The Bard & Banker: A Tale about a Pub, a Poet, and Damn Good Ale

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There it was.

Early afternoon in downtown Victoria, and the sight that made my eyes go all sparkly  – a Scottish pub (Bard & Banker), an English pub (Garrick’s Head), and an Irish pub (Irish Times), all in a row. Or as I like to say, just staggering distance from each other!

 

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And as a bonus, right smack in the middle of the English and Irish pubs is Bastion Square, where locals watched public hangings back in the day, then hit the nearby watering holes afterwards for some conversation. I love a town with a rich history!

How do you gentrify a site of gruesome, tragic history, plus make it trendy again? Tourism!

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In addition to being a lover of classic cocktails and hard spirits, I am a huge fan of craft beers. Expanding my horizons has been very good for the soul. Having never tried a Scottish ale, I decided today was the day!

 

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Bard & Banker was beautiful inside, shiny yet cozy, with its cream walls, dark wood, and many chandeliers. Awfully fancy for a Scottish pub, I thought, as I headed for the bar (Hint: It used to be a bank).

As I sat down, I beheld yet another wondrous sight: A place of honor for their best Scotch whiskys! Next to it was a shelf for the rest – bourbons, vodkas, less special whiskeys, etc.

 

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I told the bartender I wanted a Scottish ale. He handed me a menu, and there it was – big, bold red letters, burning into my eyes and brain, like Destiny: Stone Fired Scottish Ale. I ordered it immediately, and was told it was a fine choice.

 

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“Barkeep”, says I, “What be this ‘Phillips Robert Service’?”

“Phillips is the brewing company”, he replied, “As for ‘Robert Service’, aye well, there’s a tale!”

The bartender hurried to the other end of the bar, and brought back my ale, a poster, and then the tale.

 

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Robert Service started his career working as a banker in Scotland, like his father. During that time, he devoured books on poetry by Browning, Keats, Tennyson, etc., and started composing some of his own. He later moved to Vancouver BC, and wandered up and down North America, doing odd jobs, falling in love, hitting his family and friends up for money, and having one crazy adventure after another (something about a cowboy outfit, a bordello in Mexico, and so forth). During that time, he published several pieces.

This guy! There oughta be a movie!

While honing his poetic prowess (and being flat broke), the “Bard of the North” got a day job as a Banker, at the Canadian Bank of Commerce in Victoria BC. He rented a room upstairs, in this same building where he worked. And the building later became the bar where I’m sipping this damn fine Scottish red ale named after him – one of the finest craft beers I’ve ever tasted!

 

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This Robert Service Stone Fired Scottish Ale, it was absolutely delicious – rich, flavorful, yet light and fresh!  I highly recommend you order this beer when you’re at the Bard & Banker in Victoria BC. , or anywhere else in the world, if you can get it!

Robert Service’s journey continued to the Yukon, where he had many more adventures that inspired some of his most famous poetry. I’m envisioning a web series of the Bard/Banker’s adventures. Think of the creative liberties the writers could take, on top of an already amazing story!

One of his funniest and most popular poems is the famous “The Ballad of the Ice-Worm Cocktail“. Below is a snippet. Click the link if you want to read the entire poem:

“…”There’s been a run on cocktails, Boss; there ain’t an ice-worm left.
Yet wait . . . By gosh! it seems to me that some of extra size
Were picked and put away to show the scientific guys.”
Then deeply in a drawer he sought, and there he found a jar,
The which with due and proper pride he put upon the bar;
And in it, wreathed in queasy rings, or rolled into a ball,
A score of grey and greasy things were drowned in alcohol.
Their bellies were a bilious blue, their eyes a bulbous red;
Their back were grey, and gross were they, and hideous of head. 

And when with gusto and a fork the barman speared one out,
It must have gone four inches from its tail-tip to its snout.
Cried Deacon White with deep delight: “Say, isn’t that a beaut?”
“I think it is,” sniffed Major Brown, “a most disgustin’ brute.
Its very sight gives me the pip. I’ll bet my bally hat,
You’re only spoofin’ me, old chap. You’ll never swallow that…

Cheers!

 


All photos taken by Alexandria Julaton

 

Small Craft Spirits: Yaletown Distilling Company

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Not that long ago, Yaletown in Vancouver BC was pretty seedy. After telling him I planned to spend a day wandering over there, one of my street-savvy cousins rattled off areas to avoid, due to drug activity, prostitution, etc.

“Just stay away from Main.”
“And stay out of East Hastings.”
“Careful, that place is drug central and a sketchy area.”

I wandered around Yaletown on a warm, sunny Friday afternoon, and saw no disreputable activity anywhere. Turns out, this once sketchy area is now a charmingly gentrified little berg with loads of hip, trendy perks – restaurants and bars (with patios!), cafes, shops, galleries, plus upscale apartments and condos.

 

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Not surprisingly, a handcrafted distillery is part of that mix. Seeing their premium spirits creation machines from the sidewalk through huge glass windows, I just had to wander in and pay my respects to Yaletown Distilling Company.

 

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Camera-shy Craig, the distillery manager, hooked me up with a couple of shots in their tasting room. The refreshing mandarin-infused vodka had good flavor definition. And the honey-infused vodka was luscious, smooth, and not at all syrupy. It was so good, I ordered another shot.

 

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Tariq, the distiller, was checking on equipment before a company field trip was scheduled this evening for a tour of one of the world’s top 10 distillery bars, according to The Spirits Business magazine. Number one rule before the tour begins: Don’t touch anything!

 

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The beauty of small craft spirits distilleries is they can focus on quality, not quantity.
For now.
With rapid growth driven my millenials’ preference for craft liquor made by small local distilleries, the new challenge is maintaining authenticity while mass producing to meet increasing demand.

 

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Unfortunately, Yaletown Distillery only sells their wares within the Canadian borders. But it’s just one more reason to keep coming to this amazing city – to discover and experience cool neighborhoods, with its delights, surprises, and liquid bliss. Cheers, guys!

 

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Stripper Nachos and the Margarita Lesson

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What could possibly make quittin’ time even better? Happy hour!

My girlfriend Renee was meeting me after work. I worked through lunch so that I could leave early and snag us a table at the bar. Downtown bars filled up fast during happy hour with people trying to score cheap eats, house drinks, and someplace to go to wait out the horrible traffic.

Renee was my newest gal pal, so I wanted to pick out a nice bar for our first meetup, one with extensive happy hour offerings. She liked Mexican food, so I figured a nice, upscale Mexican bistro with a death fetish and flaming coffees would make for a great impression. I think she mentioned she was vegetarian, so I ordered non-meat nachos from the happy hour menu as our starter snack. And of course, a good, solid margarita (this place uses fresh lime juice, not sweet and sour mix) to celebrate the end of the day, and the beginning of a new friendship!

 

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I chatted with the bartender a bit, told her I noticed they made margaritas with just tequila silver, a blanco, as opposed to a reposado or anejo. She explained that because the anejo and reposado were smoother and sweeter than the blanco, they would make the margarita too sweet and the tequila too difficult to detect. Plus the anejo and reposado, being aged and smoother, were more expensive than the blanco. Mixing them into margaritas would be wasteful, and should instead be enjoyed neat.

 

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A few minutes into my margarita, I texted Renee to see if she was still coming. When I looked up, there she was with her sparkly hazel eyes and grinning red lips. Even after a full day’s work, she looked wide awake and unstoppable! I offered her the nachos while she was reaching for the cocktail menu. “Oh, I can’t.” Renee said apologetically. “I’m vegan, gluten-free and dairy-free.”

We scoured the menus for animal-free/gluten-free items and came up empty. “That’s okay,” she said. “I’ll just order a side of carrots.” This place was a fail and utterly unacceptable. I was open to suggestions.

 

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Renee was familiar with the dietary restrictions food scene, and suggested a place I’d never heard of that was just a few minutes away. The entrance was in a narrow, seedy alleyway. Fortunately, it wasn’t completely dark yet. But at this time of year, 4:30 pm was sundown.

 

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Looking at it from outside, I thought, “Wow, what a hole. Renee comes HERE?”. Walking in, I noted that the place was small but clean, and did have a respectable bar with a good liquor selection. The prayer candles were an interesting detail, too. There were lots of them, for whatever reason. I decided to trust and roll with it.

 

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It was still happy hour, so we could get deep discounts on food, well drinks and cocktails. Renee ordered vegan nachos and I got tacos. In my experience, happy hour margaritas were mostly fruit-flavored sugar water with almost no tequila, and the one I had there lived up to all my expectations. Still, the food was really tasty.

 

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Halfway through my drink, I needed the restroom, and was told to go through this strange door to get there. The signage confused me. No minors allowed in the restaurant, or no minors permitted to use the restrooms?

 

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As I opened the door, the first things I noticed were darkness, and loud throbbing music. Not the clubby, dance-y kind you’d bounce to while sipping your appletini; more like the slow, grinding raw kind you listened to while sullenly throwing back shots. As my eyes adjusted, I noticed a silent crowd drinking, watching young pretty girls on stage writhing, swaying, and whipping their hair around.

On the dimly lit path to the bathroom, I had stumbled into a labyrinth of sin and nubile flesh that left nothing to the imagination. I watched as men walked up to the stage and shoved their dollar bills into unmentionable places on ladies bending, kneeling, waiting to receive their treat.

Where the hell was I??
Oh. Right. I’m at a Mexican restaurant that shares bathrooms with a strip club, of course.

 

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I took no pictures of all this because the bouncer seated by the door was looking at me like that would be a really bad idea. Seeing the ladies prance and dance with money tucked into their naughty parts really made me think about the dollar bills in my wallet. Oh, the places that paper money may have been. I think I’ll be transacting on a credit card-only basis from now on.

From that day forward, to Renee and me, that restaurant was code name: Stripper Nachos.

Cognac: A Warm Beautiful (Cocktail) Memory

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It was a bright summer morning in Victoria. I was sipping coffee in the balcony, and watching planes skim over the water. A text from my brothers said we were meeting later today, after their afternoon of selfies and shopping.

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Until then, I decided to go exploring on my own. A five-minute walk later, I was at the Inner Harbour, wandering in and out of alleys along Government Street. I briefly checked out some trendy bars and cheery pubs, making mental notes of which ones I’ll visit later.

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After lunch at Trounce Alley, I ended up chatting with a sous chef from Montreal on his smoke break. He gave me his card and suggested, with his heavy French accent, that we have dinner at his place some evening. “I cook for you, we have some wine and…”, he let the sentence trail off with a nodding smile and a crook of his brow. I kept the card.

Just then. my brother Arthur texted me that he was cocktailing at a bar in Chinatown. He invited me to join him if I was nearby, before meeting up and dining with family in a couple of hours. Past the fruit stands and tea house, I found Fan Tan Alley, which looked almost too narrow for two people to walk through, shoulder to shoulder. I took my time exploring the tiny shops and fragrant varieties of burning incense. It was summer, warm and perfect. And I had no intention of rushing anywhere.

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I found the bar just a block and a half away. Arthur wasn’t seated at the counter, where I expected him to be. I saw through a glass partition that he was sitting at a table, staring at an oil painting hanging directly in front of him.

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I wish I knew the name of the artist who did this painting

He was completely absorbed by that gorgeous painting of what appeared to be a sort of costume party, which took up half the wall. He could barely look away, even as he spoke or took pictures of it with his phone. More interesting to me was the cocktail my brother was sipping. He called it the Warm Beautiful.

The cocktail

The Beautiful is a delicious, potent and citrusy cocktail made of cognac and Grand Marnier orange liqeuer. Arthur preferred it topped with a lemon zest. Having worked part-time as a bartender while in medical school, he knew that cognac’s flavor and aroma deepened when warmed. Cognac lovers would often just cradle the snifter in the palm of their hand, warming the cognac with their body’s heat. My brother wanted something a bit more imaginative.

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The cocktail was served in a snifter. He then asked for a “heater”, a small glass half-filled with hot water. Arthur placed the snifter on top of the water-bearing glass. As my brother waited for the cognac cocktail to reach the proper temperature, he rotated the snifter now and again, still gazing in awe at the absurd yet fascinating painting across from us.

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Age of the cognacs

According to the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac (BNIC), there are three official classifications of cognac, depending on how long the cognac had been stored in casks:
VS (very special) – At least two years
VSOP (very superior old pale) – At least four years
XO (extra old) – At least ten years

Other classifications have also been used by producers when the cognac had been stored beyond official age scales, such as Extra and Hors d’age (beyond age), which can be as much as 100 years old.

“Rules” of enjoyment

Cognac connoisseurs have very strong feelings about cognacs being used in cocktails. One forbes.com article mentioned that, whereas it is acceptable to use a young VS or VSOP cognac as part of a cocktail mix, it is considered a tragedy to do so with an exceptional-tasting, wallet-busting XO or older cognac. Those can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars per bottle.

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My brother’s Warm Beautiful cocktail was created using Hennessey VS, but a Courvoisier VSOP could have also been used, instead. On the other hand, Remy Martin’s $3,000-a-bottle Louis XVIII, which is very popular in China (along with all the other premium cognacs), is an example of one that should be showcased as a solo act.

All drinking aside (for the moment), younger cognacs should also be used for flambe, marinades, sauces, chocolates and fruit preserves.

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And if you’re in the mood to immerse yourself in all things cognac, the French town this liquid luxury was named after hosts the annual La Fete du Cognac , where you can party for three days with cognac cocktails, crowds, cuisine and concerts.

Cheers!

The Beautiful cocktail recipe

1 oz Hennessey or Courvoisier VS/VSOP cognac
1 oz Grand Marnier orange liqueur

Add both ingredients into a brandy snifter, mix and serve. Optional: Top off with a lemon zest, the way my brother and I like it.

Enjoy!


All photos of Victoria BC, Canada by Alexandria Julaton
Remy Martin shop photo by Weng lei – Imaginechina/AP
Still shot of Cognac Festival, courtesy of La Fete du Cognac YouTube video