Res­tau­rants serve sips to savour, sans al­co­hol

These ar­ti­sanal drinks for non­drinkers prove that there is life be­yond the vir­gin cae­sar

The Georgia Straight - - Food - > BY ALEXAN­DER VARTY

Flavours of smoke and leather, flow­ers and spice, sweet fruit and bit­ter shrubs: to­day’s cock­tails have branched way, way out from the rum ’n’ Coke ba­sics of not that long ago, as can be seen in the book-length bev­er­age lists be­ing passed around ta­bles all over town. But what is there for the non­drinker, the per­son who has a long drive home or re­li­gious scru­ples or ter­ri­ble hang­overs or sim­ply a regrettable ten­dency to end up un­der the host after a slew of pisco sours?

Not much—but that’s chang­ing. Al­though non­al­co­holic cock­tails have yet to see the same kind of growth en­joyed by craft beer or bit­ters, there is life be­yond the vir­gin cae­sar.

Here in Van­cou­ver, it’s ar­guable that ground zero in the devel­op­ment of the ar­ti­sanal, al­co­hol-free drink was a long-shut­tered hole-in-the-wall restau­rant on West Broad­way—the very place where Vikram Vij first took charge of his own kitchen and be­gan to de­velop what has be­come a small em­pire of din­ing es­tab­lish­ments (in­clud­ing Vij’s Restau­rant’s cur­rent home at 3106 Cam­bie Street). Vij had cook­ing skills, am­bi­tion, and the de­sire to serve some kind of fes­tive bev­er­age to pair with his cur­ries and naan, but he didn’t have a liquor li­cence.

En­ter the fa­bled Gin­ger-lemon Drink, still a fix­ture on his menus to­day.

“When I first opened Vij’s, I didn’t want to do any­thing with preser­va­tives in it,” the af­fa­ble restau­ra­teur ex­plains in a tele­phone in­ter­view with the Ge­or­gia Straight. “And I didn’t just want to buy pop from some­where, be­cause all In­dian res­tau­rants serve pop.…i just wanted to have one non­al­co­holic drink, which was the Gin­ger-lemon, and one hot drink called chai. But most im­por­tantly, I wanted to serve real foods with real in­gre­di­ents.”

Vij’s gin­ger-lemon bev­er­age was— and is—sim­plic­ity it­self: lemon and/ or lime juice, gin­ger juice, and sugar, boiled into a syrup, cooled, and mixed with sparkling wa­ter. (A recipe can be found in the chef’s first cook­book, Vij’s: El­e­gant and In­spired In­dian Cui­sine.) Pre­sen­ta­tion was an­other mat­ter.

“I went to a lo­cal glass­maker whose name was Joe Blow, and I asked him to make these lit­tle blue vials,” Vij re­calls. When a drink was or­dered, out would come a vial of the gin­ger-lemon syrup, a glass of ice, and a bot­tle of Per­rier; Vij would mix them him­self, ta­ble­side. “I wanted it to be like the­atre al­most,” he says, laugh­ing. “I wanted to serve it French-style—that get-it-on ser­vice, you know?

“I used to get a lot of flack for not car­ry­ing Coke and Sprite and bev­er­ages like that,” he adds. “Peo­ple used to be re­ally up­set, but I used to say to peo­ple, ‘Look, try my Gin­ger-lemon; if you don’t like it, you don’t have to pay for it. But at least try it.’ And once they tasted it, peo­ple were like, ‘Okay, we get it!’ And I still don’t sell pop!”

None of the pop­u­lar Ta­cofino lo­ca­tions can claim to be a soda-free space, but non­drinkers can en­joy a so­phis­ti­cated vari­a­tion on the gin­ger-lemon theme at them all. Ta­cofino’s house-made gin­ger beer, a word-of-mouth sen­sa­tion be­fore it even made it onto the menu, was orig­i­nally cre­ated as a mixer; cooks and servers started en­joy­ing it as a bev­er­age on its own, and from there it even­tu­ally went pub­lic.

“I’m not the big­gest drinker, so it’s al­ways good to have a nice fresh drink for when you don’t want al­co­hol,” says Ta­cofino co­founder Ja­son Suss­man on the line from the west coast of Van­cou­ver Is­land. “It’s made with some lime peel and some lemon peel, some gin­ger juice and some sliced gin­ger, star anise and some other spices, some vanilla, and some mint. That gets brewed, and then when we pour it, it gets served with fresh lime juice and some soda.”

Fans of the seared-tuna taco might want to watch the drink menu at Ta­cofino’s new down­town lo­ca­tion (1050 West Pen­der Street). “We’ve put in one of those fizzy-wa­ter taps, and they’re work­ing on some pretty tasty, fizzy, non­al­co­holic drinks,” Suss­man teases. “I wish I had more info for you, but I’m not the guy work­ing on that!”

Both Vij’s Gin­ger-lemon Drink and Ta­cofino’s gin­ger beer are sparkling, fes­tive bev­er­ages, but in terms of non­al­co­holic so­phis­ti­ca­tion, it’s hard to top the ar­ti­sanal pours at the Acorn.

“Be­fore I started work­ing in a restau­rant that was so fo­cused on veg­e­tar­ian and ve­gan cook­ing, I hadn’t made the con­nec­tion that a lot of veg­e­tar­i­ans or ve­gans don’t drink al­co­hol,” Liam Bryant, bar man­ager at Mount Pleas­ant’s meat-free stand­out (3995 Main Street), says by phone. “So there’s this dif­fer­ent fo­cus. I mean, we have our cock­tails that we’re very proud of, and they’re com­plex and in­ter­est­ing, but we wanted to trans­late that to the non­al­co­holic drinks as well.”

Bryant’s sig­na­ture Evening Or­chard is a menu fix­ture, but with its aro­matic notes of pear and car­damom it’s es­pe­cially well-suited to right now, with the pear har­vest com­ing in. Pears will prob­a­bly show up in the Acorn’s sea­son­ally themed mains and desserts, but Bryant says the Evening Or­chard wasn’t specif­i­cally cre­ated to com­ple­ment the food; it just tastes good. His other sig­na­ture non­al­co­holic nec­tar, Lit­tle Bit­ter, has a more clearly de­fined pur­pose, how­ever.

“I was try­ing to steer away from the kind of sugar-for­ward, sweet, fruity soda-pop idea,” Bryant ex­plains. “So we used rhubarb root and cran­berry and vanilla and or­ange peel. Rhubarb root is the pri­mary flavour agent in Cam­pari, so that pro­vides some of the bit­ter­ness, but it’s also about clear­ing your palate be­fore start­ing a meal. I’d tried chinotto and other Ital­ian bit­ter so­das be­fore, so I was kind of in­ter­ested in do­ing some­thing like that.”

With other al­co­hol-free options ar­riv­ing on Van­cou­ver drink menus every day, be­ing the des­ig­nated driver has never looked so good.


($18.49, B.C. Liquor Stores) I usu­ally as­so­ciate goose­berry with Sau­vi­gnon Blanc, but it’s cer­tainly front and cen­tre here: all bright and juicy, with a trop­i­cal twang. Min­eral notes keep things fresh, while the flavours and tex­tures of both lime leaf and lemon­grass en­sure a dry fin­ish that ties things to­gether well. The Fitz­patrick fam­ily is cer­tainly fa­mil­iar with Ehrenfelser, as Cedar­creek’s takes on the va­ri­ety have had a strong cult fol­low­ing for many years. It’s great to see them push­ing for­ward with the grape. Though it’s a rare va­ri­ety even in its Ger­man home­land, it has a good pickup here in B.C., where it sits comfy along­side our lo­cal seafood and Asian-in­spired cui­sine.


($18.49, B.C. Liquor Stores) Gewürztraminer is one of Bri­tish Columbia’s most-planted grape va­ri­eties. Al­though it’s ubiq­ui­tous in lo­cal vine­yards, wines made from the grape vary widely when it comes to style. It can be grown in a cool­er­cli­mate part of the province, picked early for a wine that’s crisp with cit­rus char­ac­ter and a re­mark­ably dry fin­ish. On the other hand, it can be grown in warmer ar­eas and left to hang on the vine a lit­tle longer, re­sult­ing in a rich, con­cen­trated, hon­eyed wine, drip­ping with ul­tra­ripe fruit. For me, the style pro­duced by Fitz­patrick Fam­ily Vine­yards errs to­ward the for­mer and it’s a wine I’m more likely to grab when the sun is shining and pals are head­ing over. The litchi and pas­sion fruit are lifted by a tiny hint of spritz in the bot­tle, and hall­mark Okana­gan sage is driz­zled with a lit­tle honey. Nice stuff.


If you’re read­ing this, you’re a wine en­thu­si­ast. This should mean you’re well aware that pink wine isn’t a sea­sonal thing, and we should be en­joy­ing it all year ’round. This in­cludes Thai take­out, Thanks­giv­ing din­ner, and idle Tues­days. Or­ange blos­som, gobs of ripe pink grape­fruit, and more than a hand­ful of peaches come tum­bling out of the bot­tle. It’s so good, in fact, that they’re sold-out at the win­ery, but you can find it on the wine lists at the Fair­mont Pa­cific Rim and YEW Seafood + Bar at the Four Sea­sons Ho­tel, and ru­mour has it that there are a few bot­tles left at the Swirl VQA store in Yale­town.


($18.50, Pinot Blanc does so well in the Okana­gan, and here’s an­other fine ex­am­ple. There’s a rich vis­cos­ity in this ver­sion, with hon­eyed ap­ples, quince, and pears, yet lively acid­ity keeps all of that fruit nice and buoy­ant.


($32.99, B.C. Liquor Stores) In this tra­di­tional­method sparkler, a blend of Pinot Noir and Chardon­nay sits on the lees in the bot­tle for a min­i­mum of 24 months be­fore dis­gorge­ment. Creamy and lush, with apri­cots, nec­tarines, and some lovely marzi­pan notes—it’s easy to see why the Fitz­patricks are hang­ing their hats on this style. When vis­it­ing the win­ery, do try one of their sparkling flights of wine, where you can taste their bub­ble right next to pros­ec­cos, cavas, Cham­pagnes, and the like; it’s a fun way of see­ing what makes our lo­cal fizz unique.

Many Van­cou­ver res­tau­rants of­fer a range of creative non­al­co­holic drink options; pic­tured here are a few from the Acorn.

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