By Sonu Purhar
“I drink to make other people more interesting.” – Ernest Hemingway
Ah, Christmas. A time for peppermint-infused lattes, sparkling snowfall and – most importantly – booze-filled soirées with your nearest and dearest.
Our annual Christmas Cocktail Crawl is entering its hat trick year, and this time around there’s a movement afoot. A call to bring back the Era of the Literary Salon, when cocktails stimulated engaging conversation, inspired philosophical debate and, as the evening progressed, created masters of the universe out of mere drinkers.
With that in mind, we invite you to venture down the rabbit hole and into a cocktail-fuelled literary Wonderland. Bring your friends, colleagues or a cute stranger: every drink has a story, and each stop is guaranteed to spark provocative discussion, strengthen bonds and maybe even cultivate a romance or two – and if it doesn’t, just order another round. Hemingway would approve.
Stop 1: Hawksworth Cocktail Bar
It’s only appropriate to start your indulgent adventures at one of the most highly rated restaurants in Canada. Besides, everyone knows that witty conversation flows more easily when you’re surrounded by luxury and glamour.
Cocktail “Catcher in the Rye”. Holden Caulfield’s adolescent angst would have been obliterated had he sipped this spicy-sweet classic adapted by head bartender Cooper Tardivel. Orange bitters and liqueur soften the bold Sazerac and sherry base while a dash of cognac adds depth. Take time to savour the subtle fire it leaves behind. Intoxicating.
Literary companion Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger.
Bartender’s bombshell More than a flashy party trick, the orange-oil flame is crucial to a cocktail’s presentation, aroma and taste. Squeezing oil out of the peel, through a flame and onto the drink’s surface induces caramelization and enhances those key first sips. “Your initial taste of a cocktail sets up the rest of the experience,” says Cooper. “That first impression should break the ice, gradually leading to a more intimate acquaintance.” Salinger couldn’t have put it better.
Stop 2: 900 West at The Fairmont Hotel Vancouver
Elegant and refined, the Grand Lady’s spacious lounge is crowned with chandeliers and draped with twinkling wreaths and trees – the perfect venue to stage your own literary salon. Settle in a corner with your crew, order a round of classic cocktails and start pondering the meaning of life. It’ll come to you.
Cocktails “Death in the Afternoon”. Hemingway’s original champagne-and-absinthe concoction was potent enough to terrify even the hardiest liver. For those who prefer not to tango with the “green fairy”, bartender Kristina Jovanovic pours out a much more palatable version with lemon and simple syrup. Strong notes of anise come through in the absinthe, tempered by cool bubbles and subtle sweetness.
Literary companion Death in the Afternoon by Ernest Hemingway, obviously. But for extra credit, pick up Philip Greene’s To Have and Have Another, a juicy tome detailing Hemingway’s drinking habits and how they influenced his novels.
Bartender’s bombshell Though absinthe was once considered a psychoactive drug, it’s since been proven no more harmful than any other spirit. In fact, absinthe might even serve to stimulate creative juices: literary rock stars that have imbibed include Edgar Allen Poe and Oscar Wilde. Then again, after a particularly fun night Hemingway’s journal contained this cryptic entry: “Got tight on absinthe last night. Did knife tricks.” Proceed with caution.
Stop 3: UVA Wine Bar
Ultramodern UVA is all purple lighting, red walls and dancing candles. The best seat in the house is at the bar where you can drool over rows of rare and little-known spirits.
Cocktail “The Chronicle of Peater Rabbit”. Chock-full of bunny’s favourite bitters, this original drink crafted by bar manager Lauren Mote is complex and smoky, and goes down like silk. “Peater” packs a punch with Ardbeg Ten Years Old and Glenmorangie Original while a dash of Bittered Sling’s Cascade Celery Bitters brings out herbaceous undertones.
Literary companion The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter.
Bartender’s bombshell Ardbeg Ten Years Old is considered the world’s peatiest, smokiest and most complex single malt – and Lauren is on a mission to bring more attention to this whiskey king and its counterparts. “Peated whiskeys are an acquired taste – both their raw cost in cocktails and guest preference makes them rare,” she says. “Personally, I would love to see more guests experimenting with single malts and whiskeys, and the Peater Rabbit cocktail is a great introduction.” Move aside, wine: the age of whiskey is dawning.
Stop 4: Clough Club
Beware the back room’s hypnotizing neon-green spirals – one too many of Clough Club’s off-the-cuff cocktails and you’ll feel like Alice tumbling through the rabbit hole.
Cocktail “Remember the Maine”. Founded by Charles H. Baker, one of the most prolific writers of liquordom, this smooth take on the classic Manhattan is slightly richer than the original. Bartender Connor Gotowiec layers all-star ingredients like sweet vermouth, Alberta Premium Dark Horse rye and cherry liqueur, and finishes ‘er off by spraying the glass rim with absinthe. Smooth.
Literary companion The Gentleman’s Companion: Being an Exotic Drinking Book or Around the World with Jigger, Beaker and Flask by Charles H. Baker.
Bartender’s bombshell: “Remember the Maine” is short for “REMEMBER the MAINE, a hazy memory of a night in Havana during the unpleasantness of 1933, when each swallow was punctuated with bombs going off on the Prado, or the sound of 3″ shells being fired at the hotel NACIONAL, then haven for certain anti-revolutionary officers”. Now that’ll put some hair on your chest.
Stop 5: L’Abattoir
Harkening back to the nineteenth century, this intimate locale is a drinker’s dream. Refurbished brick and beams set the mood while the bar’s slanted shelves tell a story of their own: copious goblets, local and exotic bitters and tinctures, and old-school cocktail tomes vie for space, inviting guests to pull up a stool and settle in for a long night.
Cocktail “Hansel and Gretel’s Hootch”. Head barman Shaun Layton dreamed up this eggnog-like brew whose gingerbread syrup and chocolate bitters evoke comforting memories of the Brothers Grimm’s beloved fable. Of course, Hansel and Gretel is no fairy tale – and thanks to generous dashes of Gosling’s rum and Punch Abruzzo, this cocktail is just as complex as its namesake.
Literary companion Hansel and Gretel by the Brothers Grimm.
Bartender’s bombshell Invented in a cold Italian mountain village, Punch Abruzzo features a distinctive label plastered with frolicking reindeer, ski hills and snow-dusted trees – and it just so happens to be Shaun’s favourite bottle wrapping. Want to butter him up? Convert the label into an ugly Christmas sweater. He swears it’ll work.
Photo credits: Conrad Fox, Nicole Havers