London calling
by Kate Zimmerman for Vancouver Sun: In Good Spirits column

Nick Devine, the bar manager at George, recalls sheepishly the last time he tried to get showy making a cocktail.

It was about eight years ago at one of those bartending competitions where flair, rather than flavour, is of the essence. While showing off his juggling skills, Devine wound up accidentally poking himself in the face with a bottle and got a nice big scab for his pains.

“Since that day, I’ve never let a bottle leave my hand,” he says, laughing.

But that’s not to say he’s a mixology sissy. Devine leaves Friday for New Zealand for the 42 Below Cocktail World Cup, where he’ll form “Team Canada” with Chambar’s senior bartender, Josh Pape, and the Four Seasons Whistler’s bar supervisor, Darryl MacDonald.

The trio submitted a drink recipe based on George’s Mumbai Sling ‑- a concoction made of hand-ground coriander, house-made ginger syrup, mango puree, Tanqueray gin and soda -- and won the chance to be the only Canadian participants among 42 contenders in the World Cup. With a free trip to New Zealand to look forward to, Devine doesn’t even look faintly worried that the event features bungee, heli-ski and jetboat mixing as well as unidentified Survivor-style challenges.

That yahoo approach is foreign to George’s sophisticated vibe. The sleek drinking establishment, downstairs from Brix at 1137 Hamilton in Yaletown, calls itself a “London-style Ultra Lounge” and features a hand-blown glass chandelier the colour of zucchini blossoms hovering above its underlit onyx bar.

“Ultra Lounge” means that neither the drinks nor the food, which is from Brix’ kitchen, are an afterthought. “London- style,” says Devine, an Englishman who used to bartend in that city’s Soho district, means that George’s bartenders take great care with their cocktails and use lots of fresh ingredients, like fruits and herbs.

 “We’re getting excited about drink the way restaurateurs for years have been excited by food.”

In Devine’s view, part of the key to the re-emergence of cocktail cool is that serious bartenders have started paying attention to the mix. Booze’s significant others are finally getting their share of the limelight. 

Thus, Devine’s daiquiri is a marathon away from the ones that emerge from more pedestrian bars’ slushie machines. He uses Matsulem 10-year-old rum as well as falernum, a West Indian aromatic syrup that he makes by marinating white rum with lime zest, almond extract and cloves for 48 hours, then mixing it with a simple syrup. That particular ambrosia smells, unexpectedly, like a freshly-flamed plum pudding.

Such novelty notwithstanding, Devine is a big fan of classic cocktails like the whiskey sour. “I bet we’re the only people (in Vancouver) that use egg white, maraschino syrup and so on, and use good-quality liquor, as well…. We’re putting some love into it.”

Why George?

“George” started off as simply the working title of Brix owner David Hannay and Patrick Mercer’s downstairs bar. According to Devine, the name grew on them as readily as moss on a Lower Mainland lawn. In addition, it has all kinds of English connotations -- Saint George is the patron saint of England and there are many famous Georges in English history. Images of some of them may soon start flashing by on the screen in George’s lounge.

“‘George’ is about as English as you can get, as names go,” says Devine, diplomatically adding that Captain George Vancouver played an important part in the development of this city, too.

Recipe: George’s Honey Mule

Based on the recipe for a Moscow Mule, this drink probably tastes like a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigmatic packet of ginger snaps, to paraphrase Winston Churchill. It was 11 in the morning when I spoke to Devine, so I didn’t try one. Churchill, who enjoyed a stiff drink at breakfast, likely would have.

Pour a teaspoon of runny honey into the bottom of a cocktail glass and pour in one or two shots of vodka, to taste. Mix together slowly and thoroughly, until the honey has dissolved. Then, and only then, add ice, a squeeze of fresh lime juice, a dash of Angostura bitters and top the lot with ginger beer.

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