It's that time of year when friends, family and colleagues gather for festive toasts. A dinner party is always nice, but cocktails and hors d'oeuvres are so much more convenient. Fortunately for us, Vancouver is one of the leading lights in the North American craft-cocktail renaissance. This city offers a wealth of drinkeries – from swank hotel bars to reggae-centric music clubs – where we can wet our whistles and spread good cheer. Herewith, The 12 Cocktails of Christmas, my wintry guide to the town's top tipples.
Calabash Bistro: 428 Carrall St.; 604-568-5882
When rain clouds blanket the sky with dreariness, a tropical blast of sunshine-in-a-glass will certainly lift the spirits. Escape to the islands at this sultry Caribbean restaurant and live-performance space, where bar manager Jason Browne boasts the largest selection of rum (80-plus labels) in Vancouver. His signature holiday elixir, shaken with vanilla-infused Appleton rum, roasted-pineapple juice and crushed allspice-berry syrup, soothes the heat of fiery jerk chicken and girds the loins for a night of dancing to reggae, hip-hop, funk and Motown in the downstairs lounge.
The Sylvia Hotel: 1154 Gilford St.; 604-681-9321
It all started here, at Vancouver's first cocktail lounge, inside the ivy-covered brick walls of this historic boutique hotel. After a brisk walk along the seawall, you can sink in to cozy bucket chairs, soak up the beachside view of English Bay and nibble on an unpretentious platter of bruschetta, wonton prawns, calamari and spring rolls. Jim McMillan's creamy, coffee-tinged concoction – "like a toasted almond frappé that warms you from the inside" – will keep your group vivified until the last carol ship parades through False Creek.
Christmas in Manhattan
YEW in the Four Seasons Hotel Vancouver: 791 West Georgia St.; 604-689-9333
Justin Taylor has been as busy as one of Santa's elves. The Four Seasons's lead bartender (who recently won a bronze medal at the Giffard West Cup competition in France) began making his homemade nocino last August. The aromatic green-walnut liqueur, which lends a bittersweet twist to his exceptionally smooth take on the classic Manhattan, was steeped for three months in vodka bathed with cloves, orange zest and star anise. Swing by the hotel's perennially popular Festival of Trees, plant your party in the sleek, spacious bar and slurp some freshly shucked oysters from the kitchen's newly rebranded seafood menu.
Xi Shi Lounge at the Shangri-la Hotel Vancouver: 1128 W. Georgia St.; 604-689-1120
The Shangri-la Hotel recently relaunched its lobby lounge as a sexy, Shanghai-style geisha den in which enchanting waitresses wear body-hugging, hand-tailored cheongsams. Whether you bring the gang from work for a relaxed lunch of gourmet burgers, gaggle with the gals at afternoon tea, or unwind come evening over live music and rice-cracker snacks, do be sure to conclude your meal with this silken digestif. Created by mixologist extraordinaire Jay Jones, the cheeky biblical-referenced Three Kings (cognac, macadamia nut liqueur and aged port) exudes the spiced aroma and sweet flavour of Christmas pudding.
Blood and Sand
Black + Blue: 1032 Alberni St.; 604-637-0777
The Glowbal Group has reimagined the golden age of steak – and cocktails – at this buzzy, three-storey temple to beef. Located next to Coast and across from Italian Kitchen, the company's new steakhouse has solidified its dominance of Alberni Street's restaurant row. Before diving into a tableside-tossed Caesar salad, tenderloin centre-cut Chateaubriand for two and poufy chocolate soufflé, you and your date may choose to get a glow on with this stiff scotch and cherry brandy highball, originally popularized by Rudolph Valentino.
Don't Let the Bells End
Cascade Room: 2616 Main St.; 604-709-8650
"It's all about simplicity these days," says Nick Devine, bar manager of the most distinguished cocktail room in Mount Pleasant – or anywhere on the East Side for that matter. This hipster-casual British pub serves hearty curries, wholesome pot pies and crispy polenta fries that are meant to be washed down with local craft beer, classic drinks and mind-bending rounds of quiz-night trivia. For the festive season, he'll be shaking up sweetened cranberry sauce with freshly squeezed lime juice and Beefeater gin in a cocktail named after a spoof Christmas carol by British glam band The Darkness.
Uva Wine Bar: 900 Seymour St.; 604-632-9560
If Italy brings to mind memories of sticky limoncello and bitter campari, it's time to think again. At the top of the boot, in the mountainous northern regions where the heavy cuisine owes more to cool-climate Germany than hot-blooded Sicily, steaming fruit punch has been a staple street-side reviver since the days of horse-drawn carriages. In this small yet highly sophisticated downtown boîte, bar manager David Bain complements wild-boar gnocchi and game-bird tortellini with a warm citrus punch fortified by single-malt scotch and smoked five-spice syrup.
Cento Notti at the OPUS Hotel Vancouver: 350 Davie St.; 604-642-0557
Enough with the graffiti. Yaletown's grand dame has finally thrown out the cheap plastic chairs, carpeted the floors and attempted a valiant return to its gastronomic beginnings. Cento Notti (100 nights in Italian) is still a fleeting pop-up, following on the tails of 100 Days, which was predictably replaced by 100 Nights. But the toned-down hotel restaurant no longer feels like an underground booze can. And the new, modern Italian dishes (which bear an uncanny resemblance to the burrata-boosted crowd pleasers at Italian Kitchen, from where chef Paul Marshall hails) are a big improvement. If you're just here for the drinks – and who isn't these days? – try this cinnamon-inflected bourbon smash, reminiscent of spiced apple cider.
Lobby Lounge at the Fairmont Pacific Rim: 1038 Canada Place; 604-695-5502
Elegant, luxurious, flanked by a six-metre-long glass and granite fireplace and crowned by a custom-made Fazioli piano, the lobby lounge in this swank Coal Harbour hotel and residence is a destination in itself. Add a delectable raw bar that serves up shellfish towers, sushi and sashimi all day, live jazz every night (extended to the daytime hours throughout December) and handcrafted cocktails made with precision – and we are shackled to its irresistible pull. This saucy, mulled-wine-inspired seasonal sipper, flecked with honey and Benedictine, is but a cherry on top.
Bourbon Milk Punch
The Diamond: 6 Powell St.; email@example.com
Gentrified Gastown can sometimes be insufferably trendy. But at this smartly updated cocktail parlour, you can gaze out the soaring arched windows overlooking Maple Tree Square, flip through the leather-bound menu and feel a comfortable connection with Vancouver's cobblestoned heritage district. True to the bar's classic roots, owner Josh Pape recommends a smooth and creamy bourbon-milk punch, circa New Orleans in the 1850s. The kitchen's dim-sum styled menu may not offer any Asian-influenced gyoza, banh mi or stuffed baby squid that remotely pair with the cinnamon-dusted beverage – but hey, it's Christmas.
Gassy Jack Flip
L'Abattoir: 217 Carrall St.; 604-568-1701
Don't go with a large group unless you've made reservations. The bar stools around this sacred wood are few and far between. Shaun Layton, a self-taught sweetheart who has risen to the top of his game, says this dark, foamy rum and rye nightcap, strengthened with chocolate-stout syrup, is a perfect winter warmer for sitting by the fireplace after a long, leisurely dinner at L'Abattoir (named third-best new restaurant in Canada by enRoute Magazine for its "breathtakingly original" French-accented West Coast cuisine) with a lit Montecristo in hand.
Chambar: 562 Beatty St.; 604-879-7119
A cocktail guide to Vancouver would not be complete without Chambar, a modern mothership to many of the mixologists mentioned above. Jacob Sweetapple, the latest bar manager in a long line of champions, has just returned from London, where he won the Beefeater 24 competition. Although not mixed with gin, this seasonal potion, blended with cognac, amaro, hazelnut-infused sweet vermouth and crushed coffee beans, makes an easy companion to the eclectic Belgian restaurant's famous mixed olives and golden pommes frites.