A stranger dressed in a Canada Goose parka is handing out shot glasses inside a blue-lit bar that’s colder than most winter nights. “Try this. It’s grape,” he says, adding, “The cold tamps down the alcohol’s heat so you can taste the vodka.”
The stranger is right: instead of that familiar alcohol burn, the vodka tastes slightly sweet, but with a tart flavour of grapes. And the boozy warmth that follows helps to combat the -32°C temperature inside the frozen room. Next, the man offers up a taste of salted caramel vodka, then blood orange vodka, then an unflavoured option for comparison. With 50 different vodkas on offer, this chilly spot feels very much like a “spirited” candy shop.
The Ketel One Ice Room in Whistler, B.C., used to be an anomaly, but, as more imbibers dedicate their taste buds to a preferred liquor, restaurateurs and bartenders all over North America are responding with niche lounges and tasting rooms: bars devoted to doing one alcohol—and its various cocktail spin-offs—well.
From the frozen vodka room to a steamy rum bar, here are five spots where you can sip your favourite spirit into the wee hours.
Don a provided Canada Goose jacket and brace yourself for a frigid blast of air as you enter a frozen room where pretty vodka bottles are set in nooks carved into the ice-hewn walls. Then, simultaneously charge and chill your palate with a private tasting of a vodka flight (four shots) of your choice, from cherry to a local B.C. vodka infused with lemongrass.
Let rum, live Latin music and a Havana-style bar—complete with palmetto ceiling fans—transport you vicariously to a steamy Caribbean lounge. There are 85 varieties of rum, pisco and cachaca (popular in Brazil) from all over the Caribbean and Latin America available for sampling. Or drink it pirate-style, mixed into a Black and Blue Mojito with muddled blueberries and blackberries.
Contrary to the name, they don’t make gin in the tub inside this intimate Chelsea cocktail lounge. Rather, Bathtub Gin has curated 33 of what it considers to be great gins, from Tanqueray London Dry to Nolet’s rare handcrafted Gold Reserve Gin (served neat with ice on the side). Sip gin on its own or sample it in one of 10 cocktails like the beloved Beekeeper, a twist on the classic Bee’s Knees with Genever, honey, lemon juice, ginger and lavender.
This new downtown whisky bar, steps from the Calgary Tower, pays tribute to the city’s whisky-swilling frontier past. Except, instead of offering moonshine, the light and bright bar features more than 140 labels of whisky from around the world. Choose between peaty Scotches from Islay, Scotland, Kentucky bourbons, Canadian ryes and lesser-known Japanese whiskies. If a $93 taste of the rare Brora 35 Year Old isn’t your thing, try a more affordable whisky in a cocktail such as the Black Walnut Old Fashioned.
Eight years ago (long before tequila was trendy), Sandy and Catherine MacFadyen, smitten by tequila after multiple trips to Mexico, opened Reposado on Ossington Avenue in Toronto. The modern lounge offers 145 different agave spirits, including such sought-after sips as Tequila Ocho, a single-estate tequila. Sample a flight trio of your choice, or taste the spirit mixed into popular cocktails such as the Tequila Negroni (Tegroni), with tequila replacing gin in this classic.