Candy Cap Magic
One evening I went for drinks at the Fairmont Pacific Rim in Vancouver with a few friends. The restaurant in the hotel, Botanist, had opened a few months earlier. The dining room was full so we sat in the Champagne Lounge, the waiting area. Everything in the lounge—chairs, cushions and curtains draped over the walls—was a light pink colour.
One of my friends used to work at Botanist and insisted we try two cocktails called What the Flower and Candy Cap Magic. She said “the quality of product was excellent.” “Product” meaning food and drinks. She told us restaurants in hotels offer complimentary food and drink as a way to make up for any slip-ups, or when a guest knows the staff. The hotels make money so it’s not a problem for the restaurants to do so; a few friends had told me that restaurants in hotels tend to break even.
My friend who has worked at both fine-dining establishments in hotels and in stand-alone restaurants said the staff at the latter want to meet the needs of the guests before there are any slip-ups that result in complimentary food and drink. “There isn’t a drive to meet and exceed the expectations of the guests,” she said about her job at the hotel restaurant. My friend said she left the hotel restaurant to go back to working in a stand-alone restaurant. An outsider like myself wouldn’t and didn’t notice a lack of drive at either kind of restaurant; they both provide excellent service and “product.”
The friend sitting next to me told us one of his VIP guests once wanted chopsticks to use for his meal and there were no chopsticks available or around at the restaurant, so my friend had to arrange for chopsticks to be brought over from another restaurant nearby.
Our waiter, dressed head to toe in black, walked over with our cocktails, two glasses of What the Flower and a third, gin-based cocktail in a sizable glass, and placed them on cloth coasters. Shortly afterwards, he came back with a glass lantern about a foot tall. He cupped the bottom with one hand and held the handle at the top with the other. As he lowered the drink onto the table, fog from dry ice seeped out from the bottom of the glass lantern.
The lantern took up most of our tiny table. Inside, the Candy Cap Magic cocktail sat on a bed of dirt and moss that didn’t look real. The waiter reached for the latch and opened the lantern, and more fog oozed out. The
waiter said something about the mushrooms in the cocktail being hard to find and something about infused rye.
My friend lifted the glass, sniffed and sipped the drink, then passed it to the next person. Across from me my friends sniffed and sipped. They exchanged words and glances and passed the drink to me. I mimicked the drinking protocol they had established: sniff, sip, pass.
When we had all had a sip, the waiter was still talking about the drink. I didn’t have the slightest clue what he’d said. A glance around the table showed none of my friends were listening either. I looked at him and nodded my head to show I heard him talking. He carried on telling us about the dirt, moss and fog being part of re-creating the environment where the mushrooms could be found. After a couple minutes he completed his explanation of the drink, nodded his head slightly, said “Enjoy,” and left.
“The flavour lingers for a while,” said a friend.
“You can really taste the maple,” said another friend.
“The product is excellent,” said the friend who used to work there, and told us this was one of three “experiential cocktails” from the menu.
Where was the mushroom?
I went to the bathroom as we got ready to leave. When I returned, the friend who used to work at Botanist, and who knew the head chef, told me she’d paid for our bill and we were getting complimentary food. So we sat back down and ordered another round of drinks.
When the food arrived, one of the waiters said he would bring over cutlery. A few minutes later, a waitress walked by and asked if we needed cutlery, and we said someone told us they were bringing it over. After a few more minutes, we decided to eat with our hands.
The waiter who had promised us cutlery came over to check in on us. My friend teased him about the cutlery, or rather the lack of cutlery. We finished our drinks and requested the bill. The waiter told us not to worry, we didn’t get cutlery so the last round was on them.
A week went by and I still had “experiential cocktail” on my mind: was this an industry term? Was there a whole genre of “experiential cocktails?” What made an “experiential cocktail” an “experiential cocktail”?
An “experiential cocktail” is one that is based on experience—from creation to consumption, the presentation, the story—it all contributes to the drinker’s experience of the cocktail. There is no checklist for what an “experiential cocktail” is, other than: does it provide an experience?
I asked a few friends who work at restaurants whether they had heard this term before, and they said they hadn’t. One who worked in a fine-dining restaurant told me they had similar extravagant cocktails that take twenty minutes to make, but she had not heard of “experiential cocktails.” She told me the staff had to describe their menu to guests as a “journey” and say things like “Our menu takes you on a journey through the Canadian Rockies. It tells a story of Western Canada,” and so on.
I found out more online about Candy Cap Magic: on the menu it fell in a category called “From the Cocktail Lab” and cost $28. A photo on the website showed the cocktail in the glass lantern with a branch, moss and a cluster of white mushrooms.
About a week later, I was once again having drinks with one of the friends who had shared the “experiential cocktail.” I mentioned that it was odd the waiter went on and on about the mushrooms in Candy Cap Magic but that I hadn’t been able to taste any mushrooms. He gave me a confused look, “Candy cap is the mushroom,” he said. “It’s supposed to taste like maple.” Jocelyn Kuang is the operations manager at Geist. She lives in Vancouver.