It was the best kind of research. A coast-to-coast panel of cocktail connoisseurs, critics and barflies visited their local saloons, lounges, pubs and watering holes to knock back a few in search of the country's top drinking establishments. The result is a list of places that stand out for the craftiness of their cocktails, the cleverness of their design or the general sense of how awesome it is to hang out there. From classic to cool — and everywhere in between — each one offers a great taste of local culture. So let's say cheers to our favourites, along with the public favourite as voted by you, for raising the bar this year.
Tavern and Lounge at Westminster Hotel (a.k.a. The Pit)
For pioneer pints
Photo: Kari Medig
With their crooked floors, Christmas lights and bordello art, these two bars – in a hotel affectionately nicknamed the Pit – are still the first choice for beer and live music on weekends among characters who don't seem to fit in anywhere else but Dawson. Grab a stool in front of a bartender if you want to meet the locals or snag a table in the front with a beer from Yukon Brewing if you're just taking it all in. It's a boisterous scene – at least by last call – and the perfect spot to meet the homesteading pioneer man or woman of your dreams.
975 3rd Ave., Dawson City, Yukon, 867-993-5339/867-993-5463
For a Scotch and a shave
Photo: Albert Law
With more than 100 bottles of Scotch on offer, there's no reason to order a mixed drink – except that the cocktails are shaken and stirred by experts, even if original head bartender Jay Jones is now lending his skills to the Canucks. Local bands play most nights of the week, daily specials are almost impossible to beat anywhere in the country – on weekdays, $8 gets you a Scotch and a half-pint – and there's always a quiet nook to disappear into with a well-balanced Rob Roy. Bonus: You can get a straight-razor shave, drink in hand, in the adjoining full-service barbershop.
905 Dunsmuir St., Vancouver, 604-899-4456, donnellygroup.ca
For hard-to-find cocktails
Photo: Nikki Jardine
"If you want to come in here, you have to have the confidence to grab that door handle and give it a yank," says Little Jumbo's owner (and award-winning bartender) Shawn Soole. The restaurant-bar is hidden down a narrow hallway off one of Victoria's busiest tourist strips, marked only by a small neon-purple elephant. With a back bar of more than 400 spirits and a hydroponic garden for fresh herbs, this is Soole's ode to all things handcrafted, both libations and food. Have a classic negroni or something more adventurous, like cherry bark-smoked bourbon with a handful of Fernet-Branca-infused bar nuts. To keep you steady, try the duck confit or the bone marrow, served with a side of creamy cabbage or cauliflower gratin.
506 Fort St., Victoria, 778-433-5535, littlejumbo.ca
Pig & Duke
For a better neighbourhood pub
Photo: Michael Trudeau
Don't let the wood-panelled walls, flatscreens and pig memorabilia fool you: This busy Beltline pub, owned by Stephen Lowden, is more than your typical sports bar. Grab a seat at the far end of the counter, where you can keep your eye on the crowd, and order something from the well-thought-out beer list, which specializes in Canadian microbrews like Last Best brewery's IPA and Whistler Brewing Company's Paradise Valley Grapefruit Ale. For something to chew on, chef Evan Robertson offers a welcome change from the ubiquitous pub standard: deep-fried crispy frog legs, the new chicken wings.
1312 12th Ave. S.W., Calgary, 403-245-8487, pigandduke.com
For shelter from the storm
Photo: Curtis Comeau
Historically, bothies were mountainside huts where travellers could seek protection from Scotland's ruthless storms. While Edmonton's winters do drive people indoors, this bar in a nondescript strip mall is more about sheltering patrons from diluted highballs and rail whiskies; there are more than 170 carefully chosen bottles of whisky on offer. Try the Bruichladdich Octomore, "the peatiest whisky in the world," according to Chris Hughes, the affable, Scots-accented lad behind the granite bar, who opened the Bothy with his uncle in 2009 (and added a downtown branch in 2012). True connoisseurs will savour the Bowmore 1964 Oloroso Cask; Hughes has one of only 300 ever bottled. "It's like velvet in the mouth," he says. "A whisky that will stay with you for the entire day." (As well it should for $320 a shot.)
5482 Calgary Tr. N.W., Edmonton, 780-761-1761, thebothy.ca
Rae and Jerry's
For mid-century manhattans
When Rae and Jerry's opened in 1957 near what is now Winnipeg's Polo Park, it was mere blocks away from the city's new hockey arena and football stadium. Since then, the Jets have moved downtown and the Blue Bombers have migrated south, but virtually nothing has changed about this steak house's authentically groovy red-vinyl lounge; only the absence of tobacco smoke betrays the passage of time. The dimly lit space still adheres to a classic cocktail list and a menu that offers a Manitoba hot turkey sandwich preceded by a glass of tomato juice. "It works. I haven't changed the restaurant, period," explains Steve Hrousalas, who bought the joint in 1975. And that makes him the new guy.
1405 Portage Ave., Winnipeg, 204-783-6155, raeandjerrys.com
For Caribbean comfort
Photo: Stuart Sakai
The Black Hoof owner Jen Agg and her Haitian husband, Roland Jean, imported the bright vibe of the Caribbean – pinks and teals and island guitar jams – but ditched the lousy beach cocktails for a selection of more than 100 rums, from the pina colada's mix of Gosling's dark and Bacardi white to Haitian Barbancourt in the Fresco, whose eye-opening tang is thanks to pomegranate molasses and housemade falernum. The place also holds its own as a proper restaurant, so pair your tipple with griot, a cubed pork shoulder marinated in bitter orange and served "street-style" with plantain chips. "It's a late-night snack in Haiti to follow a lot of drinking," says Kal the bartender.
926 Dundas St. W., Toronto, 647-346-9356, rhumcorner.com
The Black sheep Inn
For a little bit countryside, a little bit rock 'n' roll
Photo: David Irvine
With its slightly weather-worn decor and laid-back service, this roadside tavern embraces the misfit stamp implied by its name. People come for the music and the kitchen-party vibe, and the decidedly different pace from the preppy downtown Ottawa watering holes 20 minutes away. "Our best features are geographical: the river, the white pines and rocky outcrops," says owner Paul Symes, who opened the Sheep in 1994 and has since hosted the likes of the Arcade Fire, Jim Bryson, Kathleen Edwards and Socalled. "Music remains the focus, and people seem to appreciate that." Order your drink well before the show starts; then find a good spot to soak up the suds, songs and natural surroundings.
753, ch. Riverside, Wakefield, Québec, 819-459-3228, theblacksheepinn.com
Le Mal Nécessaire
For mid-winter mai tais
Photo: Stacy Lee
"It's meant to be a vacation from your life," says Graham Warner of the "equatorial" cocktail bar he co-owns with David Schmidt and Alex San Gregorio, where tiki-themed drinks are served in what feels like a Mexico City hotel lobby in – where else? – Montreal's Chinatown. Follow the neon-green pineapple to this underground 60-seater, and try the eponymous drink (bourbon, Fernet-Branca, Bowmore, pineapple, cinnamon and herbs) or the popular Abacaxi Mai Tai, a four-ounce killer served in a hollowed pineapple. "We use the full buffalo," says Warner, an Alberta transplant, of the hand-carved fruits that act as serving vessels, garnishes and bases for the homemade syrups and juices that are pressed daily. Cozy up in the conversation-friendly communal wooden booths or admire the bar, made of 3,700 pieces of walnut cut to a thousandth of an inch.
1106B, boul. Saint-Laurent, Montréal, 514-439-9199, lemalnecessaire.com
For après-ski sanctuary
Photo: André-Olivier Lyra
In French, rentrer au bercail means coming home. So it's no wonder that the bar at Hôtel La Ferme's restaurant is so welcoming, with plush couches and armchairs surrounding a glass-encased fireplace under lights that look like ice cubes held in giant tongs. After a day skiing the steep St. Lawrence-facing slopes of Le Massif, sit down at one of the birch tables for an onion soup garnished with Migneron de Charlevoix, a delicious local cheese, and wash it down with a locally made Dominus Vobiscum Blanche. The signature Verger Sour, a potent mix of Belle de Brillet, ice cider from nearby L'Isle-aux-Coudres, lemon, ginger ale and cinnamon will really bring you in from the cold.
50, rue de la Ferme, Baie-Saint-Paul, Québec, 418-240-4123, lemassif.com
The Port Pub
For good tidings
Photo: Stuart McLeod
Ask anyone where to grab a pint in Nova Scotia's picturesque Annapolis Valley, and the Port Pub will surely top the list. Built by locals on a reclaimed factory lot, this is the best perch for watching the river tide rise and fall. Try the lobster poutine – Atlantic lobster, cheese curds, lobster cream sauce and fresh chives over house-cut fries – paired with a Planter's Pale Ale from the in-house brewery, Sea Level. The Port Pub's best feature is the large deck overlooking the tidal Cornwallis River, perfect for contemplating a flight of beer. "Look at it as a three-beer tide," co-owner Bruce McLeod explains. "If you sip them slowly, you'll experience first-hand the rise or fall of the river, a unique experience for any visitor."
980 Terrys Creek Rd., Port Williams, Nova Scotia, 902-542-5555, theportpub.com
For some maritime swagger
Photo: Chris Crawford for Breakhouse inc.
Founded by three young owners, some of whom have done stints at such beer destinations as London's White Horse and Toronto's barVolo, Stillwell is a rollicking space where all attention is focused on the wall of hot-rolled steel that works like a chalkboard. About half the lines pour Nova Scotian brews: Boxing Rock (Alewife's Revenge cranberry wheat), Big Spruce (organic Cereal Killer oatmeal stout) and Propeller (Session IPA). The rest hit such Canadian cult favourites as Bellwoods out of Toronto and Trou du Diable from Shawinigan, Quebec. "We typically change between four and eight lines a night, depending on what people drink us out of," says co-owner Laura MacDonald, wiping away one poster-paint label and putting up another. As one of the arcade games in Stillwell's basement might implore, "Finish them."
1672 Barrington St., Halifax, 902-421-1672, barstillwell.com
Tide & Boar
For a lesson in Chiac
Photo: Chad Steeves
It's how you order that sets this Moncton gem apart: "J'peux ti awère un Lanteigne Shanty, but watch la glace." The language is New Brunswick's third (un)official language, Chiac, an Acadian French mixed with English and even a smattering of aboriginal languages, and the Tide & Boar is the ultimate place to learn a few phrases. The cocktail list has a distinct local flavour, like the Magnetic Hill Sour with local raspberry dessert wine and the Dark & Stormy with home-brewed ginger beer. "We're upgrading classics, so you're trying something new without even realizing it," says owner Chad Steeves. That extends to the menu too (braised-boar poutine – drool). Pair an Absinthe Fizz – with Acadian-distilled Courailleuse – with the smoked salmon, haddock pâté, steamed mussels and dulse chutney of the seafood charcuterie selection, and you'll be saying, "C'était la best band ever" by night's end.
700 Main St., Moncton, 506-857-9118, tideandboar.com
The Lounge at the Fogo Island Inn
For drinks at the end of the earth
Photo: John Cullen
Considering that getting to Fogo Island Inn usually involves a flight, drive and ferry ride, you won't find the typical hotel bar crowd here. Looking out at the rocky shore from a locally upholstered lounger, you'll strike up conversations with other determined folks who've come to experience the remoteness. The bar relies on a roster of classic spirits – London dry gin, Campari, Grand Marnier – and Jacob Luksic and Bryan De Fenyi-Pollet borrow some hyper-local tricks from chef Murray McDonald's kitchen. The Rockin' Fogo sees Iceberg vodka and freshly foraged spruce buds cooked sous-vide at 50°C, and then combined with lemon, peppermint syrup and soda. The cocktail is both restorative and miles from anything you've ever tasted. Literally.
210 Main Road, Joe Batt's Arm, Newfoundland and Labrador, 709-658-3444, fogoislandinn.ca
For a winning night out
Photo: Tim Ayres
Earlier this year, Air Canada's enRoute, in partnership with Rickard's, set out to find Canada's favourite bar. Now that the heavy lifting of pint glasses and highballs is done, it's time to crown a winner. From a list of more than 100 bars across the country, you weighed in online with your votes – and your hearts. The crowd pleaser: O'Reilly's Irish Newfoundland Pub in St. John's. Brenda O'Reilly, who owns the place with her husband, Craig Flynn, knows why. "A good time's contagious, right?" she says of her pub, inspired by the lively Newfoundland kitchen parties of her childhood. Located on George Street, which is crowded with bars – "We call it the biggest little street in Canada" – O'Reilly's stands out as a place to see live music. "This area code has the most artists in the country per capita – not just musicians but painters and sculptors and writers. So we're lucky enough to be in a place where we have the best on stage every night," says O'Reilly. That includes Newfoundland royalty like Great Big Sea, Fergus O'Byrne and Ryan's Fancy; even actor Russell Crowe belted out some traditional Irish folk tunes here once. To add to that, there's the near-bottomless casks of Yellow Belly beer, brewed just down the street, and a menu of fresh cod, moose and a full-on Jiggs' dinner. "I always say that I hope people put their feet to the floor in life," says O'Reilly, "because if you go out and dance somewhere, it means you're having a good time. That's a known fact."
13 George St., St. John's, 709-722-3735, oreillyspub.com