The Rising Tide of Halifax Cocktails

Noble’s Stargazing with Galileo features bourbon, brown-buttered coffee, Campari and Fernet-Branca.

A question arose my first night in Halifax, Nova Scotia: What’s this city’s deal with Branca Menta?

The first two bars I visited featured cocktails prominently made with the “Italian mint amaro,” as Bar Kismet, my first stop, described an ingredient in their carbonated keg cocktail. At Highwayman, a cocktail bar downtown and my next stop, a Branca Menta Highball was touted on its marquee-like specials board. “It just came into the market last week,” Williston Irvine, the bar manager at Kismet, tells me, adding that it seemed well matched to the emerging local palate. “We like it dry, bitter and salty,” he says.

Like other bartenders I spoke with, Irvine regarded the amaro’s arrival with unusually cheery enthusiasm. It was as if the city had suddenly acquired a new color in its crayon box.

The city of Halifax, population 410,000, is on the eastern rim of North America, facing eastward toward the Old World. Halifax is regarded by some Canadians as sort of a quirky cowlick on the continent’s forelock. Bartenders here, in turn, have felt overlooked and under-appreciated, overshadowed by the happenings in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal, which have had the full-sized crayon box for a long while.

But Halifax is now coming into its own in the beverage world. Bar Kismet and Lot Six Bar & Restaurant were both semifinalists this year in the Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards for Best Restaurant Bar in the Americas. In Diageo’s prestigious World Class Canada cocktail competition, three of the 10 finalists this year hailed from Halifax (Shane Beehan from Lot Six placed second). Bartenders who’ve cut their teeth elsewhere in Canada have been migrating here (or moving back after their rumspringa). “Halifax is small but mighty,” local bartender Anne-Marie Bungay-Larose says.

Canada’s southern neighbors sometimes view the nation as a chilly if polite monolith, the home of moose, Mounties and Molson. But the food and drink culture is actually wildly disparate from east to west. Jenner Cormier, who opened Bar Kismet with his wife, Annie Brace-Lavoie, two years ago, worked for a time in Toronto, which he says often took its cues from New York and Chicago. Vancouver, he says, was more connected to the drink scenes in Seattle and Portland than the rest of Canada, and Montreal cast its gaze farther east. “Their hospitality industry mirrors more of what you’d find in Europe,” he says, “including their style of service, the way they drink, the way they eat, the way they treat you.” And to whom does Halifax look? Cormier pauses for a moment. “I don’t quite know,” he laughs.

Michael Hopper behind the bar at Highwayman.

Halifax was founded as a defensible port for the British navy in 1749. For centuries, it’s been loomed over by The Citadel, a granite and ironstone fortress that sits atop a natural glacial hill. What’s drawing me up the slopes on a sunny day isn’t the firing of the noon cannon or the strange, slope-shouldered marching of the summer reenactors (it’s a popular national historic park). Rather, it’s a visit to a corner storehouse, called the shifting room, located in the North Magazine.

The dungeon-like room of gray stone and spalling brick is about 18 feet by 24 feet, with a low and stoutly arched ceiling. It’s notably cooler inside than out, and notably quiet inside save for the echoey voice of Ezra Edelstein, head distiller at Compass Distillers. Edelstein’s explaining to a group of local journalists and dignitaries how he got some 20 casks in here, with nearly 40 more to come. “We could only drive the barrels to the drawbridge,” Edelstein says, pointing vaguely in the direction of the fortified entrance, “and then we had to roll them in.”

The barrels contain rum, genever, gin and whiskey that he’d produced at his two-year-old distillery a couple of miles away, which has limited room for aging. The project is being carried out jointly with the Citadel Society, with the sale of bottles and tours (some including the tapping of barrels) to benefit the preservation of the Citadel.

The room has the feel of a long-lost rickhouse from a deposed regime, with barrels still scattered haphazardly. (Racks will be built, Edelstein says.) He’s as curious as anyone how the nano-climate of the room will affect the aging of his spirits. “This will be very interesting. Especially for whiskey, which likes temperature swings,” he says. “But that’s part of the experiment—to see how each will age. It’s nice that it’s damp and moist—it keeps the barrels tight.”

It’s a good example of the old conspiring with the new, which you bump into a lot in Halifax. From the parapets outside the door, which date to the 1820s, you can barely glimpse the harbor the fort was designed to protect. That’s because the view these days is mostly of office towers and condos, and cranes building more of each. The city is booming, and downtown is getting taller and denser.

Bar Kismet bartender Williston Irvine.

Which is a good thing for bars. Not long ago, Halifax was the sort of city where people lived in the suburbs and every once in a while drove downtown for a Big Night Out, with a meal undoubtedly involving baked stuffed haddock. A glass of wine or two was the limit, because the revelers had to drive home. Now, downtown is filling up with a range of new residents, who can and do walk or bike to the downtown bars.

I stop by on opening night at Julep Kitchen & Cocktails, a Southern-inflected restaurant and bar. The place is hopping, with enthusiastic locals along the bar swiveling their heads and comparing notes as they check out the new place. A tech worker named Katie sitting next to me lives and works within a few blocks. She says she usually goes out on Wednesdays to bars that feature half-price scotch, but she nods approvingly at the frosty Mint Julep she’s ordered. My Sazerac is made with Angostura bitters rather than Peychaud’s and is delivered with a side of profuse apology that the bar isn’t yet fully stocked.

Halifax’s long waterfront teems in the summer with cone-wielding throngs that perambulate along the broad Waterfront Boardwalk past bike rental shops and seafood restaurants. Yet even here you can find bars with quality cocktails, such as Little Oak Bar, which opened just over three years ago and has a clean, Nordic feel and a sophisticated cocktail list. I enjoy a Smoke and Mirrors, (tequila, orange and lemon oleo-saccharum, Lapsang souchong tea and ginger beer), made by a bartender who knows his way around a barspoon and jigger, as his forearm tattoo of same suggests. Baked stuffed haddock couldn’t be found on the menu for love or money.

Overlooking the harbor next door is The Bicycle Thief, where beautiful weather had earlier lured me into an afternoon of outdoor day drinking. The menu was promising and creative, yet I decided on a Canadian classic, a Bloody Caesar, which is basically a Bloody Mary that went on an ocean holiday and never came home. From my perch I had a fine view of the harbor, and I lapsed into a minor reverie involving tall ships, until a yoga class began to unfurl their mats on the pier across the way, right in plain view of those of us drinking. This dampened the mood, and to recover I went next door after lunch to browse at Bishop’s Cellar, a private bottle shop licensed to keep Halifax happy by selling those potions the provincial liquor monopoly deem too inconsequential to bother with.

Downtown is also home to two of Halifax’s most memorable bars, which happen to be among the largest and the smallest of the city’s cocktail lounges. On the larger end is Lot Six, which opened four years ago. The front room has the feel of a neighborhood pub, with office workers sipping cocktails and slurping oysters on the half shell. But that’s just the foyer to a far-larger space in back, open every day but Sunday, with a ballroom-sized barroom under a glass canopy served by three bartenders.

Customers at Noble.

Working today is bar manager Shane Beehan, who’s been a Lot Six fixture since it opened and has a passion for the history of drink, and of Nova Scotia. He tells me Lot Six was the first in town to figure out how to ramp up service to get drinks out to 200 at a time without sacrificing quality. He makes me an elegant Queen’s Park Swizzle, using a Nova Scotia rum that had been aged on a boat in Lunenburg Harbor, and swizzles it with the vigor of someone trying to start a balky outboard. “Swizzling is the most honest and antique way of making the drink,” he says.

The smaller bar is called Noble, which is a subterranean annex to The Middle Spoon Desserterie & Bar. It was coaxed into existence six years ago by Jenner Cormier, who was then bartending upstairs. The photo shop next door had abandoned its former dark room in the basement, and Cormier worked with the restaurant’s owners to carve out an intimate, upscale bar. When it’s open (Thursday through Saturday), patrons who ask are guided to the door by a hostess from upstairs, not out of any twee speakeasy-ish affectation, but because otherwise they’d get lost navigating the warren of cinder blocks and pipes and would likely end up in a janitor’s closet.

The bar has the dusky, leathery feel of a quirky, private library, with red drapes hiding cinder blocks and dozens of empty presentation boxes that once held enviable liquors arrayed on high shelves, like volumes in a law office. These days the cocktail program is run by Lindsay Jones, who moved here from Toronto nearly four years ago and graduated from tending dive bars to crafting cocktails after arriving east. She’s talented and adept, pouring out some of the best drinks in town from a two-page cocktail list divided simply between “shaken” and “stirred.” I have a Stargazing with Galileo, made with bourbon, Campari, Fernet-Branca and coffee. (“Halifax is an amaro-heavy city,” Jones says.)

Ruffled Feathers at Field Guide.

Jones and Irvine, the Bar Kismet bartender, earlier this year launched Hali.Team as a way to promote the ongoing advances of the Halifax bartending world. It’s chiefly an Instagram feed right now (plans call for expanding into events), which celebrates local bartenders’ victories in competitions and new cocktail menus rolling out around town. “The idea for Hali.Team is a place to look at everything that’s happening in the community,” says Irvine. “It’s about making sure people are seen.”

The rising tide of Halifax cocktails has expanded beyond downtown into the outlying neighborhoods. “Now it’s all these neighborhood places,” says Jeff van Horne, a veteran bartender who’s now co-owner with Matt Boyle of Clever Barkeep, a bar catering business that also organizes Drink Atlantic, an annual citywide cocktail festival. “You create this kind of mini-community, where everyone knows each other.”

Such as in the English garden–inspired neighborhood of Hydrostone, with its 1920s-era townhouses and Tudor styling. The Ostrich Club is a small restaurant with a modest classic cocktail program that eschews shaken drinks to eliminate waste (no rinds, no discarded citrus). It also has a well-selected stock of spirits and stirs up clever variations like the Vernal Vesper, made with local Compass gin, Cocchi Americano, sherry and a touch of rhubarb brine.

Among the better neighborhood nodes for drink is Gottingen Street in the city’s North End, all but in the shadow of the Citadel. Field Guide occupies a curving storefront here, and when it opened close to six years ago, it was inspired by what was happening in Toronto in both drink and the “nose-to-tail” dining ethic. It’s developed a devout fan base for its local, seasonal fare, not to mention the extensive drinks menu. Head bartender Keegan McGregor, another World Class finalist, oversees the six-page cocktail menu, which features a range of drinks including—no surprise—bitter-forward selections like the Fog City Kingston, with Cuban rum, Cynar, sherry, coffee and bitters, as well as aromatic, herbaceous mixes like the Dead Poet, with tequila, mezcal, dry vermouth, Bénédictine and yellow Chartreuse. (McGregor also makes the best tiki drinks in town, such as the not-to-be-overlooked Uh’Hahamadood that’s a celebration of rum, pineapple and passion fruit.)

Swivel around on the bar and just across the street you’ll spot Edna, another place that mixes elegance with rustic and makes an excellent choice for a meal and a drink. It has the feel of a neighborhood haunt rather than a magnet for travelers, and features a compact but well-selected cocktail list that’s largely grounded in the classics (both vintage and contemporary), like a Paper Plane that was perfectly balanced and showed an attention to detail that was reflected throughout the place.

From here, I figure I might as well push a bit farther north on Gottingen and then vector up to Agricola Street, back to Bar Kismet to finish up where I began. The wind this evening is a little bitter, and a little salty, with a dampness that I figure could be cured with a drink featuring a bit of Branca Menta.

Cormier is tending bar, with seats filling up on a Friday evening and guests ordering cocktails featuring pandan leaf and mango shrub, and bottled cocktails with grapefruit and orange bitters. It isn’t a scene you would’ve found anywhere nearby just a decade ago. “I think the thing that Nova Scotians appreciate the most is just being included in the conversation,” Cormier says. “At the end of the day, it’s, ‘Hey, we’re out here and we have a great community and the people are very talented.’ We just want to be included.”


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