The Spirited Traveller: Raise a glass in Vancouver's Gastown

Mon Feb 13, 2012 7:15am EST

1 of 2. Patrons enjoy a cocktail at L'Abattoir, Vancouver in this undated publicity image.

Credit: Reuters/Handout

(Reuters.com) - It seems fitting that some of the best tippling to be found in Vancouver is in an area noted for its boozy past.

Indeed, historic Gastown is named after "Gassy" Jack Deighton, a Yorkshire seaman and barkeep who arrived in 1867 to open the area's first saloon. As late as the 1930s, Gastown also was the centre of the city's drinking life.

According to some estimates, as many as 300 licensed establishments dotted the 12-block area formerly known as Granville before the area collapsed into seedy disrepair.

But now, after a revitalisation campaign started in the 1960s, the area has returned to its former bibulous vibrancy and in 2009 was named a National Historic site. With its hipster vibe, Gastown has become a hub for high-tech and other indie businesses housed within grand Victorian buildings, including a number of bars and restaurants.

"It's a small city and the bartenders here are all friends," says Shaun Layton, Head Barman at Vancouver's L'Abattoir (<www.labattoir.ca/>). "Especially in Gastown, where arguably five of the country's best bars are all within walking distance.

"Instead of seeing each other as competition, we draw maps for customers showing them where to go next."

In addition to L'Abbatoir, Layton also recommends Gastown favourites The Diamond (<www.di6mond.com/>) and Boneta (<boneta.ca/>) (Mark Brand, who owns both, is notorious for his "off the cuff" cocktails). The Pourhouse (<www.pourhousevancouver.com/>) and The Narrow Lounge (<narrowlounge.com/>) also deserve a mention.

"It's a great city for cocktails," Layton enthuses. "I could easily name ten more." (The founders of New Orleans-based "Tales of the Cocktail" clearly agree with this assessment; from Feb 12 to 15, they will be hosting a second annual cocktail festival in Vancouver.)

Meanwhile, Vancouver also has a growing craft beer scene - Layton singles out The Alibi Room (157 Alexander Street) as "the best beer-focused bar in the city."

Of course, Gastown isn't the only place in Vancouver to drink. There's also trendy Yaletown, the upscale Kitsilano ("Kits") neighbourhood, where Layton recommends Thai restaurant Maenam (<maenam.ca>) for exotic drinks made with long pepper and roasted coconut.

And, in the downtown business district, drinks can be enjoyed al fresco at the rooftop bar at the Rosewood Hotel Georgia (<here>), which reopens for the season on March 1.

But for the bar-hopping experience, there's nothing quite like Gastown. Clearly, "Gassy" Jack was on to something.

RECIPE: Gastown Swizzle

Courtesy of Shaun Layton, L'Abbatoir

This drink may have an easy, almost tropical vibe, but it's braced up with an edgy layer of Fernet Branca on top - a dark, bitter spirit beloved by bartenders.

45 ml (1 1/2 ounces) Plymouth gin

15 ml (1/2 ounce) Aperol

25 ml (3/4 ounce) fresh lime juice

Dash simple syrup

10 ml (1/3 ounce) fresh passion fruit purée

Float Fernet Branca

Fill a Collins glass with crushed ice. Add a metal swizzle spoon. Add all ingredients (except Fernet) while churning with swizzle spoon to mix. Crown with more crushed ice.

Hold a spoon directly over the drink, rounded side up, and gently pour Fernet Branca over the spoon, creating a "float" on top of the drink. Garnish with lime zest.

(Kara Newman is the author of "Spice & Ice: 60 tongue-tingling cocktails", available <here>. The opinions expressed are her own.) (Editing by Peter Myers)