It’s clear that cocktail culture is more than a passing fad — at a lot of new restaurants, a strong cocktail program is given almost as much attention as the food. Today’s cocktails give talented bartenders a chance to really show their creativity, whether they’re doing premium versions of the classics, incorporating savoury elements to complement the food or getting artistic with flavours and presentation. These are some of my favourite places in Calgary that are making cocktails that are worth some special attention:
Calcutta Cricket Club
This hip Bengali-style curry house has plenty of tables to sit at to enjoy a huge family-style meal, but it’s just as much fun to saddle up to its bar and order some spicy/salty snacks to enjoy with a signature cocktail. Calcutta Cricket Club’s very best drinks offer a surprising balance of sweetness, fruitiness and spice, like the ultra-popular Crushable Gin and Tonic, a mix of gin, mango, chili and lemon.
Half the fun of this cocktail bar in Bridgeland is the full-service barbershop up front concealing the speakeasy-style lounge in the back, but the drinks at Cannibale are also pretty fantastic. Fitting with the theme, the emphasis is on retro cocktails, with pre-prohibition daiquiris, tiki-style rum drinks and a selection of creative originals.
This friendly Italian joint near Stampede Park does a great pre-game/concert pasta, but it’s worth coming back for a nightcap. The restaurant itself is named after an Italian aperitif, so you know they take their cocktails seriously. Cardinale’s cocktail list draws in a lot of bitter liqueurs and savoury ingredients, as seen in drinks like the bright green Sage Advice, which involves gin, Cocchi Americano, sage and (yes) peas.
One of the most unique concepts in town, Container Bar is essentially an alley patio in front of a repurposed shipping container beside its sister businesses Brasserie Kensington and Winebar Kensington. It’s also the best place to go for summer cocktails, especially if you’re a fan of slushies. In addition to a couple of punch bowl-sized cocktails to share, Container Bar offers over a half dozen boozy slushies. Beer drinkers can also add a hit of grapefruit slush to a pint of beer for a Sea-Can Shandy.
Klein/Harris’ Christina Mah is one of Calgary’s most celebrated “cocktail curators” (fancy talk for bartender) and she really lets her talents shine at her independent restaurant and lounge. Mah’s cocktail list has a few sections, but I recommend starting with the “True North” area, which focuses on beautiful creations centred around products from local producers like Eau Claire Distillery, Alberta Premium and Highwood Crossing oats (yes, in a drink).
The lack of a real sign on its exterior makes Milk Tiger a little hard to spot, but with one of the most extensive list of cocktails in the city, it’s certainly worth seeking out. With dozens of choices falling into categories like dark and bold, sweet and spicy and light and fresh, there’s something for everyone here and, miraculously, the barkeeps seems to master any drink order you throw their way.
While Model Milk is best known for its food, the restaurant also does an excellent cocktail, both downstairs in the main dining room and upstairs in the speakeasy-esque Model Citizen bar. The longstanding favourite at MM is the Black Manhattan, a spin on the classic, made unique with a shake of chocolate bitters.
A lounge designed for the serious cocktail enthusiast, Proof is for people who can’t abide by a simple gin and tonic. The rotating cocktail list is separated by spirit and each cheekily named drink is its own miniature work of art. There’s food too, but the menu of bar snacks and small plates are all formulated to go well with the cocktails, not the other way around.
Only open on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, taking as seat in the tiny Ricardo’s Hideaway feels like going on a mini-holiday. The tropical themed-bar’s cocktail menu is firmly entrenched in the world of rum — think Hemingway-style daiquiris, handcrafted mai tais and similar classics. The must-have drink on the menu is the Trinidad Sour, a blend of pisco, orgeat syrup and an unbelievable amount of Angostura bitters.
To fit with the restaurants’ Chinese menus, the bars at both Two Penny and its downstairs Tea House are stocked with ingredients like salted peanuts, lychee, Sichuan pepper, Thai basil and soy. Even when it seems like a flavour combination won’t work, it always does, thanks to the whimsical ways of beverage director Stephen Phipps. The cocktail menus are different upstairs and downstairs (and there’s a third, and thankfully lighter, cocktail list for brunch), so it’s worthwhile wandering around the building to try them both.
It’s a lot to choose from — just keep in mind, many of these cocktails contain two ounces of alcohol or more, so be sure to sip and savour accordingly, and remember to order some food.