The Grand Tasting of the Art of the Cocktail in Victoria, BC, took place last Saturday night in what used to be the largest indoor saltwater swimming pool in the British Empire.
It's been converted into a conference hall; where the water was, ladies in short skirts and high heels teetered from local absinthe to Havana Club rum, seeking cocktail samples in volume. Above the crowd, a mannequin in an old-fashioned bathing costume was poised suicidally on a diving board. A band massacred "Iko Iko" and noodled in a Santana mode. Ten-foot-tall model cocktail glasses sprouted here and there, filled with scrunched-up sparkly paper for a liquid glimmer.
On the upper level, where potted palms used to flourish, there were yet more cocktails along with stations offering ballast in the form of food. Most popular: a not-insubstantial portion of poutine, Canada's national snack (and the US's recent trend) of french fries and cheese curds covered in gravy. Paired with it: the aptly named Umami Bombi, made of Grana Padano–infused Bushmills whiskey, roasted tomato puree, lemon juice, and the artichoke liqueur Cynar, topped with a float of Asahi beer. It tasted arguably awful, but no one seemed to mind, because: poutine!
Two guys named Ryan served a gin and juice variant: the lightly peppery local Victoria Gin, plus juice made with apples from nearby Sooke, with fresh-cracked black pepper on top. (The leftovers from the juice-making had been turned into apple butter, served with smoked duck on little toasts.) The Ryans and their drink were much loved, and more so when people found out they were from Victoria gastro brewpub Spinnakers: "Oh, cool!"
Art of the Cocktail began three years ago as a fundraiser for the Victoria Film Festival; the $50 tickets to the giant cocktail party that is the Grand Tasting are where the funds are raised. (AOTC is unaffiliated with Tales of the Cocktail Vancouver, which started last year as an offshoot of the decade-old New Orleans conference/bacchanal.) The lightly harried but unendingly nice director of the film festival held a clipboard like a foreign object; he was a filmmaker, really, he said, and the crown of event organizer rested uneasily on his head. He wasn't going to start drinking until Monday night, after everything was put to bed.
The former swimming pool—known as the Crystal Garden for its faceted glass ceiling and past splendiferous foliage—was designed by the architect Francis Mawson Rattenbury. Rattenbury was also responsible for Victoria's stately and grand Parliament buildings, as well as Victoria's stately and grand Empress Hotel, both of which preside (stately, grandly) over Victoria's adorable little harbor. Earlier that day, a few hundred people made up as zombies had staggered past the ivy-coated hotel and very slowly stormed Parliament. Their demands were unclear—having no need for universal health care, you'd think they'd want to stay inconspicuous in Canada—but they caused a stir, making the police visibly nervous. Victoria is approximately the size of the head of a pin, and what's old hat elsewhere is sometimes still new here.
Let me hasten to add that everyone in Victoria appears to be unendingly nice; if you tell a person on the street you're sorry, you don't have any change, but good luck, they're likely to smile bright and say, "I appreciate that." The architect Rattenbury may have been an exception, but he got his: After divorcing his wife in the 1920s to take up with a younger woman, the younger woman then fell in love with their chauffeur, who then beat Rattenbury to death with a mallet. (But not in Victoria—they'd moved to England.)
Victoria's bar scene is mostly British pubs—the Sticky Wicket, the Irish Times, the Bard & Banker (which has miles of brass railings, old-timey light fixtures, a cover band that plays "Bennie and the Jets," and very good, cut-to-order, double-fried fries). On one side of town, however, slick Veneto offers pages and pages of craft cocktails, divided into categories like "essential," "bitter," and "acid" (the last followed directly by a drink called "honeymoon"—acid honeymoon! Sounds fun, if not very Victorian). Following the Grand Tasting, the hostess there endured a regrettable American putting himself on the substantial waiting list as "Gretzky... Wayne Gretzky." (She fixed him with an indifferent stare, said, "Gretzky," and added him to the list.)
Then there's Clive's, recently featured in the New York Times for its cocktail the Cold Night In. Barkeep Shawn Soole steeps a grilled cheese sandwich in Mount Gay rum, presumably strains it well, and makes a drink with muddled tomato and basil, Lillet Blanc, and Glenfiddich Scotch. The Times called the result "extraordinary: the grilled cheese rum leaps off the palate with flavors of cheddar, bread and butter, mingled with a dark sweetness." A local said it "wasn't terrible" and that it "tasted like butter." (Forgive me: Having suffered through the Umami Bombi, I did not try it.)
Clive's was also the scene of some of this year's dozen-plus Art of the Cocktail seminars for cocktail professionals and civilian cocktail geeks, which took place throughout the weekend. An attendee named Mackenzie, while uniformed in barman's vest and tie, claimed to be "just an enthusiast—it's a great excuse to start drinking at eleven in the morning." At the first session, "A Long and Mysterious History of Cocktail Bitters & Liqueurs," the level of knowledge in the room was not mysterious at all—the alcohol content of Chartreuse was "...what, 50 percent?" someone wondered. This was met with a chorus of "FIFTY-FIVE!" Later, in a fit of passion, a man shouted: "Absinthe was the victim of a successful smear campaign!" True, everyone agreed, but that topic was to be addressed at a seminar the next day. "Oh, sorry—spoiler alert," he said.
In a meeting entitled "The Science of Citrus," an Irishman named Patrick Duff admitted he was a bit of a piker when it came to science—he's a brand ambassador (that is, an industry PR pimp) for a French vodka and runs a bar in Amsterdam—and then deployed factoids about citrus while handing bottles of various citrus essences around the room (as well as citronella: not actually citrus, but still very smelly). The two dozen or so attendees all sprayed a dozen or so different sprays on their hands and arms and elbows in succession—the scents would warm and change, according to Duff. At one point, Clive's barman Shawn Soole wandered over, hit the invisible wall of citrus particulate, blanched, and backed away.
Everyone was looking forward to the session on barrel-aged cocktails—the very latest in cocktail ridiculousness/greatness, involving (surprise!) aging cocktails in barrels—by Portland bar master Jeffrey Morgenthaler, but due to scheduling conflicts, I was unable to attend. (Full disclosure: Thank you very much to Tourism Victoria, the Victoria Clipper, and the Fairmont Empress for the kind of press junket that's nearly obsolete these days.) Morgenthaler looked alarmed when told of the collective anticipation for "Barrel Aged Cocktails," and said it was going to be stupid, which seemed to bode well.
The talk that knocked my socks off was "How the American Bar Spread the Cocktail Across the Globe," by Toronto academic Christine Sismondo. Sismondo is the author of Mondo Cocktail, which she described as her funny book, and America Walks into a Bar, which she described as having most of the levity edited out by publisher Oxford University Press. Her necessarily compressed discussion of the role of the bar in the United States—from the pilgrims to Stonewall—was an American history told through the surprisingly sharp lens of alcohol. She also spoke a bit about the current state monopoly on booze in British Columbia and Washington State—theirs is worse than ours! Politics, racism, sexism, violence, her love of "the drunkest of the founding fathers," Thomas Paine: Her talk had it all. In tandem with Ken Burns's new PBS series Prohibition—Sunday night's premier episode was excellent, and in much the same vein—Sismondo's books could keep a liquor enthusiast happy during many cold nights in this fall. With a drink, of course.