Canada’s best bartender hosts weekly cocktail-forward dinners

Jeff Savage creates six cocktails and chef Hector Laguna creates matching dishes.

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Botanist Cocktail Tasting Menu


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Where: Fairmont Pacific Rim Hotel, 1038 Canada Place, Vancouver

When: Thursday, Friday, Saturday evenings.

Reservations and info: 604-695-5500,

Jeff Savage is Canada’s reigning bartender champion, and took second place in a 2019 world competition. So when he hosts private cocktail-driven tasting menu dinners at Botanist restaurant, it’s a hot ticket.

To be a bartending champ, you’ve got to havestorytelling skills. Makes sense, right? A bartender’s gotta communicate. So at these cocktail-forward dinners held every Thursday, Friday and Saturday, Savage tells the origin stories of each cocktail. And the norm of the drinks matching the food is turned on its head. Here, chef Hector Laguna scrambles to match a dish to Savage’s cocktails.


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At these dinners ($230 per person, including tax), Savage is da boss. He presides over a max of four guests, twice per evening, in the VIP room adjacent to the cocktail bar and lab. Yes, ahem, lab — i.e., his own little space where he’s not at the mercy of the restaurant kitchen. He’s got some cool toys and ingredients like the centrifuge machine, rotary evaporator, liquid nitrogen, and dry ice. With the rotary evaporator, he can extract the most delicate of flavours, such as lilac.

He creates six cocktails for the these dinners, inspired by, well, whatever. The fall menu should be kicking in just around now. Chef Lagunais totally into it.

“It forces me to think outside the box, be adventurous, more creative, go for bold flavours and play with ingredients in different ways.”


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And he has gained a lot more respect for what bartenders do.

“They put so much thought into their work, and they go unnoticed. But they’re there for a reason and make a big difference.”

I asked Savage to explain the difference between a bartender and mixologist.

“About 10 minutes per drink?” he opines.

And the difference between a sommelier and bartender?

“Wines are about someone else’s story. It’s about the producer, the grapes, the winemaker. What I love about cocktails is, it’s more inclusive. They’re not just my story, they’re yours as well. I make them for you to transport and send you somewhere. It’s trickier to pair cocktails and food, but once you’ve opened that door, there’s a lot you can do.”

Pan-roasted strip loin. Photo by Florence Leung.
Pan-roasted strip loin. Photo by Florence Leung. jpg

At these dinners, you can have both — the romance and passion of cocktails as well as nerdy mixologist minutiae of how he makes them. Most guests are “generally people who enjoy a good drink,” says Savage. 


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I experienced the summer menu a few weeks ago and God knows what would have happened had I drained all six cocktails. Although they were all delicious, I applied brakes.

“Most are pretty low in alcohol, maybe an ounce or more, and definitely lower proof,” Savage says.

First course: a celebration of summer gardens. “It’s like walking through a garden and meant to feel like champagne, but with English peas as a base.”

The ingredients: clarified English pea, fino sherry, serrano chili-infused vodka, green chartreuse, house acid blend, force carbonation. Chef Laguna matched the drink with Northern Divine caviar and an English pea “tartare” with dashi, cured egg and creme fraiche.

The second evokes Vancouver after a rain.


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“It’s based around petrichor, the smell of earth and greenery after it rains and fresh aromas blending together,” he explains.

He concocted the experience in a glass with Spanish and French vermouth, yerba mate, infused pisco, sage, mint hydrosol, salt and candied sage leaves. Laguna followed up with a summer shoots salad with tomato water, sorrel, young fennel and honey.

Third course cocktail at Cocktail Tasting Menu. Photo by Florence Yeung.
Third course cocktail at Cocktail Tasting Menu. Photo by Florence Yeung. jpg

The third cocktail was the feeling of hope.

“I wanted to capture spring, something of change and hope. We work with the Downtown Eastside Urban Farm which feeds people with food insecurities, teaches them how to grow and provide a revenue stream. It’s a time of hope,” he says.

He created that spring optimism with wild chamomile infused highland blanco tequila, elderflower, sencha tea, cherry blossom, and house acid blend. He called it “capturing sunlight.” Laguna matched it with pan-seared diver scallops, shishito peppers, olive oil confit artichoke, ratatouille and shiitake mushroom dish.


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The fourth cocktail captured an important moment for the Alberta native when he decided Vancouver would be home.

“I lived in many cities and it was a pivotal moment where I felt at home. I was at Tower Beach one evening by a bonfire and it was a moment of clarity.”

So, he mixed Tobala mezcal, highland anejo tequila, charred honey, house molé bitters and charred black cardamom. Laguna came back with charred kampachi, corn, scallop liver, saffron and kohlrabi.

Cocktail five is a wink at the cliché West Coast hiker. 

“I get the joke that Vancouverites are always hiking and there’s a lot of majesty in the temporal forests,” he says.

The drink takes a walk in the forest, too, with foraged candy cap mushrooms, oak moss, candied reindeer lichen, blended scotch, fino sherry, oak moss, salted and smoked maple syrup, lemon, egg white foam and soda. Savage passed candy cap mushrooms around the table for us to identify the smell. Someone smelled cat urine. Maybe … but he was going for a maple syrup aroma as the mushroom has some similar chemical components.


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Laguna’s match was pan-roasted bison strip loin with maple syrup poached porcini, caul fat, preserved cherry and maple jus.

And as a finale, the sixth cocktail was a trip.

“We haven’t travelled in a long time. It’s something to look forward to and it’s also memories of trips we’ve taken.”

It was a sun vacay with pineapple husk-infused Jamaican rum, coconut-infused vodka, dry curaçao, ginger lime, sencha tea, oleo, and clarified milk. The dessert complement was a coconut meringue with passionfruit cream, pineapple, mango and calamansi sorbet.

Savage says people are beginning to have cocktails with meals.

“To be honest, it’s where we’re at already. We specifically create our cocktail menu to go with certain dishes and train our staff. If you order a duck dish, we have a cocktail to match.”


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I, for one, like the idea. I asked him what cocktail can take me through a light appetizer and a fish dish.

“First and foremost, that would be a cool conversation to have with the bartender at a restaurant, but at home, a lighter meal might go with a Paloma. I named my dog after that drink. It’s got grapefruit, tequila, lime, and is light and bright.”

Thank you. I am on it.


Courtenay’s Wayward Distillery is the first in Canada to craft distilled spirits on a base of sustainable honey.

They had me at my first taste of Krupnik Spiced Honey Liqueur, but their Drunken Hive Rum, Unruly Gin, Elixir, Bourbon Barrel Aged Gin, Juneberry Amara, Raspberry Gin Liqueur and Rose Petal Bees Knees Gin Liqueur all include the use of honey.


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Raspberry Cocktail from Wayward Distillery. Photo by Elli Hart Creative.
Raspberry Cocktail from Wayward Distillery. Photo by Elli Hart Creative. jpg

The owners know even raspberries and rose petals wouldn’t exist without honey bees and other pollinators. That’s why Wayward donates one per cent of all spirit sales to Pollinator Partnership Canada, an organization which promotes and helps protect bees and pollinators. Some 75 to 95 per cent of flowering plants can’t reproduce without pollinators like bees. Some patient statistician figured out that one out of every three bites of food you eat depends on pollinators. They also help support clean air, stable soils, wildlife and moderate the weather.

Unfortunately, many pollinator populations are in decline due to feeding and habitat loss. Pollution, misuse of chemicals, disease and climate change contribute to the loss. Wayward operates four demonstration honeybee hives to raise awareness. 

“They carry pollen on their bodies in a vital dance to the reproductive system of flowering plants, providing us with food and more,” they say. “No bees. No food.”

They hope to raise $20,000 by year’s end.



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