Most Vancouver residents know that Gastown takes its name from Gassy Jack, a saloon operator who brought whiskey to the south shore of Burrard Inlet. Fewer people are aware that the name Jack’s mother gave him was John Deighton.
One of the best-looking parties of the summer pays homage to that lesser-known moniker.
In the Skybox Patio high above Hastings Racecourse, Tyson Villeneuve described the derby called the Deighton Cup as the tribute that Gassy Jack deserves.
“He was a legend when it came to whiskey,” Villeneuve told the Georgia Straight. “He was known for his tall tales, he was known for his love of gambling and betting, and he was also known for his love of cocktails. And we thought, ‘What a great way to honour that spirit.’ ”
As cofounder of The Social Concierge, the event agency that brings Vancouver Dîner en Blanc, Villeneuve is part of a loose group of young people throwing a new kind of party that’s helped break this town’s reputation as “no fun city”.
At Hastings Racecourse, which this year celebrates its 125th anniversary, Villeneuve was joined by Dax Droski of Cocktails & Canapes Catering + Events. On a cloudless day, the pair pointed down to the main concourse where some 2,000 people will congregate on July 26 for a day at the races.
Live music, specialty cocktails, cigars, luxury cars, and a menu “fit for the sport of kings” is what Droski said people should expect. But what really makes the Deighton Cup special, he continued, is a group dressed for an evening at the residence of Jay Gatsby.
“The crowd is the décor for the Deighton Cup,” Droski emphasized. “They’re what really make it.”
Villeneuve interjected: “And, obviously, horseracing, first and foremost.”
Plus a little action, for those so inclined. Villeneuve launched into one of his favourite memories from a previous year’s derby, a story about a certain bartender at the Granville Room.
“He came down and he had a few mint juleps,” Villeneuve began. “He’d never been to the track before. He was all dressed up, but he had no idea how to bet on horses.”
Undeterred, the young man put down the minimum of $2 and pencilled in his picks for the day.
“He ended up getting a perfect trifecta and won $1,600,” Villeneuve said with a laugh. “He had no idea what he did but he was so happy. He was shaking his tickets and yelling ‘I won!’ ”
See and be seen
Now in its sixth year, the Deighton Cup has grown with an attention to detail. Finishing touches include mint-julep snow cones, a lawn for pétanque (French bocce), and the Deighton Cup Trophy, a prize shared three ways between the cup-winning jockey, one exceptional bartender, and the best-dressed racing fan in attendance.
Speaking from behind the counter at the Keefer Bar, Dani Tatarin, a judge for the Deighton Cup Mixology Competition, told the Straight that the theme for this year’s contest is the Old Fashioned.
“It’s about presentation as a whole,” she explained. “How they are utilizing their ingredients, how they are utilizing their space behind the bar, their technique, their style, and the end result: what it tastes like and what it looks like. So there are at least five or six different categories that I’m looking for.”
Tatarin, founder of the Canadian Professional Bartenders Association, said that too many cocktail competitions are judged by people who don’t know the business. “That’s not what’s going on here,” she added.
Ensuring nobody is enjoying those cocktails on an empty stomach will be Brett Turner, former executive chef at Blueprint Management and Droski’s partner at Cocktails & Canapes.
Turner revealed that the centrepiece of this year’s menu comes from Wall Street. He recalled a recent trip to New York, where a fashionable couple caught his eye. The pair were dining at what looked like a hot-dog stand but—this being Manhattan’s financial district—were enjoying a snack you don’t find on just any street corner.
“The star of the show this year is going to be a traditional lobster roll,” Turner shared, “all done in a fresh croissant, fresh lobster—it’s going to be a showstopper.”
Food and drink are front and centre at the Deighton Cup, but perhaps the most important task of the evening falls to Crystal Carson. In a telephone interview, the Social Concierge cofounder told the Straight it’s her responsibility to nominate finalists for the day’s coveted Style Stakes award.
If past years are any indication, she’s going to be sizing up men in three-piece suits and women in their finest summer dresses, not to mention bowler hats, fascinators, bow ties, and big ribbons.
“We’re going to be judging details,” Carson said. “Accessories are going to be a very big part of how you can win.”
A philosophy of cocreation
At the Social Concierge office on the edge of the Olympic Village, the group’s third founding partner, Jordan Kallman, described a “philosophy of cocreation”.
“We believe that when we ask attendees to cocreate within this cultural experience and take part in something immersive that it takes the emotional connection with the event to whole new levels,” he explained.
For the Deighton Cup, that means high-class summer wear à la the venerable Epsom Derby. For Dîner en Blanc (Kallman’s favourite night of the year), it’s wearing only white and packing your own tables and chairs. And for Harvest Haus, an autumn event in its inaugural year, Kallman said cocreation means bringing your own beer steins to “create an eclectic mix of Germanic drinking vessels”.
Cocreation adds a significant element of risk, he noted, using Dîner en Blanc as an example.
“The first year  was superscary,” Kallman recalled. “We had no idea what the reception was going to be like. And the people who came for the event, they didn’t really understand what they were coming to take part in until they actually got there.”
“The sun had just set, we were at Jack Poole Plaza that first year, and I remember looking around and everybody was having the best time,” Kallman continued. “The minute it came together, I knew we had something special in our hands.”
On August 21 this year (and no, we don’t know where), Dîner en Blanc is expanding from 2,600 participants to 3,200. But the event’s waiting list has grown faster—Kallman said it’s now approaching 30,000 names.
It’s largely young entrepreneurs who are bringing parties like Dîner en Blanc and the Deighton Cup to Vancouver. But Kallman gave credit to civic and provincial politicians for creating a climate in which they can operate with a little elbowroom.
In a telephone interview, Vision Vancouver city councillor Heather Deal ran through her favourite events of the summer: the jazz festival, with its new stage at Robson Square; the Celebration of Light, which recently incorporated a live-music element; the Khatsahlano Street Party; Food Cart Fest; more car-free days; and smaller street closures, like Robson Redux on the south side of the art gallery.
According to Deal, the city’s shift toward a friendlier approach to special events has been a conscious one.
“We passed bylaw changes last year which make it much easier to have an event with liquor in any building that’s commercial or industrial in the city,” she noted. “We’ve made it easier to get studio space opened up, later hours for patios, we’ve made it easier to have pop-up parties, and things like that.”
Deal claimed she hasn’t heard the “no fun city” label in two or three years now.
“It’s time to shed that image permanently,” she added. “It’s time to start thinking of ourselves as the vibrant, fun, rock-all-night, dance-outside kind of city that we are.”
Back in the Skybox overlooking Hastings Racecourse, Villeneuve described the cocreation approach as a direct challenge to that old no-fun label.
“We said we were going to prove what other people were saying is wrong and show them that young people can make an effort and want to do unique cultural things,” he said. “This is something that’s a bit more effort than the norm, but that is so much more rewarding.”