The number of cocktail bars appearing all over the city certainly indicates that it is not all “doom and gloom” in Calgary.
Not a day goes by in Calgary where someone doesn’t bemoan the price of oil. Executives trumpet the effect it is having on their company’s stock prices, workers angrily shout that they’ve been laid-off from their well-paying oil field jobs, restaurants see their customers driven before them and hear the lamentation of their owners.
Calgary’s job market isn’t actually as bad as everyone makes it out to be; there is actually growth in the number of net new jobs province-wide. Although restaurants are seeing a general downturn in their overall spending, the number of cocktail bars appearing all over the city certainly indicates that it is not all “doom and gloom” for the industry.
Perhaps it is the penchant for falling back into the comfort of a well-made drink that creates solace for many these days, but the recent spate of new cocktail bars indicates that people are doing more than just indulging in self-medication.
“There’s about half a dozen; four cocktail primary bars and a number of good restaurants with really good cocktail programs as well” notes Nathan Head, managing partner and bartender at the recently opened cocktail bar, Proof, in Victoria Park. Head points out that there isn’t a single specific demographic leading the charge to cocktails either.
“Cocktails are like a thing all across the board. You get nice middle-aged couples who love to travel, you’ve got a bunch of young guys who want to drink an old fashioned all night, then you have those who look for the full-on cocktail experience and who want to be wowed.”
Mark Roeric, a bartender at Cannibale in Bridgeland, which also debuted on the cocktails scene earlier this year, has also seen a large outpouring of interest from Calgarians. “The community has really come together, they’re happy there’s a watering hole and a cool room to hang out in Bridgeland.” Roeric observes, “There’s a lot of young professionals who stop in after work to have a drink and a sandwich. They’re a little wide-eyed, some of them are confused but they’re excited. They embrace it and they want to learn.”
Franz Swinton, the bar manager at Anejo in Mission and professional bartender who has seen Calgary go through the cycle of beer, wine, and spirits, says cocktail culture is here to stay, not just in Calgary, but globally.
“It’s blowing up right now” Swinton declares, “Any good restaurant has to have a good cocktail program. It’s part of the deal unless your focus is specifically wine or beer. If you go to the major restaurants around the world, they all have cocktail programs.”
Swinton is also this year’s ambassador for the Made with Love cocktail competition, which has seen increased year-over-year participation by bartenders as well as attendance from the public.
“In our  qualifier we had 22 people signed up. We’ve never had a turnout that big.” Swinton notes that this is up significantly from the 15 entrants from last year. “The demand from the public is great, they wantto see what’s new, what’s up and coming, and see what’s happening in cocktail culture in Calgary.”
There are a number of factors preventing Calgary from playing on the world cocktail stage. It is partially due to the economic downturn, partially due to large number of bars and restaurants already in the city, and partially due to the availability of spirits and the relative infancy of Calgarians’ palates.
A major hindrance, identified by many of the bartenders in town, are the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission (AGLC) rules which regulate the limitations around the use of spirits. These rules have some significant restrictions that do not exist in other provinces or countries around the world. One primary example is the inability to infuse spirits with flavours or other ingredients before serving.
“The fact that we can’t do that means that we can’t create the interesting cocktails which are unique to every space.” Head continues, “The boys in New York and Vancouver are not doing things much differently than we are, but they do have more tricks up their sleeve, and that’s what allows them to take it to the next level. This is one of the best cities in the world to live in according to the Economist and other places, why are we not doing the absolute best?”
Head, Roeric, and Swinton all agree that there is ample room to grow for Calgary’s cocktail bars. They point to Vancouver supporting around two dozen cocktail bars or cocktail-centric restaurants with only double the population of Calgary. They also allude to the number of Calgarians returning from overseas, and the influx of international workers who demand something a bit more sophisticated.
With all these factors we can expect to see many more cocktail menus, bars, and choices become available very, very soon.