Posts Tagged: cocktails

Oct 14

Art Of The Cocktail Festival 2014

PA041115For  relatively small city, Victoria punches well above its weight when it comes to its cocktail scene. Talented bartenders like Veneto’s Simon Ogden and Little Jumbo’s Nate Caudle and its manager Shawn Soole are leading the way in innovative cocktail creations. The city’s annual Art of the Cocktail festival brings together like-minded boozehounds and bartenders alike for three days of seminars, parties and tastings.

PA041140The Grand Tasting event is always an excellent opportunity to discover new spirits and learn more about old favourites too. For so many cocktail fans it’s the stories behind the spirits which are part of the attraction, and there was one which really stood out for me this year. It’s a truly Canadian spirit Ungava gin, made in NE Quebec. Covered in snow and ice for nine months of the year, with the aurora borealis shimmering overhead, this remote part of Canada produces the botanicals which give the spirit its sunny colour and herbacious taste. Hand-harvested by Inuit on the tundra, the gin contains: Nordic juniper, Labrador tea, crowberry, wild rose hips, arctic blend and cloudberry.

PA041148I was excited to see New Theatre Spirits & Tonic, who I’d met on my first visit two years ago back with another delicious creation, this time it’s a ginger ale which was based on a 100-year old law suit which was debated in the House of Lords and concerned an old lady who discovered a snail in her drink. You can read the full story here – and it’s a good one – but more importantly it’s a delicious drink, so look out for their Donoghue & Stevenson’s Dead Snail Ginger Ale – guaranteed to be 100% snail-free.

PA051252From cocktail contests and bar games which pit bartenders against each other in a battle of speed, knowledge and style, to a vintage fashion show and etiquette chat during cocktail hour, your cocktail festival weekend can take in plenty of fun – as well as booze.

PA051190Education is a huge component of the festival and I attended a fantastic seminar with Peter Hunt from Victoria Spirits on Bitters, those mysterious little bottles which are the spice cabinet of any back bar. Bitters in cocktails are similar to acidity in wine or hops in beer; they balance out sweetness and add complexity to the flavour. Peter took us through the history of bitters from their medicinal use in Egyptian times to using Pink Gin (gin with angostura bitters) in the 1800s as a traditional seasickness cure. Until the creation of the FDA in 1906, Bitters companies could – and did – make wild claims about the properties of their Bitters from saying they could do anything from curing the ‘impure state of your blood’  to fixing liver complaints.

To be certified as a Bitter the botanical blend used (herbs, spices, fruits) need to be bitter enough not to be able to be drunk by itself. We got to make our own Bitters, but a warning, care needs to be taken with making bitters at home, sure, natural is best, but Mother Nature has teeth and claws: for instance, tonka beans are banned in the US as they contain courmain which can cause liver damage – although it has a delicious vanilla-like smell and flavour, almond kernels contains cyanide, nutmeg can be toxic… the list goes on. However, in the hands of an expert you’re perfectly safe. Bitters can be used in the kitchen as well as on the bar, Vancouver’s Bittered Sling Extracts were created by a chef-bartender combo with the express purpose of creating products which would add a depth of flavour to both cocktails and culinary creations. You can use Bitters in sauces and in salad dressings, in baked goods like brownies or as a marinade for meat, there are some great recipes here to tryPA061323


I travelled as guest of Tourism Victoria and Art of the Cocktail, however my words are 100% my own. 

More Info:

Tourism Victoria 

Harbour Air

Hotel Rialto

Art of the Cocktail 

Ungava Gin 

New Theatre Spirits & Tonic 

Victoria Spirits 

Bittered Sling Extracts 


Jul 13

Toronto Adventures: where to drink

Pondering the big questions... 'What shall I have to drink?'

Pondering the big questions at Cold Tea: ‘What shall I have to drink?’

Thanks to Toronto’s hardcore ‘no drinking after 2am’ laws a tradition of ‘cold tea’ came into being. After a night out, you’d make your way to an in-the-know Chinese restaurant and order up a teapot of ‘cold tea’ and get a pot of beer. Riffing on the name, the brilliant Cold Tea Bar opened a few months back in the Kensington neighbourhood – but there are no teapots here – just exceptional cocktails, funky tunes, a lovely little patio garden and a Dim Sum cabinet for tasty cheap eats. The exciting thing about Cold Tea is that unless you know it’s there – you’ll never find it… it’s inside a shopping mall, behind an unmarked door. No sign – no clues – just a red light outside. Fantastic. Cold Tea, 60 Kensington Ave. T:00 1 416 546 4536. 

The fantastically talented Sarah Parniak @s_Parns

The fantastically talented Sarah Parniak @s_Parns

On a sunny day, you’ll find the tiny patio at Ronnie’s totally packed. As it gets late, this pleasingly sketchy-feeling neighbourhood joint gets rammed inside too. There’s a British pub-style snug, any amount of things from animal skulls to odd art nailed to the wall and the toilets are kind of grim. But you cannot beat it for atmosphere and the bar guy seemed kind of keen to hand out shots at 3pm – always the sign of a good bar. Ronnie’s Local 069, 69 Nassau St. T: 00 1 416 340 1110

The ultimate 'local' Toronto dive bar

The ultimate ‘local’ Toronto dive bar

Around the corner from Ronnie’s and Cold Tea is the British-run Embassy with its cute diner seating, retro-radio fixtures on the bar taps and DJs at the weekend. This has a relaxed vibe and a dinky little front patio garden. Embassy, 223 Augusta Ave.T: 00 1 416 591 1132

Cash only at The Embassy

Cash only at The Embassy

I can’t think of a single cocktail bar – anywhere in the world – that has served me drinks as exciting and extraordinary as the ones that Frankie Solarik makes at Barchef. Frankie uses molecular gastronomy techniques to create fresh takes on classics; I tried an Aviation which arrived with multi-layered jellies and caviar pearls of Maraschino to melt and pop into the perfect drink in my mouth. Frankie also conjures up exciting new experiences like the ‘Cedar’ which my friend Alyssa described as ‘like drinking a cedar closet – but in a really, really good way’. I love this place; theatrical drinking of the best possible sort. The room is great too – all swagged velvet curtains and dim, dim light. Barchef, 472 Queen St W. T: 00 1 416 868 4800. 

All hail the chief: the bar genius Frankie Solarik @FrankieSolarik

All hail the chief: the bar genius Frankie Solarik @FrankieSolarik

Boasting one of the biggest pub gardens I have ever seen, the Cadillac Lounge in Parkdale has a frankly unpromising exterior (giant car sticking out of the wall in a schmaltzy 90s-retro style) but ignore that and head inside. The drinks were large and inexpensive, the music good and loud and the multi-layer garden clearly the right place to be on a warm Toronto night.  Cadillac Lounge, 1296 Queen St W. T: 00 1 416 536 7717. 

Ignore the car. This is actually quite a cool place.

Ignore the car. This is actually quite a cool place.

I travelled as a guest of Toronto Tourism – but as ever – my views are 100% my own. 

Find out more: Toronto Tourism

Nov 12

Licensed to thrill at Vancouver’s Shangri-La hotel

It’s Vancouver’s tallest building and I’ve seen it shimmering at me for months…

I’ve had my eye on the Shangri-La hotel  ever since I moved to Vancouver. Towering above the other buildings in the city, it’s been a glittering landmark and one that I’ve been increasingly eager to check out. Turns out waiting two months to visit was two months too long. Where has the Chi spa been all my life? Why aren’t I there right now? If I ask nicely, do you suppose they will let me move in? 

Deliciously decadent private spa treatment room at CHI


Checking in was a breeze, I’d arrived early to visit Chi (OH MY GOD, THE SPA!) and the concierge had spotted me loitering in the lobby with my case. He immediately took it from me to save me the effort of wheeling it to the lift and promised to have it sent to my room. Case-less I zipped on up to the fifth floor… The lift doors open and you’re faced with a cascading wall of water over shimmering rock. A sense of calm is established immediately. I’d booked for the Element Vitality massage, a treatment which combined a variety of massage styles, Swedish, shiatsu and reflexology – blending the best of East and West – as the rest of the hotel does. I visit a lot of spas and I can say, hand on heart, that I don’t think I have ever seen treatment rooms like these before. Each room is its own fully-equipped spa, complete with huge soaker tub, steam room, fireplace, changing area, showers and relaxation area. Very impressive. I wish I could pretend that I am cooler than I am, but as I am not, I’ll confess that I WHOOPED when I saw it.

The first part of the treatment was a ten-minute steam. I love any massage that starts this way; your muscles warm up and the therapy is is much more beneficial. I steamed in my private cabin & then took a warm shower, wrapped myself in a robe and padded out to my therapist who’d prepared a herbal tea for me to enjoy while I chose which ‘element’ scented oil I preferred for my massage. I chose ‘water’ which she told me meant fluidity, travel and independence – exactly right for me. The combination of the different styles was superb, I felt positively boneless when I reluctantly left the couch an hour later. Just a great treatment. In fact, I felt so relaxed I couldn’t face dressing, so packed up my boots and all in spa gift bags, and wafted up to my room on the eleventh floor with a Mona Lisa-like smile on my face.

There! Look through the window – can you see? City, mountains and sea…

I had an impression of smooth crisp fine linens, a decadent bathroom with a gloriously waterfall-like shower and soaker tub, with a whole shelf of doo-dads and what-nots in the bathroom – combs and toothbrushes and all, but then I saw the bed and fell soundly asleep. Always the sign of a stellar massage. The need for unconsciousness immediately afterwards.

I woke to all that I moved to Vancouver for; that wonderful view of city, mountains & water. I sat on the edge of the huge bed and hugged myself with delight. I’d woken feeling refreshed and ready for action – and that meant dinner at MARKET by Jean Georges  and afterwards a party to celebrate the release of the new Bond movie, Skyfall in the Xi Shi Lounge.

And so – to MARKET, honestly? Not the most exciting of rooms, maybe it’s the lighting? Dim, but not intimate, something felt off, and truthfully, the menu didn’t have me leaping with anticipation either. Its focus is on “reinventing classic dishes by infusing eclecticism”. Hmm, a burger with black truffle and Brie, soy-glazed short ribs with apple-Jalepeno puree and a lot of mushrooms seem to feature (not great for me with my raging mushroom allergy).  I guess if I hadn’t been going to a slinky-dress party afterwards, I’d have dug in, embraced a loose waistband and had the beef tenderloin. But a slinky dress night it was, so I hit up a trio from the Raw Bar and planned to sample my date’s rack of lamb.

So, what do you think? Me? Not loving the room. The food is divine though.

How lovely when your expectations are shattered; the food was perfect. Just wonderful. The tuna tartare with avocado, spicy radish and ginger dressing was one of the best things I’ve eaten. The flavours sung. So incredibly fresh and that perfect balance between spice and heat. The rice cracker-encrusted tuna was marvelous too and the oysters so good I’m afraid I had seconds. The lamb? Heaven. Perfectly pink and given an edge with a chili-crumb crust. I may have had more than my fair share. But I’m not changing my mind about the room, until I try lunch there in daylight, and see whether that makes a difference.

On to the party – I’d heard nothing but great things about bartender Jay Jones, who shakes it up at the Xi Shi Lounge – which would be because he’s rather superb at what he does. My new off-list love is a Last Word, a cheeky Prohibition-era blend of gin, green chartreuse, maraschino and fresh pressed lime juice. Jay whipped up one of the best I’ve had and, bless him, didn’t insist I stick to the evening’s Bond-a-licious creations, although, yes – I had to try the Vesper, of course… The night span past in a whirl of Bond themes, casino fun, glammed-up willowy women and towering Canadians in sharp suits. Hurrah!

Morning arrived with a sore head and (thank goodness) an in-room breakfast, complete with old-school warming cupboard so my much-needed eggs and bacon didn’t get cold. As I write this at home, I can see the Shangri-La through the rain clouds. If I squint I can just about see where the spa might be… how I wish I were there right now.

I stayed as a guest of the Shangri La, but my views are 100% my own. And I still wish I could go and live in that spa.

Nov 12

Cheers to the Vancouver classics. Part 1: West

The annual En Route Best New Restaurant awards came out recently and shockingly, didn’t have a single Vancouver restaurant on the list. I’ve realised in the few months that I’ve been in town that Vancouverites get very excited about new openings and each seems to be greeted as the Second Coming…
I get that.
New is exciting and everyone wants a new place to succeed, but me, I’m a little more excited about the classics.

With restaurant failure rates running high (around 60% fail within their first three years) to me, the definition of a successful restaurant is one that keeps people coming back for more, year after year. With that in mind, I wanted to raise a glass to West and its inspirational bartender, David Wolowidnyk who won Bombay Sapphire’s ‘World’s Most Imaginative Bartender Award’ for his Beldi cocktail earlier this year.

David Wolowidnyk’s winning cocktail, the Beldi.

The gin is infused with saffron and ginseng, Martini Bianco cold-steeped with Green Tea and mint, add to that a cinnamon syrup, bitters and a toasted Coriander mist and you have a rightly world-class drink. I sniffed; a spicy whoosh of coriander, then drank and tasted mint and the green tea, before the warm cinnamon took over. Like a good perfume, this drink has layers; spicy and sweet then minty and aromatic. I love the lemon garnish – a star punched out of a thin peel to represent the Moroccan flag. It’s that kind of attention to the small details that make West a bar that you want to come back to again and again.

I love the bar, a cherry wood counter running along the side of the room adjacent to the restaurant. An old-fashioned library staircase rattles across the back wall as David and his team climb up and down, handing bottles to the waiting staff. It’s dark; it’s the kind of place you want a long, late lunch or dinner spent playing footsie under the table. Bottles, neatly arranged and under-lit glow like jewels. There’s a handsome list or you can ask David to make you something special, tell him what you’re in the mood for and see what he suggests. You will not be disappointed. West’s days of appearing on any ‘Best New…’ list disappeared a decade ago – and oh! How relieved they must be. Cheers to a Vancouver classic.

Nov 12

Food and drink adventures in Yaletown

I’m slowly getting to know the different neighbourhoods around my new city, Vancouver. Yaletown is at the lower tip of the downtown core bordered by the water of False Creek, and the streets of Robson and Homer. It used to be a heavily industrial part of town, but now the warehouses and loading docks have been transformed. It reminded me a little of London’s Docklands in spirit; it seemed to be all about shiny shops and designer-y stores. My first impression (truthfully) was that Yaletown seemed a little… fake. A tad shallow, perhaps?

As you can imagine, this disappeared fairly swiftly…

It’s lucky I don’t mind admitting when I’m wrong. Yet again, first impressions have proved deceiving. Turns out that Yaletown’s a sizzling hotbed of great little restaurants and bars. Independent business seem to thrive here and one way of showcasing that is in their celebration of food and drink, the Taste of Yaletown, an annual event where more than 20 restaurants offer three-course tasting menus for as little as $25.

I’d never seen this before: aburi flame-seared sushi from Minami

I went along to the launch and got to try little bite-sized offerings from a few of the restaurants participating. It’s a brilliant way to get people to get out of their restaurant-rut and experience new places. With so many participants though I have to ask the organisers to think about extending this to a month. How else could I do all 23 in just ten days!?

It tasted just as good as it looks.

As this is Vancouver, the innovative cocktail scene wasn’t going to be left out and a week later, Yaletown hosted a Shake Up cocktail contest with six of the local bars using a Bacardi rum as a base. I found many of them a little sweet for my taste, apart from the offering from Julia Diakow, from the New Oxford who’d made a gorgeous walnut-infused maple syrup creation, called 15th and Maple with Benedictine and apple cider.

The winner! Thanks so much to Ariane Colenbrander for this great image.

Julia wound up winning honours that night, so yaaay for me, picking a winner. Looks like all those hard hours I put in on a bar stool weren’t in vain…

Oct 12

Cocktail adventures in Victoria

There are few things that make me happier than discovering new ways to get pleasantly tipsy, which means that two days at Victoria’s Art of the Cocktail festival ( had me walking around with a silly grin on my face the whole time.



Bartenders, as a breed, tend to be playful types. Get a bunch of them from as far afield as the USA, Holland and the UK in the same city together, then stir in distillers, premium spirit companies, small-batch artisan spirits makers and a gang of devoted cocktail fans and you have a guaranteed recipe for mayhem. Add to that seminars and parties spread over three days in a gorgeous city and you can see why the Art of the Cocktail is my new favourite festival and I’m already wondering when I can get my ticket for next year’s event.


Here are the five things I got most excited about…

1. Cocktails and food pairings. Over at the Fairmont Empress Bengal Lounge booth, I tried a superb combo of an Apricot Summer Haze (Apricot puree, Finlandia vodka, Grand Marnier and Stellar’s Jay) served with a selection of Vancouver Island cheeses and the Fairmont Empress’s own honey. I’m going to look out for somewhere I can have a cocktail-matched menu in the same way that you have wine-paired meals. If you know of somewhere – tell me!


2. Tea in cocktails. I attended an excellent seminar hosted by Daniela Cubelic from Silk Road Tea (, and Solomon Seigel, an award-winning bartender from Fire & Water in the Victoria Marriott. For me this was one of the most exciting sessions of the weekend. Solomon is a self-confessed tea-geek and it’s glorious to be in a room with someone who so clearly loves his subject and really goes that extra mile to discover amazing flavours. Tea frozen into ice cubes with vodka, tea made into a simple syrup and blended, tea-infused cocktails that have been forced carbonated… I am so inspired by this and can’t wait to start experimenting at home.


3. Artisan small-batch fruit liqueurs. Usually I’m no fan of liqueurs, they either taste syrupy or have too strong a punch of alcohol. Then I tried the Okanagan Spirits ( Raspberry liqueur. It was the purest burst of fruity flavour imaginable. Sunshine in a shot glass. I want to visit them and see what else they do. And then drink it.


4. Victoria Spirits Oaken Gin. I’m already a raving fan of the brilliant Victoria Spirits ( and their gin, so I was excited to visit them to see how they distilled and what new projects they were working on. Their barrel-aged gin is superb. It has a more complex, deeper flavour and it’s another spirit that I really want to experiment with to see how it works in cocktails.


5. I was taken out to the Sea Cider ( farm in Saanichton for lunch and adored it. It really reminded me of a Basque cider house and the long flight of their eight different ciders that I tried really impressed me with the huge variety of products; from light apple-y blends and cloudy scrumpy-ish brews through to a perfect honey-ish Pomona that will pair perfectly with cheese, like an ice wine.

I travelled as a guest of Tourism Victoria – however, my views are 100% my own.


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