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In Pursuit of British Columbia’s Best Gin and Tonic

Coastal concoctions.

It’s germane to begin by saying that I don’t like complicated drinks. Complex, yes. A negroni to me, even after all this time, is complex. Tisanes and emulsions and smokes and fat washes, though—I mean, who’s got time? I adhere to something I’ve just made up called the “1, 2, 3, 4 Rule”: one drink made with doubles of three ingredients max (can include ice). For me.

So a recent trip to Juniper Kitchen & Bar in Vancouver’s Chinatown was not, perhaps, destined to end well, and sure enough there were problems with a sampling from the cocktail menu created by Max Borrowman (Fairmont Pacific Rim, Torafuku). A Rhythm of the Clouds added rum to beet juice and cough busters (honey, lemon, ginger), seemingly en route to the spa until sprinkled with cumin (which, actually, balanced out all but the beet). Namaste? A Beach and Bark blended the herbal liqueur Becherovka with companionably acerbic wormwood bitters, dry vermouth, and Suze (a gentian-based aperitif) into a tasty digestivo, then enfeebled the whole affair with a cascade of apple cider.

I could go on, but my point here is not to berate but to celebrate, because among these eager beavers there floated a beverage of such beauty that it was all I could do not to order 1, 2, 3, 4 of them to see where they might take me.

The conceit of Juniper is Cascadian, by which they mean not merely Pacific Northwestern, but rather nod to the agglomeration of cultures that have set up house in this part of the world. So, not just English and Scottish marauders, but the Spanish conquistadors before them, the Chinese before the Spanish, and the First Nations before them all. This leads to some, uh, complexities around the food and beverage program and the interior design, complexities I’ll leave for an actual restaurant review.

It’s not news that we are gripped by craftmania in our distillers as in so many other ways.

But somewhere between England and Spain, Juniper (and note the name) got her groove back. The gin and tonic of imperial Britain—defeater of malaria, propper-upper of the Raj—and the choose-your-own-aromatics gintonic of contemporary Spain hook up for a little Netflix-and-chill with ingredients of the Pacific Northwest in Borrowman’s Islander G&T (recipe here). Its ingredients evoke not just the salinity of the sea but the specific terroir of one particular beach on Vancouver Island—one sip of the Islander seemed to evoke every element of sand, sea, and surf from a place called French Beach. What’s in it? Fancy tonic water. A dash of celery bitters. Some sprigs of briny sea asparagus. A dehydrated lemon slice (completely optional, in my view, and well beyond the rule of threes). And Seaside Gin from Island distiller Sheringham, enlivened with (they promise, and who am I to disbelieve?) winged sea kelp. Is it possible for a drink to taste not just of the sea but of sea spray and the dance of sandpipers through surf?

It’s not news that we (and by we, I mean much of the Western world) are gripped by craftmania in our distillers as in so many other ways. British Columbia is no exception, and there are some delicious products now available. Phillips—my favourite local brewery, from Victoria—have added a “Fermentorium” (sigh) from which they make Stump Coastal Forest Gin, using local botanicals to decoct notes of forest floor into their gin. Pair that with the same manufacturer’s dry tonic, as they do at Whistler’s (similarly Spanish-inflected) Bar Oso and you’ve got a hoppy, fir-infused rainforest G&T that also summons Cascadian pride. Deep Cove and Central City are other local brewers joining the gin train. There’s also Long Table Cucumber Gin (the happy hour G&T at their shopfront is nothing to sneeze at), wacky newcomer Arbutus Empiric Gin, old standby Victoria Gin—one of my favourites, and you can ask for it almost everywhere, 1:2 with tonic and (if you must) a slice of lemon. I had such a drink on the dock of Nimmo Bay, a luxury fly-in fishing resort in the Great Bear Rainforest, one summer afternoon a few years ago, and I would have surrendered to a bear quite happily after a couple of those…

If you’re as overwhelmed as I am by this cornucopia of choice, the marathon Whistler food and drink festival also named Cornucopia hosts revered bartender (and Borrowman’s predecessor at Juniper) Shaun Layton later this month in a discussion of the many complexities that can arise when a few choice ingredients rub shoulders with an assertive gin, in a session called The G&T: With Love From Spain. If anyone can make sense of this trend, it’s him.

All this got me thirsty, of course, so I started rooting through my cupboards in search of a tipple, but as I write, it’s 13 degrees Celsius outside and drizzling, and I just couldn’t quite commit. Luckily, some Googling found me the perfect compromise. A cocktail writer named Magnus Sundström describes a drinks competition in Stockholm using Hernö Gin, which just won best gin for a G&T at the 2016 International Wine and Spirits Competition. Sundström’s competition was won by a heated G&T called a Jakt & Tonic, built from Hernö (I didn’t have any, so I used Bombay Sapphire, which at least is also London Dry style) mixed into tonic water (mine was Q brand) that has been heated until it loses its bubbles. Add a drizzle of simple syrup (I’d say skip) and top with juniper brushwood-infused whipped cream. There it is, that damned fourth ingredient that goes and ruins everything. Well, feeling compliant, I used plain whipped cream from the back of the fridge and Skål! Forget Major Chutney tippling on a tiger skin. This was smooth and round, heavily aromatic, tartly balanced—everything I love about a G&T, and I had just enough for a second round.

Photos by K.K. Lam.

Originally published November 10, 2016.