Drunk History: Canadian Cocktails Edition

Canada has its own batch of homegrown cocktails. Get the Shaft, taste the Sourtoe—but beware the Pooh.

By Charlene Rooke   |   April 12, 2021

  Klondike Visitors Association
You, too, can donate a frozen toe you don’t need anymore to keep the Sourtoe custom alive in the Yukon.

Whether you’re visiting Canadian bars or doing an armchair tour from home, try these place-name drinks that recall famous (and not famous) spots on the Canadian map.

Despite this town’s genteel reputation, partiers kick off the night there by getting the Shaft: a short pour of vodka, Baileys and/or Kahlua, and cold coffee over ice, often downed rapidly through a straw. Local brewery-distillery Moon Under Water even makes a bottled version. You might hear rumours that Banff or Whistler invented it; give those the shaft.

In the lounge at the ivy-covered Sylvia Hotel it still looks like 1954, when the city’s eponymous cocktail was popularized there. It’s made of gin, vermouth (local cocktail wonks debate whether to use sweet red or dry white—choose white), Benedictine liqueur and orange bitters. The Vancouver was probably invented earlier at the Vancouver Club’s bar, but that’s a private club, and you’ll have to find a rich friend to get you in.

Dawson City
Yukoners don’t let friends drink Yukon Jack (a sweet whisky liqueur, paradoxically made in Quebec). Unless a human toe is soaking in it, that is. Legend has it a gnarly northerner’s frostbitten toe was axed off and preserved in alcohol. After it was found in a remote cabin in the 1970s, taking a shot—while letting the toe touch your lips—became a drinking game. The Dawson City Hotel & Restaurant carries on the Sourtoe custom, advertising for and regularly receiving freshly donated toes. Don’t ask.

Skiers need a pick-me-up, and they need to get warm, fast. A high-octane mix of Kahlua, Baileys and Grand Marnier should do it, thought Banff Springs Hotel bartender Peter Fich back in the late 1970s. He named it the B-52, not after the famous bomber aircraft, but after the twee new-wave band of that era that borrowed the bomber’s name. The shooter is still popular in ski towns all over the Rockies and beyond.

In 1969, the Westin Calgary was still called the Calgary Inn, and when it opened a new red-sauce joint, bartender Walter Chell was inspired by Italian cuisine to drizzle some clam juice into a Bloody Mary–style drink. Hail the Bloody Caesar! The vodka-laced drink cemented its place in the cocktail canon a few years later, when juice company Mott’s created a tomato-clam mix called Clamato.

The honey-lovin’ storybook Winnie the Pooh was once a real bear, donated to the London Zoo a century ago by a Canadian, who named the bear after his hometown of Winnipeg. Pooh’s namesake cocktail is basically a New York Sour, made with Canadian whisky and honey, with a float of red wine on top, like Pooh bear’s little red T-shirt. Order a Winnipeg if, in the words of hot-Canadian Ryan Reynolds’s Deadpool, you feel like “shirt-cocking it ... full Winnie the Pooh” style.  

Everybody knows that Toronto really wants to be New York, and this copycat Manhattan is proof. Substitute Canadian whisky for American rye and a dash of the pungent Italian amaro Fernet-Branca for sweet red vermouth to get a taste of the Toronto cocktail. That’s the dark, richly bitter taste of big-city resentment, friends.

Quebec City
In the olden times, when Quebec’s badass coureurs des bois fur traders would kill a caribou, they’d drink its hot blood mixed with booze. That hardcore practice evolved into the Caribou cocktail, a mulled-wine-type concoction of brandy and vodka, sherry and port. Though you can DIY it with red wine, whisky and maple syrup, there’s a wildly popular bottled version at Quebec liquor stores.

St. John’s
Don’t shoot the messenger, but if you’re in a Newfoundland pub like Christian’s you just might be required to kiss a recently deceased (or in a pinch, frozen) cod fish, say the words “Indeed I is, me ol’ cock! And long may yer big jib draw!” and drink a shot of rum. Kissing the cod is a century-old maritime tradition called a Screech-In (there’s even an official Screech rum) and makes you an honorary Newfoundlander.

Bonus: Canadian Actor Editions
Ordering a Raymond Massey (rye, ginger, Champagne) might get you side-eye outside of Toronto, where the old-timey Oscar-nominated actor is from; likewise for the obscure Canadian-whisky variation on a Rusty Nail named for Kiefer’s dad, New Brunswick–born Donald Sutherland.

Charlene Rooke
Charlene is a travel, food and drinks writer who has visited 55 countries. Her favourite place to drink is Tokyo, in any bar with hand-carved ice. No matter what city or country she’s in, she always orders a Manhattan.

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