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Vancouver’s Cocktail Scene Brightens Up

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Vancouver’s cocktail scene is always evolving and surprising. This drink is available on the menu at the Westin Bayshore’s H2 restaurant and H Tasting Lounge only during April, in honour of cherry-blossom season. (Adrian Brijbassi/Vacay.ca)

The term is speakeasy — one word, a noun that connotes under-the-table anti-authoritarianism good times. Separate it, though, and you have a two-word command, or suggestion, and that is what Rachel Zottenberg wants you to embrace when you enter her delightful new cocktail venue — assuming you can find it.

Key Party Lounge is the latest addition to Vancouver’s Main Street strip of retro stores, refurbished clubs, and kitschy retailers. As a good hidden bar should be, it’s secreted away behind what appears to be the storefront of a make-believe accounting company bearing the proprietor’s name, Zottenberg & Sons. Sticking to the retro theme, the storefront features a rotary dial phone, a fax machine, and a massive accountant’s calculator the size of some tablet computers.

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Rachel Zottenberg is the proprietor of some of Vancouver’s more popular cocktail bars, including Key Party Lounge and the Emerald. (Herman Chor/Vacay.ca)

Behind the entry is a second door that leads to a dark, inhibition-loosening environment laden with red velvet and candle lights. The idea is to entice Vancouverites to come in, smile at the cleverness of the place, stay awhile, and unabashedly converse with each other.

“The name Key Party is about saying let’s be silly and enjoy yourself. Leave any precautions you have at the door and have conversations you wouldn’t normally have. That’s the idea,” Zottenberg says, pointing out that the lounge’s name does indeed refer to the naughty habits of 1970’s adults and the key parties they devised.

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What room couldn’t use a horse tapestry? Key Party Lounge features boozy cocktails and fun decor. (Herman Chor/Vacay.ca)

Key Party is also accessed through a curtain that divides it from Rumpus Room, Zottenberg’s retro-themed restaurant. While the decor and aesthetics of the 42-seat lounge may be meant to evoke a period that is half-a-century old, the cocktails are created with modern sensibilities. Dairy is not used in any of the drinks, allowing vegans to partake too.

“We use coconut cream and soy so anyone can taste them,” Zottenberg says about the non-dairy ingredients that are used to add a smooth texture and distinct flavour to some of the choices on the cocktail menu.

Key Party Lounge is a sister property to the popular Emerald Supper Club, a Chinatown hangout that feels more like San Francisco than Vancouver. It’s in a former dim-sum restaurant that was transformed six years ago into a multi-room, multi-purpose space of good times. The establishment has a capacity of 184 and is divided into four areas where a mix of events takes place: concerts, burlesque shows, office parties, eclectic weddings, and any manner of celebration you can think of.

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It’s not all about the drinks. Crispy cauliflower bites, served with a rich peanut sauce, are one of the pleasant surprises on the food menu at the Emerald Supper Club. (Adrian Brijbassi/Vacay.ca)

Like Key Party Lounge, the cocktails have Zottenberg’s zest for boozy flavours. The twist on the New York Sour features Jameson whiskey and red wine. The Penicillin includes a housemade honey-ginger syrup that adds a touch of sweetness to the whiskey-based classic. Food bites are better than you might expect, with sliders served on brioche buns and cauliflower bites that will turn any picky eater into a veggie lover. 

Both Key Party Lounge and the Emerald cater to people who are open to coming in and seeing where the night takes them. As Zottenberg notes, “We want someone who enjoys being here, who will come here and hang out and be able to make the experience their own. Those are the people you want around you in general, I think.”

Pioneering Pourhouse Celebrates 10 Years

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The Daiquiri De-Luxe is one of the Pourhouse’s “Bootlegged” cocktails that have been sourced from leading bars from around the world. (Adrian Brijbassi/Vacay.ca)

A notable moment in the Vancouver cocktail scene took place in 2009 with the opening of Pourhouse in the city’s historic Gastown district. With a dedication to evoking Prohibition-era American lounges, Pourhouse has become one of those rare establishments that is both a magnet for tourists and a locals’ favourite. It’s also recognized as one of the leaders in the city’s drinks scene. The cocktail list includes inventive twists on classics as well as a “Bootlegged” section that features the Pourhouse’s variation on drinks created at a handful of well-known bars from around the world. Bar manager Adam Domet and his team also turn over the approximately six Pourhouse-conceived cocktails on the menu on a regular basis. Refreshingly, the cocktail names reflect the passions of Domet’s team, instead of trying too hard — as many craft-beer makers do — to have product monickers that connect with Vancouver or Canada.

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Two of the popular drinks at Pourhouse are inspired by punk rock bands that Domet likes. Armstrong Ave (Buffalo Trace bourbon, Benedictine, Punch Abruzzo and Celery Bitters) is named after Rancid frontman Tim Armstrong while the Devil’s Garden (white tequila, Havana Club 3-Year-Old Rum, Lime, Agave, Cardamom and Rosewater) is a delicious and boozy drink that references a Tiger Army song.

This spring, Pourhouse introduced chef Alessandro Vianello, who has worked at cocktail-focused Wildebeest in Gastown, and is a Vancouverite who has witnessed the turnaround in the city’s bar scene.

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Chef Alessandro Vianello has taken the helm of the kitchen at the Pourhouse, one of Vancouver’s leading cocktail bars. (Adrian Brijbassi/Vacay.ca)

“For a long time, people didn’t understand the labour of love that goes into making a good cocktail. Vodka and soda was considered a cocktail before places like this came along,” says Vianello, whose food menu was developed in part through research of Prohibition-era recipes in the United States. “But at the same time people in Vancouver have always wanted quality. And it’s a trendy city too. The cocktail resurgence was a trend that started elsewhere, in the States and in Toronto, so it made sense it would come here. I’m glad to see it has stuck around.”

Along with the cocktails, Pourhouse also offers flights of spirits, including Scotch and sake, and has a diverse beer and wine list. For thirsty travellers looking for a spot to start or end their night in Vancouver, the Pourhouse is always a solid choice.

Cocktails to Welcome Cherry Blossom Season

It’s probably impossible to be served a more beautiful drink than what the Westin Bayshore bartending team has created for the annual celebration of cherry-blossom season, aka Sakura season. For a short time, trees in many neighbourhoods of Vancouver sprout ethereal-looking blossoms of white and pink making the city seem like something out of a fantasy film. The Westin’s team at its H Tasting Lounge have embraced the season with April food and drink menus honouring Sakura. Special teas have been brewed for the lounge’s tea service while the bar team has developed two alcoholic concoctions with cherry blossoms in mind.

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At the Westin Bayshore, cocktails celebrate spring, cherry blossoms, and Vancouver’s beauty. (Adrian Brijbassi/Vacay.ca)

The most lovely is called 5 Centimetres Per Second — a reference to both the amount of time it takes a cherry blossom to reach the ground and a popular animated Japanese movie of the same name. The drink contains two ounces of Pisco and is topped with a frothy vegan foam. The second drink, Midori Kokonattsu, includes Bombay gin with an infusion of matcha and coconut, and a heaping portion of white chocolate foam on top.

Distinct drinks that provide a reason to visit the Coal Harbour hotel that boasts one of the most captivating settings in the city — cherry blossoms or not.

This Map Shows the 4 Cocktail Experiences Mentioned in the Article

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Adrian is the editor of Vacay.ca and VacayNetwork.com. He also edited "Inspired Cooking", a nutrition-focused cookbook featuring 20 of Canada's leading chefs and in support of the cancer-fighting charity, InspireHealth. "Inspired Cooking" was created in honour of Adrian's late wife and Vacay.ca co-founder, Julia Pelish, who passed away of brain cancer in 2016. Adrian has won numerous awards for his travel writing, travel photography, and fiction, and has visited more than 55 countries. He is a former editor at the Toronto Star and New York Newsday, and was the social media and advocacy manager for Destination Canada. His articles have frequently appeared in the Huffington Post, Globe & Mail, and other major publications. He has appeared on national and local broadcasts, talking about travel, sports, creative writing and journalism. In 2019, he launched Trippzy, a travel-trivia app developed to educate consumers about destinations around the world.