, this cocktail program seems built with bartenders' palates in mind. 4/5
Address: 6 Powell Street, Vancouver
Type: Cocktail bar
On the second floor in a corner building in the Gastown district is one of Vancouver's most notable bars, for design, drinks and atmosphere. Large windows overlook the street on two walls, a chandelier hangs from the ceiling in the middle of the room, and beneath it are groups of tall and regular tables and chairs for dining. However, dining seems to come secondary to drinking here, as the food menu fits on a tiny square board while the drink menu spans several pages.
That menu reads deliciously, with flavours like mango, grapefruit, ginger and honey spread throughout. Drinks are creatively assembled too - the Gastown contains the odd-but-works combination of gin, orange vermouth, amaro, grapefruit, and absinthe, and the Parliament delights with cachaca, Fernet-Branca, lime juice and honey coming together surprisingly well. Drinks are both refreshing and creative. For those wanting to take home skills in addition to memories, The Diamond also offers both beginner's cocktail classes and an advanced cocktail bartender course. 4.5/5
Address: 162 Water Street, Vancouver, BC
Tel: +1 604 568 7022
Type: Restaurant bar
Pourhouse has a tiny one-page cocktail menu, and they'd almost rather you didn't order from it. The list features a few of the house favourites clumped together in themes like 'sparkling' and 'stirred' ('flips' were featured previously), but these are mere conversation starting points in the ordering process. A recent menu was heavy on the Campari and Carpano Antica vermouth, and the back-bar is weighed down with a decent selection of whisky, so you can expect to see a lot of "brown, bitter, and stirred" drinks suggested after your bartender consultation. On one visit, the bartender asked a customer her preferences then secretly made her a drink with a spirit she thought she didn't like, in order to challenge her perceptions - and she was very pleased with the result.
The restaurant is housed in a 1910 brick building with wooden ceilings and huge wood beam supports carved from Douglas Fir trees. The rest of the space is designed to match with a large wood back bar, brown booth seating in the restaurant section, and a low couches in the lounge area that is most of one side of the big square room. Overall, Pourhouse is a nice-looking restaurant with a friendly staff and an emphasis on individually customized cocktails. 4/5
Address: 212 Abbott Street, Vancouver, BC
Tel: +1 604.558.1581
Type: Cocktail bar
Along with the Granville Room, Clough Club is one of the two "cocktail taverns" owned by the Donnelly Group, but this space (just a couple months old) places a stronger emphasis on quality, progressive cocktails. The look of the century-old room is well-worn chic, with a tiled floor and a curvy white marble bar in one corner and about six barstools in front of it. In the middle of the room is a tall marble-topped table for standing, and around the walls are comfortable upholstered benches, club chairs, and tables. A few more seats are located in the rear hallway that leads to a second bar in the back. This more bare-bones room with distressed walls and exposed brick is usually only open on the weekends and for special events.
The drink menu at Clough Club is divided into classics (including the Seelbach, Sazerac, and Vieux Carre), modern classics (with drinks from Kirk Estopinal of Cure in New Orleans, Jim Meehan of PDT in New York, and others) and house cocktails. The latter includes trendy cocktail touches like smoking a glass over a burning piece of bourbon barrel stave, and sprinkling dehydrated Campari powder on top of the foam of an egg white drink. More than just for show, the drinks are delicious as well. 4/5
Address: 1489 East Hastings Street, Vancouver, BC
Tel: +1 604 253 7141
Type: Tiki bar
The Tiki Bar is part of the Waldorf Hotel's entertainment complex, along with two restaurants and nightclub/live music venues. On some nights, a cover charge grants admission into everything, but earlier in the week the tiki bar is a stand-alone venue without a cover. The semi-circular room is gorgeous, with a big, curved, red-topped bar and behind it a wall of mirrors reflecting the rest of the room. Around the outer curve of the wall are tables and chairs up a couple steps from the bar level, leaving plenty of room to stand when the crowds come in. The ceiling is painted a dark blue with lights that twinkle like stars, and large fake palm trees and velvet paintings complete the look.
The menu is a surprise, as it is not focused on tropical libations but instead on vintage and modern classics including the Air Mail, Red Hook, and Penicillin. Tiki drinks, mixed in with the others on the alphabetically-ordered menu, include the Blue Hawaii, Mai Tai, Zombie, and a couple cocktails served from a coconut shell. Though not on the front lines of the classic tiki cocktail revival, the Tiki Bar is a fun space to bring a big group of friends to fulfill your quota of kitsch. 3.5/5