Expanding Ottawa cocktail culture takes local restaurants by storm

Whether celebrating happy hour, going on a date or indulging in a liquid lunch, Ottawa’s cocktail scene has plenty on tap.


Gone are the days when the drink with the most alcohol and sugar was the tipple of the week (we’re looking at you, Long Island Iced Tea). Now cocktails are appreciated not only for their intoxicating abilities, but also for their flavour profiles.
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“Bartenders everywhere have moved towards more traditional, organic cocktail making,” said Emily Ienzi, owner of the farm-to-table gastropub Two Six 1/2Ate 3/4 in Little Italy. “People are making their own bitters, infusing spirits, making syrups and cordials and using fresh, local ingredients.”

With twists on traditional beverages and unique creations, Two Six 1/2Ate 3/4’s list is expansive, and gives a nod to the surrounding Italian community with Campari, Aperol and Prosecco.

The Gin ‘n Juice cocktail – gin, grapefruit juice, soda, house grapefruit bitters, peach bitters, lemon juice, allspice, maple syrup and, most notably, a splash of Cynar – was invented to feature the herb-and-citrus Italian artichoke liqueur.

“I had wanted to (pair Cynar and grapefruit) for a long time,” Ms. Ienzi said. “I’ve always thought those flavours could work well together if they were balanced the right way. I think the drink is fun and refreshing and a good example of the types of things we like to make.”

Among all the factors that make a great cocktail, “balance” is one word common among bartenders and mixologists, even those new to the scene like Ace Mercado.

Opened in August, the restaurant prides specializes in tequila-based drinks. It’s not all margaritas and tequila sunrises though. Ace is highly creative; any patron need only order the Aldasoro to see that.

A mix of tequila and liqueurs, the cocktail is a beautiful shade of purple, but it doesn’t stop there. For wow, Ace uses green Chartreuse that is lit and then cooled using liquid nitrogen.

“(We want to) leave each guest with a strikingly unique and memorable experience through each of our different cocktails,” said Scott Porter, managing partner of Ace Mercado.

On Elgin Street, the Guest Room, on the top floor of Fresco Bistro, has a speakeasy vibe and is constantly mixing up something new and different.

The bar creates its own flavours of alcohol, from tulip and rosemary-infused gin to tobacco-infused tequila. Staffers make their own syrups, like salted caramel, vanilla and even Guinness. Many drinks are smoked.

The mixologists need a certain amount of swagger to serve the Rat Pack, a $40 cocktail featuring Jack Daniel’s Frank Sinatra Select whiskey and buttered Johnnie Walker Black Label whisky.

At the Albion Rooms in the downtown Novotel, bar manager Stefan Wenek refers to himself as head “drankologist” and a student of “cocktailology.”

“If you really want to stand out, you need to reach into your inner artist and create,” said Mr. Wenek. “You have a subject, composition, medium, balance and it all comes together; but it’s reworked relentlessly to get it just right.”

One of the restaurant’s most popular drinks is a vamped-up caesar called the Marcus Brutus (“so good, it killed the Caesar,” Mr. Wenek said) featuring dried prosciutto, dill-infused vodka, red wine, housemade spicy bean syrup and more, topped with charcuterie.

The other is Feuilles D’Automne, or Leaves of Autumn. The drink includes bourbon, limoncello, fresh grapefruit juice, egg white and sugar.

“It is shaken to create a rich foam, then drizzled with a red wine which makes the drink appear to be changing colours like fall foliage,” Mr. Wenek said. It’s garnished with a large curl of grapefruit rind, resembling a fallen leaf.

“We want our drinks to evoke feelings even before you taste them so visually they need to be stunning,” Mr. Wenek said. “When you take a sip, you can taste the layers and flavours roll over your palate and the aroma of the grapefruit garnish makes you appreciate the fact it took five minutes to craft this cocktail specifically for you.”

Steve Benson of Ottawa Cocktails, which puts on events, is impressed by the city’s cocktail scene.

“There is no shortage of amazingly creative and skilled bartenders who are really pushing the envelope when it comes to flavour combinations, the use of interesting ingredients and exciting presentations,” he said.

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