Halifax's cocktail scene is stirred up and we like what we're sipping
Don't call it a comeback — call it a renaissance
The vibrancy of cocktail culture in Halifax might come as a surprise to some. Even though there is a long, storied history of rum running in Nova Scotia, Halifax has often been considered more of a beer town. Maybe you can blame it on Alexander Keith, founder of the namesake brewery, one of the oldest in North America, that still sits down by the city's waterfront churning out bottle after bottle of lagers and ales or the fact that this old college town has the second-most bars per capita (behind St. John's). Whatever the reason, the city's long love affair with hops has become something of a calling card.
In the past five years, though, as a widespread interest in classic cocktail menus, craft bartending and quality spirits has grown and flourished across Canada and the US at an almost frenetic pace, the restaurant and bar community in Halifax has also found itself shaken and stirred with a renewed interest in everything from Prohibition-era cocktails to craft distilleries. It has the people who make drinks as excited as those who drink them.
While every bar in town has had a Martini or Manhattan on the menu over the years, it really wasn't until 2013 that a raft of Halifax restaurants with cocktail-forward beverage programs opened. Restaurants like Field Guide and EDNA joined Halifax's first speakeasy-styled bar, Noble, as destinations for those in search Prohibition-era drinks like The Bees Knees and Hanky-Panky, and creative, new cocktails made with quality ingredients and top-shelf spirits. 2013 was also the year Jenner Cormier, the head bartender behind Noble, beat out contenders from all across the country to be named Canada's first Diageo World Class Bartender of the Year.
Cormier, who recently opened Bar Kismet, a small seafood restaurant and cocktail bar in Halifax's north end, says the origins go back even further. He cites a group of bartenders from the five or ten years previous, bartenders like Gord Hannah at The Velvet Olive and Cooper Tardivel at Mosaic (both restaurants long since closed) as the first real movers and shakers—movers of shakers, if you will—to set off the cocktail culture revival.
"Those bartenders gave us a dose of what was possible and then there was no looking back," Cormier says. "It has gotten to a point now that most bars in the city offer cocktails in some shape or form, even to the point where bartenders are asking if you'd prefer Bourbon or Rye in your Manhattan. Crazy, right?"
It took the work of influencers like Tardivel and Hannah and then, later, Cormier and Jeff Van Horne, an award-winning bartender who helped develop cocktail programs for The Bicycle Thief, Lot Six, and Field Guide to lure producers and educators, other influencers and competitions to Halifax. Once the fuse was lit, Halifax became not only a destination for bartending competitions, but a town that made champions. Most recently Marika Bouchard and Emily Orr, who took the first place Judge's and Public's Choice awards at Halifax's Made with Love 2017 competition.
Van Horne, another award-winner, has enjoyed watching the idea of being a bartender in Halifax go from being just another job to a real career. "In the past the seats at a restaurant bar were occupied only by those waiting for their table," he says. "Now it has become a sought after seat, not because of cocktails but because of the bartender who is making them."
Last year Van Horne left restaurant work and launched The Clever Barkeep, a catering company that exclusively focuses on beverage service. In these past five years, the cocktail culture that he helped lead into the mainstream from behind the bar grew enough to support him in a new career beyond it.
"It essentially developed as the demand for craft cocktails grew," he says. "We thought why not bring the same quality of experience you might have received from us at Lot Six, The Bicycle Thief or Field Guide into your home. No cabs, no waiting in lines, or dealing with slow busy service. You pick the time and date we will be there."
There seems to be no ceiling for consumer interest in craft beverages and the huge growth of local beverage companies, whether breweries, wineries, cideries or distilleries. With everything from rum and eau de vie being made in Lunenburg, seasonal berry liqueurs from Port Williams, and gin and vodka from Halifax, there are exciting Nova Scotia ingredients for bartenders to incorporate into drinks or for consumers to add to their home bar.
But Van Horne warns, "Just because a product has craft or local on the label does not ensure quality". Nor does it mean that a product has been made entirely in Nova Scotia; just as wineries sometime import additional grapes and breweries may bring in ingredients like hops for their brews, many small distilleries simply finish and bottle source spirits made elsewhere. "For those that are indeed fermenting, distilling and aging there spirits here in Nova Scotia I am proud to see their dedication towards improving the quality of spirits being consumed in this province."
Attention to this kind of detail combined with a customer base that is a mix of well-travelled locals and curious tourists has led to a community of bartenders in Halifax who are as invested in tradition and hospitality as they are in finding inspiration elsewhere. "As much as the bartenders are the driving force behind the growth behind cocktail culture, we are also being pushed by our guests who know what makes a good cocktail," he says.
Five great cocktail options in Halifax:
A cool, laid-back restaurant and bar with a tight menu of classic cocktails and inspired concoctions created by Made With Love's current People's Choice Award Winner in Halifax, Emily Orr.
Try the Clara Clara, aged amber rum with clarified pineapple, citrus, coconut water and spice.
A playful, balanced menu of cocktails and the city's safest choice for off-menu ordering of classic drinks made by award-winning bartenders Jenner Cormier and Cooper Tardivel.
Try the Long Winded News Of The Never, a mix of rye whiskey, dry vermouth, benedictine, Italian amaro, Peychaud's Bitters.
A beautiful array of cocktail options, including a menu of gin tonics and sherries that compliment the restaurant's Spanish-inspired menu.
Try the Portobello Road, a gin and tonic with Fino sherry, green apple and tarragon.
An approachable beverage program that highlights local cocktail ingredients and beverage options that stretch from brunch to late night revelry.
Try the Cucumber Cooler; as it sounds: gin, fresh cucumber juice, fresh lime juice, soda.
A sprawling menu with heavy focus on the province's favourite spirit, rum, in a luxuriously retro room that overlooks Halifax Harbour.
Try the Rum Old Fashioned, dark rum, demerara sugar, angostura bitters, orange peel.