How To Make the Vancouver Cocktail: Reviving a Vintage Classic

Born in the Canadian city for which it is named, the Vancouver is a fairly obscure cocktail that nearly went extinct. Its serendipitous rediscovery some 15 years ago has aided its rise among the cocktail-loving cognoscenti. When made properly, the combination of gin, Bénédictine, sweet vermouth, and orange bitters makes a brilliant match, with earthy complexity thanks to its fruity, spicy, and herbaceous profile. While it’s all the rage in western Canada, the Vancouver is one drink that’s poised to become a universal classic.

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Vancouver Cocktail

Ingredients:

  • 2 oz gin
  • .5 oz sweet vermouth
  • .25 oz Bénédictine
  • 2 dashes of orange bitters
  • lemon twist, for garnish

Method:

  1. In an ice-filled mixing glass, combine ingredients.
  2. Stir until well-chilled (about 30 seconds).
  3. Strain into a cocktail glass.
  4. Garnish with the lemon twist.

Legends of a Cocktail

Signboard exterior of the Sylvia Hotel located in Vancouver, Canada.

Like any good mixed drink worth its bitters, the origin of the Vancouver is shrouded in mystery. The date of its revival however is better known. In 2006, a bartender named Steve da Cruz was slinging drinks in a Gastown bar when an elderly gentleman dressed like a cowboy appeared. Enter Josiah Bates. A gifted storyteller and lover of a well-made drink, Bates began sharing old-fashioned drink recipes in a thick Scottish brogue. On a later visit, he wrote down the name of the Vancouver cocktail and its method of preparation, saying that it was all the rage at the Sylvia Hotel, when he and his mates gathered there in the 1950s.

Da Cruz was intrigued. He visited the still functioning Sylvia Hotel, and no one knew what he was talking about. Upon further investigation (and a trip to City Hall), he found that in 1954 the Sylvia Hotel was the first establishment in Vancouver to be granted a cocktail lounge license. Quite likely, the Vancouver was created to celebrate the Sylvia’s newfound status. Da Cruz then spread the gospel of this newly reborn cocktail, and the drink’s popularity spread all across the province.

Further Back in Time

As far as revival stories go, the reappearance of the Vancouver was a good one — particularly since the herald of forgotten drinks came courtesy of a man who wore ostrich-skin boots and a ten-gallon hat and spoke like Sean Connery.

The story, though, took a twist in 2020, when bartender and cocktail historian Alex Black stumbled upon a book published in 1925 entitled About Town, which cataloged some of Vancouver’s most popular drink recipes. In it, Black found a recipe for the Vancouver by Joseph Fitchett, “head bar steward” of the Vancouver Club. Fitchett’s recipe interestingly enough called for French (dry) vermouth rather than Italian (sweet) vermouth. Another recipe in the book listed as “the Fitchett” was essentially the Vancouver that da Cruz, via Josiah Bates, resurrected. Since this news — earth-shattering for some Canadian drink makers, a bit of trivia for others — bartenders must now decide whether to go sweet or dry when making the Vancouver. Some even split the difference, serving up equal parts of both vermouths.

Tinkering Toward Perfection

In truth, as with any vintage cocktail, a bit of experimentation can lead to superior results when it comes to the Vancouver. You can dial back the Bénédictine for a less sweet concoction (some recipes call for a mere spoonful of the aromatic liqueur) and go drier still by subbing in dry vermouth for sweet vermouth. A distant relative of the Vancouver, the Martinez jettisons Bénédictine altogether and features equal parts gin and sweet vermouth, along with a few dashes of maraschino liqueur and orange bitters.

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