As the heart of the new wild west, Calgary might seem at first brush like a cold beer-and-straight-whiskey sort of town, but nowhere is it written that a cowboy can’t enjoy a cocktail once in a while. Besides, Canada’s most famous contribution to the beverage world, the Caesar, was invented in 1969 by Walter Chell, restaurant manager at the Calgary Inn (today the downtown Westin Hotel).
Now, as the city’s culinary landscape expands to keep pace with its population growth, Calgary is becoming a hub for surprising sips.
“There’s a dynamic versatility to what people are doing here — everything from Canadian ingredients to mezcal tastings,” says Caitlin Best, who handles public relations for several Calgary bars and restaurants under the banner of Thank You Hospitality. “We’re bringing in a lot of international flair.”
Here are six city speakeasies that are mixing things up and getting crafty with cocktails.
Ask anyone in the know and they’ll tell you that Christina Mah practically invented Calgary’s cocktail scene. The former general manager of Raw Bar now helms Klein/Harris on Stephen Avenue Walk. There, Mah and business partner James Waters have created what they call a “True North” dining experience focused on locally-sourced ingredients — a theme that extends to the restaurant’s bar list. Take your pick from Klein/Harris’ cocktail book, which is divided into three sections and includes Canuckified versions of a few reliable favourites, as well as some of the team’s own creations.
What to order: The Smoked Spruce Collins. This refreshing sipper is made with Eau Claire gin (distilled in nearby Turner Valley), spruce and maple syrup, citric acid and sparkling water and topped with a light layer of maple wood smoke — Canada in a glass.
Located inside the hip Hotel Arts in downtown Calgary, Raw Bar is a hive of activity, especially during the summer months when the party often spills over into the hotel’s outdoor pool. The bar offers monthly cocktail seminars, has hosted major mixology competitions and recently held a cocktail-themed fundraiser for a local cancer charity. “We just like to be that hub that brings the bartending community together,” says Fraser Abbott, director of sales and marketing for Hotel Arts.
What to order: A Wu Xing. This sweet and bitter concoction of Eau Claire gin, Ancho Reyes liqueur, five spice syrup, blackstrap bitters and yuzu pairs well with Raw Bar’s Asian-inspired appetizers. It’s not officially on the menu, but perhaps if enough people ask for it by name, general manager Dilan Conway — the cocktail’s inventor — can be persuaded to make it so.
With a wall-to-wall bar sure to inspire fantasies of swinging from its wooden ladder à la Belle in Beauty and the Beast, Proof has shot to the pinnacle of Calgary’s bar scene since opening three and a half years ago. Bar manager Makina LaBrecque, who hails from Hinton, Alta., fell in love with cocktails while touring the world as an Irish dancer. Cocktails are her life these days — “I just took up knitting because I was like, damn, I need an interest outside of cocktails!” she laughs — but Proof is a different kind of stage.
“People very much come in to see us execute our cocktails,” she says. “We’re trying to elevate the scene and be the best in Calgary.”
What to order: Anything you want. Proof’s menu of 40-odd creations changes twice a year, but the talented bartenders are more than happy to do dealer’s choice or make something classic off-menu.
Hayden Block in trendy Kensington is known for authentic, fall-off-the-bone Texas barbecue, but whiskey is the real star of this rodeo. Staunch purists can order straight off the list of more than 100 Scottish, American, Irish, Canadian and Japanese whiskeys, but the hand-crafted whiskey cocktails go down easy with a half-pound of the brisket and cornbread with honey butter.
What to order: If you have to get back to the office, keep it light and simple with a classic whiskey sour, but after hours, go for the whiskey smash or the bourberry — Maker’s Mark bourbon, fernet Branca Menta, blueberries, mint and lemon.
A relative newcomer to Calgary’s bohemian Inglewood neighbourhood, Gorilla Whale serves up “Japanese-ish” cuisine in a hip, casual setting. The playful decor — think stuffed Pikachus and cartoon-y concert posters — hints at what’s to come. On the menu, ramen and yakitori live side-by-side with chef Dirk McCabe’s more offbeat creations, such as the PB & J foie gras with Japanese whiskey-stewed blueberries. For “dranks,” cocktails by Nathan Head put sake in the spotlight.
What to order: The Paper Crane. This fruity, spicy concoction built around a base of gin and sake is a perfect complement to the umami “gorilla rice.”