Canada is currently flying high on the cocktail world stage. Innovative bartenders are winning international competitions and bars across the country boast creative lists full of exotic infusions and house-made bitters and syrups.
But thanks to our endlessly frustrating liquor laws, not all provinces are equal. A deliciously complex barrel-aged Manhattan that's perfectly legal to make in Ontario, for example, butts up against the law in British Columbia.
There, it's illegal to change the contents of any bottle that you buy from the Liquor Distribution Board, which means no infused spirits and no barrel aging. Cocktail consultant Shawn Soole, for example, recently found himself on the wrong side of the law for his work with OLO restaurant.
"I got busted," says Soole, who lives in Victoria. "The licensing people came in and said all the things we were making at OLO were illegal. They confiscated three months of solid work, including a barrel-aged cocktail that I'd been working on for 10 weeks that I was hoping would last for 10 years."
Soole reworked his menu using infused teas, vinegars, shrubs and syrups, a task he was well-suited for, considering that he once bagged a Best International Bartender nomination at Tales of the Cocktail festival in New Orleans (otherwise known as the cocktail world's Oscars). But it was a bitter pill to swallow knowing that if he'd been based in Ontario, there would not have been a problem.
"These laws are common denominator laws, they're not made for expert bartenders," he says. "They're for the kid who's seen a few YouTube tutorials and tries to make Cuban tobacco bitters, and winds up giving someone heart palpitations one Friday night."
Infusing spirits is a convenient way of creating complex flavours, says Toronto's Evelyn Chick, who recently came first in the global MIXLDN competition in London, England. "Say you want to make a green tea syrup, those leaves are delicate: in hot water they'll get bitter and in cold water it'll take longer to extract those flavours," she says. "If I do a green tea-infused gin, it's easier to control and you get quicker results, because alcohol pulls out those essences."
The laws are usually decades old and intended to protect consumers from inexperienced bartenders, as well as shady owners who might water down their spirits. Bartenders such as Soole and Franz Swinton, bar manager of Blanco Cantina in Calgary, consider them a real hindrance. "The biggest thing we lose out on in Alberta is barrel aging. You could give a cocktail so much more depth and character by letting it mellow in a barrel," Swinton says. In his province, Section 5.3.11 of Alberta Gaming and Liquor policy states that nothing can be added to liquor – not ice, mix or "flavouring agents" – until requested by a customer. That also makes it impossible to infuse spirits, or even make punch. Swinton thinks it would be better if education on infusions and aging became part of the training that's already mandatory for bartenders. He'd like to see professional bartenders approach provincial governments to get laws changed, preferably through the Canadian Professional Bartenders Association.
But Trevor Kallies, president of the association, sees both sides. "Although I don't like it all the time for myself, and the diligent bartenders out there, I am happy to have those rules in place for those times where the creator doesn't do the research," he says. "After all, if something is on a menu, the guest assumes a certain element of safety."
E-mailing through a spokesperson, B.C.'s Liquor Control and Licensing Branch said that it is "… Aware of the growing interest of liquor infusions and barrel aging in current cocktail culture, and are looking into possible solutions as they continue modernizing B.C.'s liquor laws." Soole is glad the idea of change has even been broached.
"This is a huge step in the right direction," Soole says. "But we still need to look at the way we educate young bartenders that may not have a mentor. Knowledge is power, but a little power can be a terrible thing."
By the time any changes are made, it might be too late for the current moment anyway – Chick believes the pendulum is swinging away from drinks with too many fussy ingredients. "Classic, simple cocktails which let the flavour of the spirits shine are coming back into style, along with forgotten liqueurs and digestifs," she says. "Whereas once we had to use self-created flavours, now more are becoming available."