Cocktails in Canada: the Vancouver bar scene

Cocktails in Canada: the Vancouver bar scene

by Great British Chefs 14 December 2016

A tight-knit community, dedication to great service and the finest drinks in Canada makes Vancouver home to some of the best cocktail bars in the world. We talk to two of the city’s leading bartenders to find out more.

Great British Chefs is a team of passionate food lovers dedicated to bringing you the latest food stories, news and reviews.

Great British Chefs is a team of passionate food lovers dedicated to bringing you the latest food stories, news and reviews.

The sheer versatility of cocktails (both alcoholic and non-alcoholic) means there’s one out there for every palate, but what is it that makes a drink truly great? The setting has to be perfect and it helps to be in good company, but what really makes the difference is the skill of the person mixing it for you.

Vancouver has earned a reputation for being one of the best places in Canada to sip on world-class cocktails – a feat made possible by the city’s bartenders pushing the envelope and providing the best service possible.

‘The bartending community in Vancouver is very well connected to global cocktail culture, but it’s also extremely tight knit,’ says Katie Ingram, the head bartender at L’Abattoir. ‘There’s a very strong sense of family here. We all come together to help each other out, and competitions are more about cheering each other on and learning from one another. Vancouver is special because it’s very diverse – not many people who live in our city actually grew up here, myself included. Because of this we’re able to take inspiration from not just our city, but all over the world.’

Katie is just one of many bartenders that have helped shape Vancouver’s thriving nightlife. They share ideas, promote the scene as a whole and use global competitions to put their city on the map. ‘I fell in love with cocktails from the very first sip,’ she explains. ‘Something about it was so magical, and I just loved the creative outlet it provided. I dabbled a bit at the restaurant I was working in at the time, but it wasn't until I met industry veteran Lauren Mote and started working at UVA Wine & Cocktail Bar that I learnt how to actually tend bar.’

Katie Ingram
Katie Ingram is the head bartender at L'Abattoir in Vancouver
With a preference for cocktails on the bitter side, she is one of many female bartenders at the forefront of the city's drinks scene

Fellow bartender Sabrine Dhaliwal is someone else who’s tended the bar at UVA – one of Canada’s most famous spots to grab a drink. ‘Vancouver isn’t a very large city and that’s part of why it’s such an incredible place to be; the level of hospitality and professionalism is on par with bigger cities like New York or London,’ she says. ‘We’re a very inclusive city and support one another in many different aspects. For instance, if you were to join me on a night where I’m working, I will happily give you a list of places (food and drink) and people you’ll need to see; hopefully you’d visit one of the many spots and talk to the bartender and they will add to the list. Vancouver is a city full of great bartenders and you’d be hard pressed to find a bad cocktail, but in reality we’re more focused on creating that memorable experience and the cocktail is just one component of that.’

UVA Wine and Cocktail Bar
UVA Wine & Cocktail Bar is where many of Vancouver's great bartenders earned their stripes
Sabrine Dhaliwal
Sabrine Dhaliwal is the current bar manager at UVA, and likes creating custom cocktails based on people's favourite flavours

While the cocktail itself has to taste incredible – Katie is a particular fan of more bitter cocktails, using ingredients like Amaro, while Sabrine enjoys nothing more than creating custom cocktails on the spot for people – Vancouver’s bartenders know a great bar is about more than just the drinks. ‘Vancouver bartenders are very keen on creating memorable experiences,’ says Sabrine. ‘I strongly believe that a guest's experience begins when they walk in the door, and this is something that I teach all of UVA’s bartenders. Vancouver has built its strong cocktail scene on apprenticeship and mentorship programs led by both great men and women.’

‘I love the service industry because it’s about so much more than just making a cocktail – it's about providing an experience from the moment a guest walks through the door until the moment they leave,’ adds Katie. ‘That’s what makes L’Abattoir so special; the whole experience. We have such a strong focus on hospitality and make it our priority from beginning to end.’

With a whole host of bartenders as passionate as Katie and Sabrine, it’s no wonder Vancouver attracts cocktail connoisseurs from across Canada – and the world. ‘The bar scene is ever evolving,’ says Sabrine. ‘We are continually pushing each other to think outside of the box and create drinks that fit every category; our liquor laws are changing, allowing us more freedom when crafting our recipes, and we have a very vibrant locally-made spirits and liqueurs industry that works with bartenders to create new and exciting products. I look forward to see where our industry will be in the next two, three or five years. It’s very much exciting times ahead.’