Bar Talk: A Q&A with Botanist's Grant Sceney
Magic mushroom cocktails, next-level martinis, and other essential intel for patio season from one of Canada’s top mixologists.
The sun is shining, the weather is warming up, and we’re all itching to get back outside – ideally with something cool and refreshing to drink in hand. Hitting a patio after work on a sunny day remains one of the great pleasures of summer, but you may find that the drinks menu has changed. Now, in the place of classic three-ingredients cocktails of old, you’re just as likely to discover quaffable creations made from foraged botanicals, exotic teas, and small-batch spirits – especially if you find yourself at Botanist, the award-winning bar at Vancouver’s Fairmont Pacific Rim hotel. To help navigate this brave new world of cocktails we consulted Grant Sceney, Botanist’s Creative Beverage Director, for advice on where to go, what to order, and how to up your game behind the bar at home.
How has the cocktail scene changed in recent years?
There’s been a huge cocktail resurgence in the last 10 or 15 years, and you've got a lot of people that have dedicated hours and hours to relearning the old cocktail recipes and mastering them – essentially elevating the bar up to the standard of the kitchen. I think 10 years ago people didn't mind waiting for an old-fashioned that took 10 minutes to make, but I think now we’re seeing a trend towards ease of access. You can have a drink faster, but it’s still the same quality. The drinking culture is also moving towards less alcohol, with the focus more on balancing the alcohol with other ingredients and flavours.
What are some of your favourite ingredients to work with?
At Botanist we love using ingredients found in our local area in BC. One ingredient we’ve been enjoying for the last few years are candy cap mushrooms. They grow on the west coast of North America and you have to send foragers far out to the mountains to find them because they can’t be cultivated. The cool part about these is when they're dehydrated and rehydrated into alcohol, they release a flavour compound that’s similar to maple syrup and curry spice. So we have these mushrooms foraged for us and then we infuse them into whiskey or gin and it actually tastes like a spiced maple syrup.
That’s definitely a few steps farther than a twist of lemon or a splash of olive juice.
We love playing with things that are around us. Another one is our Botanist’s House Martini, which is garnished with an oyster leaf, which is exactly how it sounds. It looks like a little green leaf, but when you bite into it it has the saltiness, brininess, and texture of an oyster.
Are there any seasonal ingredients for summer you’re excited about?
We use something called an electric daisy that can only be grown in the summer. If you were to bite it and eat it on its own you’d start to salivate and get a tingling, numbing sensation in your mouth. So we do these very low-dose infusions in gin, and in low amounts when you have a couple of sips your mouth will start to salivate. You wouldn't know it's there unless we told you, but it makes the drink taste extra refreshing. We have a local farmer who grows that for us every year.
Is there a trick to creating a cocktail that pairs well with food?
We’ve done cocktail dinners for a few different pop-ups, and I approach it the same way as a sommelier pairing wine with a dish. The general rule of thumb is you always want lower-alcohol cocktails to pair with food. You also need to think about all the components that you get from a glass of wine like acidity, structure, balance, sweetness, and a portion that complements the portion size of the dish. You wouldn't want a pitcher of Margarita if you're having just one oyster, for example.
Outside of Botanist, which bar’s craft do you particularly admire?
The Connaught in London is fantastic. The way they elevate their service, if you order a martini they come to the table with a cart, and they’ll pour the martini from way above their head. Then as the stream of gin is falling they’ll be spritzing lemon oils on the stream through midair. It's very much an experience. The reason they do that is so that oils are mixed evenly throughout the cocktail, and you don't just get the oils on top of your martini. Their attention to detail in the simplest of cocktails is incredible.
If you’re entertaining at home, what's a go-to cocktail to make for guests?
I do easy ones like negronis or margaritas. When people come over to a bartender’s house they sometimes expect something fancy, but I don’t want to be shaking drinks all afternoon.
So what’s the secret to a great margarita?
Always use fresh juice. A lot of people will buy a nice tequila for margaritas and then use store-bought juice, but fresh juice makes a big difference. Another thing is to not have too much dilution with the ice you’re using so you don’t water it down. If you’re going to serve it on the rocks make sure you have some larger ice cubes in the freezer for you to pour it over. You normally want about 25% dilution, so if you’re mixing a pitcher ahead of time you want two ounces of tequila, one ounce of lime, and one ounce of agave of Cointreau, then another ounce of water as well.
Any special gear you’d recommend?
If you really want to get into making cocktails at home and you really enjoy it, you can get a really nice crystal mixing glass for stirring up martinis, old-fashioneds and negronis. Then a cocktail shaker that works for you and a good jigger, so you can get all of your measurements correct.
What about special ingredients beyond basic spirits and mixers?
I like to have an array of bitters on hand. Angostura is the classic, but you can get orange, grapefruit, lemon, all of these different ones. Even for something as simple as a gin and soda, if you do a couple of dashes of grapefruit bitters it will add another layer of complexity without too much fuss. It's a really good way to extend the flavour vocabulary of your home bar.