I’m sitting at Killjoy Barbers in Yaletown, but not in the front where young men are playing shuffleboard, waiting to get a fresh coif. It’s the kind of place you might imagine a lad with his hair freshly Brylcreemed and a pack of smokes rolled up in his shirt sleeve.
Instead, I’m in the back where an array of gins lines the back of the bar–more varieties than I’ve ever seen in one place. I’m told by Christian, the barman, that Killjoy is a gin-focused bar. Intriguing news to me, as I’d only visited the relatively new Donnelly Group establishment a few times before, specifically the dance floor in its basement.
I order a drink as I wait for my friend Lauren Mote, a familiar name in the Vancouver mixology scene. Lauren moved to Vancouver from Toronto to join the ranks at Lumiere, Goldfish and then onto Chow. After Chow, Lauren managed The Refinery, where she crafted some of the city’s most innovative cocktails and lined the walls with a rainbow of mason jars containing her many experiments with house-made bitters and vermouths.
It’s also where she started the cocktails-paired-with-dinner competition “Cocktail Kitchen”, and eventually opened the current “Bittered Sling Bistro”, which continues today at Legacy Liquor Store in the Village at False Creek. The events are produced by Lauren’s boutique catering and events company Kale and Nori Culinary Arts, which she owns with her partner, Jonathan Chovancek. The pop-up dining series hosts some of Vancouver’s best bartenders and mixologists as they create gourmet cocktails to pair with Chef Jonathan’s culinary creations, using the feature spirits. The ever-changing drink menu often features the couple’s Bittered Sling Extracts, Canada’s first bartender-developed line of bitters, currently distributed in Canada, the U.S. and a few international markets.
First of all, what is mixology?
There is a lot of controversy in the bartending community about the difference between a mixologist and a bartender. A mixologist studies and mixes flavours together, and a bartender “tends the wood” where they are serving people and creating guest experiences and well-crafted beverages. You can be both. You can also be one or the other. I am delighted to be both. I have a been a bartender for several years, but my position is advantageous in the respect that I understand food science and how to pair common and uncommon flavours together.
When do you think this culture of mixology came to Vancouver and where did it originate?
Jonathan and I have discussed this at length and we find that Vancouver is affected by several things:
Vancouver is a world-class city, and had become moreso with the 2010 Olympics. At least, we generated a lot of global attention. We’ve attracted clientele who’ve dined all over the world; high income families that spend a lot in Vancouver bars and restaurants, and can afford to live in Vancouver AND dine frequently. They travel the world to places where cocktail and food culture has been around for several decades, and they report back. We have the skill set in Vancouver to be able to develop what they’re looking for. Their examples can include visiting popular New York bars like Milk & Honey, or Death & Co., or more global destinations like Paris, Tokyo, London or Singapore.
For an Ontarian like myself, more specifically born and bred in downtown-Toronto, the eyes on the Canadian culinary scene where focused on specific people and their legacies – Chef Rob Feenie (Lumiere/Feenie’s, Vancouver) Chef Normand Laprise (Toque! Montreal); and Chef Susur Lee (Lotus, Lee, Toronto) . For me, this was the most important thing – learn from the visionaries, and share space with those infected with their passion for gastronomy and customer service. I had my eye on Vancouver – the ocean, the mountains, the ingredients, the SMALL city (600,000 compared to Toronto’s 6 million); the ability to create something special, and I wasn’t the only one who moved here for these opportunities. I was the Bar Manager at Lumiere, for a brief Feenie occupation… Chambar, West and Bin 941 had an incredible amount of attention, too. Their spawn grew to open a lot of top-tier joints – Boneta, L’Abbatoir, Wildebeest and Hawksworth.
With Seattle only three hours away, we have icons like Murray Stenson who was a long time fixture at Zig Zag, serving old-age classics, dusted off the history shelves, aching to tell their stories with a worthy audience. He’s been named one of the top 10 bartenders in the US and he’s a mentor, icon and role model. Seattle diners, as well as San Francisco and Portland diners, are incredibly worldly, too, and frequently visited the bars at Chow (Chris Flett and myself), Boneta (Steve da Cruz and Justin Tisdall), and West (David Wolowidnyk) – it was a rad time. Jamie Boudreau, one of the former Bar Manager’s of Lumiere, opened Cannon (Seattle) and he’s arguably the most famous bartender in Seattle now. The visits back and forth have been and will continue to keep everyone up-to-date and on their toes.
What are some upcoming mixology trends?
We still have complicated liquor laws in BC, but it’s better here than a lot of places – I’m sure I’ll have a line up of people willing to argue with me on this. It’s very challenging to get a liquor primary license so we don’t see a lot of bars per se, but we do see a lot of restaurants that have really intricate bar programs. As we keep moving forward, even just in the last few weeks, there have been some major evolutions in provincial liquor laws that allow for different things like less taxation on artisanal spirits. They’re starting to soften up a little bit, so I think moving forward we’ll be able to see more people opening bars, and not have to have food necessarily associated with it. I think it’s a really exciting time to be part of the bar industry here; the veterans who have absorbed the task of building their brands and micro-communities and neighbourhoods are certainly changing the way Vancouver drinks – ideas and concepts are broad and well executed. Even Donnelly Group, which was always associated with nightclubs, is now opening bars that I really want to drink at.
When you have guys like Jay Jones and Trevor Kallies on the team…
I love Trevor and Jay – they’re obsessed with classic cocktails but they both have completely different approaches. Looking at them sitting here right now, Jay is a classicist; he has spent his entire career learning how to stop using non-alcoholic ingredients, he has reached this goal with much success! Trevor is inspired by homemade, locally produced things, juices and fruits. I think that’s really cool. We can still stay true to all of the important things. I’m personally moving forward on the trends I think people want to try. I have traveled a lot, and continue to – I watch people and listen, reconnaissance that I reinterpret to provide new, innovative things blending that with my own unique perspective.
Christian was saying that there’s a trend with whiskey right now in Vancouver. But this bar is a gin bar. What’s the next thing do you think?
Being a gin-focused bar is interesting because there are still a lot of things we can’t get in BC. Even things you can get in Alberta. They’re buying a lot of things at special order – 6 or 12 to a pack – it’s not only costly as a commitment to sit on a case in inventory, but they’re not “inexpensive” spirits to begin with. I’m impressed that you can buy a selection like they have here at Killjoy and still make it a competitive price for the consumer even though you had to buy a case of these specialty gins, which you’ll probably be sitting on for a while.
In terms of a trend, and making it about brown spirits or white spirits or green spirits, or whatever the hell it is, it’s really important that people know even though we have challenges with our liquor laws, we’re still able to do some interesting, creative things to make the guest experience different than anywhere else. People are obsessed with brown spirits – whiskeys, cognacs, etc, but I can’t consume it every day. This might become my new favourite place because I think gin is my favourite spirit of all time! That’s just personal preference though, and I don’t want to be backed into a corner to choose between my kids.
What is your favourite gin?
I told Trevor Kallies about it and he got mad at me for not bringing a bottle of it back from Alberta. It’s a gin from Portland called 33 Gin. Made by New Deal Distillery.
Where can one find the best cocktails in the city right now?
Anything Jay Jones makes me makes me happy. I am biased too because I create, manufacture and sell bitters for a living with Jonathan, so anyone that uses Bittered Sling Extracts makes me so happy. David at West, Dani at the Keefer, Trevor here, Justin at the Four Seasons, Grant at the Fairmont, Evelyn at Blue Water, they’re all doing really incredible things with our products and always being very innovative. It’s always interesting to sit on the other side of the wood because I’ve always been that person creating innovative things for other brands and being so excited about what I made and then tasting it and watching their reactions.
Is there a specific drink? I know the menus change a lot.
One of my favourites is Jay’s “The Four Horsemen”, which is going to be on the menu at Clough Club soon. It’s Bourbon, Averna Amaro, Giffard Abricot du Roussillion, Bittered Sling Denman Bitters. Otherwise I love anything made with gin. Dani has never made me a gin cocktail that I didn’t fall head over heels with and the same with David at West. I just love cocktails that are very simple and flavourful where I can taste all the ingredients that come together like a beautiful symphony.
Are there any trendsetters in particular people can pay attention to?
All the ones I mentioned. And these two guys right here (referencing Jay and Trevor). Here’s a list: Dani Tatarin (Keefer), David Wolowydnik (West), Trevor Kallies (Donnelly), Justin Taylor (Four Seasons), Gerry Jobe & Micah Jensen in the Okanagan, Shaun Layton (L’Abbatoir), Ben de Champlain (Boneta), Evelyn Chick (Blue Water), Grant Sceney (Fairmont), Josh Pape (Wildebeest), Arthur Wynne (Union), David Bain (Diva), Cooper Tardivel (Hawksworth), and John Richard (Vancouver Club) – if you’re a member!
What are some of your upcoming events?
Bittered Sling Bistro Season 3 just started on March 6, “Whiskies of the World” with Jay Jones and Beam Global, and March 20 same theme, with me making cocktails! The next one is April 3, “When Tiki Attacks!” with Evelyn Chick from Blue Water Café, sponsored by The Kirkwood Group. People should always stay in touch with our events page – it’s updated every day www.kaleandnori.com/events and learn more about our tastings, seminars and bitters here: www.bitteredsling.com
*End of interview*
Photo Credit: Hamid Attie
Much like VcB, Tangoo’s mission is to make the city more connected, accessible, and ultimately, more fun. By leading the resto-cocktail hop movement and always being in the knowhow, we rely on them to enrich your night-out compass with Vancouver’s greatest food and drink happenings. Follow the movement at www.tangoo.ca and @TangooNights