Drink: The Cocktail Revolution

I’m over it. The cosmopolitans, the appletinis, the rye and cokes… I want something that doesn’t totally mask a spirit’s flavour helping me cruise easily into a state of inebriation.

I want to celebrate the juniperiness of gin, the oakiness of bourbon and the spiciness of rum. I want to play around with bitters. I want my mixes to add dimension and complexity. I want more from a cocktail. Is that too much to ask?

Fortunately for cocktail lovers like me, there is a vibrant and healthy cocktail culture gaining momentum challenging what we drink and how we drink it. On a trip to Portland, Oregon this past summer, I learned that it isn’t too much to ask for more from a cocktail and plenty of people are enthusiastically exploring what a cocktail can be.

In this cocktail revolution, bartenders, mixologists and cocktail enthusiasts focus on flavour and ingredients by experimenting with the classic combination of spirit + sugar + water + bitter. It all matters — from the spirit to the mix, to the bitters, to the garnishes. (I did encounter a strong anti-vodka movement in Portland, the town that has birthed several modern food and drink trends. One small lounge downtown carried a dozen gins with nary a vodka in sight.) Flavour and provenance are king — perhaps a boozy extension of concepts made popular through the Slow Food movement.

Craft plays a significant role in this trend. Many of the lounges I visited in Portland had their own house-made something or other — be it ginger beer, piña colada mix, tonic or syrups. They all prided themselves in this home-madeness.

The craft philosophy includes the spirits themselves, too. Artisinal distilleries have had the opportunity to showcase their spirits in this reinvented approach to cocktails. Portland is home to several craft distilleries producing spirits used at cocktail bars throughout the city — a handful are located in Portland’s downtown core including House Spirits, makers of the flavorful Aviation Gin.

Artisan spirits aren’t just a Portland thing. Canadian aficionados are making a name for themselves as well, with new outfits such as Hornby Island’s Island Spirits Distillery, Pemberton Distillery and Barking Dog Vineyards in Victoria, who produce the award winning Victoria Gin.

The cocktail trend may be old news in cities like Portland, London, New York and Vancouver. Perhaps Edmonton has been a bit slower to catch on. Recently, though, our city of Caesars and Crown & Coke has begun to make cocktail culture gains.

Late last year a duo called The Volstead Act — Winnipeg natives Andrew Borley and Jeremy Bouw — held their first public event celebrating the anniversary of Repeal Day pouring cocktails inspired by the classics at a prohibition-era themed event. Their goal? To change the way Edmontonians think about cocktails.

“We want to challenge people to not just have rum and cokes — not that we’re so pretentious that we think those are bad,” said Volstead’s Jeremy Bouw. “We just know it can be better and we want to encourage people to try new things.”

These two cocktail enthusiasts are quick to defend the role of the bartender suggesting that this new cocktail culture isn’t meant to redefine what the job of a bartender is, but instead is meant to expand on what a bartender can serve with the goal of diversifying drink and spirit menus around the city.

Their event was a sell-out, generating a buzz around the city about old-school cocktails. Recent announcements of new businesses in the downtown core — including a whiskey bar — also show some promise for a new cocktail culture in Edmonton.

Unfortunately, Volstead doesn’t yet have firm plans for a lounge, but they’re certainly talking about it. In the meantime, they are continuing to plan events introducing more Edmontonians to this new approach to cocktails and its charming culture.

I think we can take this cue to rise up ourselves, too. Here are a few things you could do to get into the cocktail revolution:

  • Challenge the drink menu! Try something with bitters, order a spirit you’ve never had before and spend some time thinking about the flavours.
  • Get your hands on tickets to one of the Volstead Act’s upcoming events, which are advertised on their website and Facebook page.
  • Become a cocktail enthusiast yourself. The cocktail community is a collaborative and friendly one, with numerous blogs and online articles dedicated to cocktails, what to put in them, how to mix them, how to make bitters and mixes at home, and so much more.
  • Visit other cities and explore their cocktail culture. Of course, I highly recommend Portland — if you go there, be sure to check out Clyde Common, Teardrop and anywhere bartenders at either of those places recommend; it’ll be the newest and the coolest. Also the Cascade Room in Vancouver (one of my favourites), Raw Bar in Calgary, Canon in Seattle and the Pegu Club in New York.

Amanda LeNeve will spend spring trying to replicate a bourbon and ginger cocktail she fell in love with in Portland.

West to Kentucky

By Andrew Borley, the Volstead Act

This cocktail looks forward to the first produce of spring, while still including enough aged whiskey to weather any cold snaps that the final days of winter might bring.

1.5 oz bourbon whiskey

.5 oz pear eau de vie

1 oz rhubarb ginger syrup (recipe below)

1/4 oz freshly squeezed lemon juice

Shake with ice and strain into a chilled coupe.

Rhubarb Ginger Syrup

3 c chopped rhubarb

¼ c sugar

zest of one lemon

½ c minced ginger

simple syrup (equal parts cane sugar and water)

Combine rhubarb and sugar in a saucepan. Let stand at room temperature until the rhubarb begins to exude some juice, approximately 15 minutes.

Add the lemon zest and bring the mixture to a boil over medium-high heat, adding small amounts of water as necessary to prevent the rhubarb from boiling dry. Stir occasionally until you have achieved a thick, porridge-like consistency, about 15-20 minutes. Remove from heat and add ginger. Allow the ginger to infuse for 15 minutes.

Strain the mixture through a fine mesh strainer, pressing with the back of a spoon to extract as much juice as possible. Combine the resulting measure of juice with a half measure of simple syrup.

Makes about two cups.