Tales of the Cocktail on Tour whirred and stirred through Vancouver this week. The three-day celebration of all things alcoholic is an offshoot of the legendary event that takes place in July in New Orleans. The Vancouver edition - which included parties, contests, a bar crawl and a full day of seminars - attracted just 500 participants, but managed to put the city on the international cocktail map. And it was tasty way to sample the bar scene's buzziest trends.
Classic tiki cocktails, like the Mai Tai pictured here, are all the rage in London, New York, San Francisco and now Vancouver. "It's come full circle," says author and cocktail historian Jeff "Beachbum" Berry, pointing to London's posh Mahiki bar. It's become a celebrity hot spot in much the same way that Don the Beachcomber, the original U.S. tiki bar, was a magnet for Hollywood stars. Tiki would have stayed an underground phenomenon if not for the recent cocktail renaissance, says Mr. Berry. "After burning through the pre-prohibition drinks, the classics, the tequilas and the bourbons, the new generation of craft bartenders were looking for something else. They discovered that these were not just crappy cruise-ship drinks. They were complex cocktails with multiple culinary ingredients that were 70 years ahead of their time."
Birth, Death and Rebirth of Canadian Whisky was one of the most hotly anticipated seminars of the festival. Unfortunately, this so-called comeback seems to be more wish than reality - at least in Canada. As Sazerac's master blender Drew Mayville explained, there is a growing demand for premium Canadian whisky in the United States. But as the local panelists retorted, most of those premium ryes aren't available here. (Sazerac's Royal Canadian and Caribou Crossing will be released in July.) "There need to be tighter quality regulations," says George Ultra Bar's Jonathan Smolensky, who created the whisky-based Dalhousie, but says he doesn't use rye all that often because of the product's inconsistency. "The labelling means nothing, the laws are too loose."
An electric chainsaw may seem an oddly aggressive tool for achieving the old-timey feel of hand-chipped pond ice, but that's exactly how Hendrick's Gin ambassador Jon Santer began massacring a 300-pound block during a seminar on the history of ice in cocktails. The giant block, procured from a company that supplies ice sculptors, was later carved into a brick for a Port of Mischief rum punch (punch bowls being another up-and-coming trend in the cocktail world). The bigger the surface area of an ice cube, the slower it melts, thus preventing a drink from becoming watery while keeping it cold. Home bartenders can create their own ice cakes by freezing distilled water (preferably twice-boiled and frozen to remove gaseous bubbles) in milk cartons.
The latest technical gadget behind the bar is an Isi whipped cream canister loaded with nitrous oxide chargers. "Liquid nitrogen has a major sexy factor going on," says Dave Arnold, director of Culinary Technology at the French Culinary Institute in New York (and brother-in-law to famed molecular chef Wylie Dufresne). During a seminar on the science of cocktails, he demonstrated how liquors can be instantly flavoured with cocoa nibs, coffee, mint and other porous ingredients. The techniques takes minutes, rather than the hours, weeks and months that traditional bottle infusions require. "It's quick, easy and affordable," adds The Refinery's Lauren Mote, who used Isi rapid infusion to make celery and nigella-seed bitters for her Denman Street Caesar, which took second place at the festival's Best Caesar in Town competition.
Wanted: used sherry casks and small whisky barrels. Bartenders across North America are scrambling to get their hands on wooden vessels for barrel-aged cocktails, the hottest new trend in cocktail culture. During Tales of the Cocktail, the most popular drink in the hotel's lobby lounge bar was a smoky negroni made with Jacob Sweetapple's barrel-aged vermouth. "It takes all the edge off," says Shaun Layton, bar manager at Gastown's L'Abattoir, who was serving his own martinez, which is aged, pre-mixed, for six weeks in an American oak whiskey barrel. "The aging mellows out the gin and cuts the bitterness of the campari. The drink takes on the char of the barrel and a bit of vanilla and caramel flavouring. It's really elegant."