I’m almost loath to write this piece. You see, I feel like I have a bit of insider knowledge that puts me in a small camp of privileged locals.
I know the best place to get a cocktail, not just here on the North Shore, where that assertion is certain, but possibly in all of Vancouver. It’s a tiny place, open to the public only a few hours a week, but it spills over with charm and character from every corner, every beam, every inch of its diminutive yet thoughtful layout. By the end of this piece you will know about it too. I urge you to use this newfound wisdom for the powers of good.
The cocktail scene is booming all over the place. It seems that everywhere I go there are a number of on-trend venues devoted to mixing creative drinks using specialty spirits, elixirs, tinctures, syrups and extracts.
Vancouver is no exception to this meta-trend, and yet somehow the scene has largely evaded the North Shore, the tasty, fruity Tiki drinks at Raglans notwithstanding.
Places on this side of the bridges tend to overlook the phenomenon. Save one.
The 12-person capacity tasting room at the North Shore’s very own Sons of Vancouver Distillery, that scrappy little entrepreneurial operation on Crown Street that produces small batches of award-winning spirits, is actually one of the most interesting bars you’re likely to experience. If I sound like a fan, it’s because I am. This is the sort of independent, interesting and uncompromising local business that I wish was more prevalent.
Sons of Vancouver partners and distillers Richard Klaus and James Lester learned their craft in no small part through hands-on spirit making at a number of independent distilleries down in the U.S., where the industry is older and better established.
The duo made enduring connections that have afforded them not only unmatched knowledge of the craft spirits world, but also rare access to the very best small batch products on the market. These products line the shelves of the distillery’s back bar and inform the drinks that are served there on Friday evenings, Saturdays and Sundays, when the rising stars of the B.C. craft spirits world can carve out some time from the demands of a loyal fan base to serve cocktails.
When I originally considered Sons of Vancouver in this column back in 2015, their newly constructed tasting room was in its infancy. Now the space features an enviable collection of rare spirits and an inspired list of cocktails (bound in conversation-worthy, reclaimed classic book covers from the 18th century, courtesy of nearby neighbour The Old English Book Bindery), along with a modest but well-considered food offering to accompany it.
If you’re peckish, opt for the charcuterie plate, a good-value assortment of nibbles including prosciutto, landjager, speck, a rotating selection of firm cheeses, grainy mustard from the Cowichan Valley, and awesome flax seed crackers made by hand by Klaus himself.
Sons of Vancouver has come a long way in a short time. Their celebrated amaretto, using made-from-scratch bitter almond extract, demerara, local honey, apricots and vanilla, is a staple on cocktail lists across town and is arguably single-handedly responsible for the resurgence of the Amaretto Sour.
Lester makes a stunning version of this drink by adopting a Taiko drummer stance and mercilessly shaking the life out of a single large ice cube with an egg white and bitters, creating a foam that could likely support a toonie.
The distillery’s potent chili vodka makes a mean Caesar and their vodka is a nuanced and complex product that is every bit as good in a dry martini as it is in a blended drink.
On the backs of these core products, a list of around 20 cocktails has been built, also employing other original creations from friends and rivals. My wife DJ and I seized the opportunity to leave the kids with visiting grandparents and descended on Sons of Vancouver for a stylish tipple on a recent Friday night.
What was the best cocktail of the lot? In truth, there wasn’t a forgettable drink to be had. However, if I had to give top honours to a single creation of the four we tried in total, I would name Lester’s version of a Corpse Reviver Number 2, an off-list drink that I had never tried but am now grateful to know about.
The cocktail is made with craft gin, curacao (a liqueur made from fragrant, citrusy lahara fruit), Lillet blanc (a French, wine-based aperitif), lemon juice and a gentle splash of absinthe; Lester used a curious product from New Orleans for this latter.
The result was a tart and refreshing yet undeniably sophisticated and complex elixir that enlivened the palate. DJ’s Chili Moscow Mule was profoundly delicious too, and featured vodka, fresh lime juice, spicy ginger beer, a well-bashed mint sprig, and a dose of potent chilli vodka, an ingenious addition that gives the illusion that the ginger beer is much more piquant than it is in reality.
The drinks list includes concoctions that run the gamut of base spirits from amaro to fernet, bourbon to mescal, and pretty much everything in between. Cocktails range from $8 to $12, depending on the rarity of ingredients employed.
PSA: the cocktails mentioned above are potent, so stay safe and plan ahead if you head to the Sons of Vancouver tasting room. DJ and I took a ride-share car down to the distillery (it was just over $5) and the 239 bus back towards home.
Sons of Vancouver is located at 1431 Crown St. in North Vancouver. sonsofvancouver.com. 778-340-5388. The tasting room is open Fridays from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., Saturdays,1-9 p.m., and Sundays,1 p.m.-5 p.m.
Chris Dagenais served as a manager for several restaurants downtown and on the North Shore. A self-described wine fanatic, he earned his sommelier diploma in 2001. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. North Shore News dining reviews are conducted anonymously and all meals are paid for by the newspaper.