Being consistently recognized as one of the greats is something Sabrine Dhaliwal is used to by now, but that doesn’t make the gold-star mixologist her own biggest fan. Informed that she’s been voted Best Bartender in the Georgia Straight’s annual Golden Plates awards, the veteran Vancouver mixologist’s first reaction is a telling one.
“I’m very honoured and very thankful for that recognition,” Dhaliwal says in an interview with the Straight. “We live in a city where we’re spoiled with bartenders. So to be recognized as one of the—I don’t want to say ‘elite’, because that’s not the right word—but one of the leaders, I guess you could say, is humbling. I don’t think that I’m doing anything different than anyone else. I’m just kind of doing my thing—trying to make cocktails approachable, and trying to make bar experiences approachable and welcome for everybody.”
Raised in Ontario and first arriving in Vancouver around the 2010 Olympics, Dhaliwal quickly began making a name for herself. A chance move behind the bar at the Rosewood Hotel Georgia’s Reflections was followed by stints at West and Uva Wine & Cocktail Bar. For the past year she’s been busy establishing the Chickadee Room in Chinatown as one of the best new drink destinations in the city.
The cocktail program getting all the attention at Chickadee appeals to forward-thinking adventurists without forgetting that some folks are unrepentant traditionalists. Dhaliwal and her team explore new terrain with drinks like Return of the Sumac (sumac-infused blanco tequila, cynar, Amontilado sherry, and lem-merrakech bitters) and Super Amaro Bros (Hennessy, blended vermouth, Averna, apricot liqueur, tamarind, and coffee bitters). But they also offer the familiar with classics such as the Brown Derby, Bourbon Sour, and Caipirinha.
The past year has of course been something of a challenging one, with the COVID-19 pandemic wreaking havoc on the service industry, especially in the late spring and early summer of 2020. Dhaliwal steered the Chickadee Room, which launched in the middle of the insanity, through some turbulent times with clever initiatives like takeaway cocktail kits.
Having fun while not being afraid to experiment is important to Dhaliwal, who at one point in her life studied microbiology with plans to go into dentistry.
“I’ve always been interested in food and flavours,” she recalls. “Even as a little kid my mom would find me in front of the TV in the living room or in the kitchen with a giant mess in front of me. It was the early ’90s so I’d be trying to follow what James Barber was making on TV.
“I guess I could have been a very good baker if I’d wanted to because I have a thing for precision,” Dhaliwal continues. “It’s always been about paying attention to flavours and combinations—does this work with this, and does that work with that?”
That curiosity has kept Dhaliwal passionate about bartending as she’s gone from new kid on the scene to decorated veteran. (Blue-chip accomplishments include taking Best Bartender in the 2017 Vancouver Magazine Restaurant Awards, and top-spot finishes in England’s Global Belvedere Challenge and the first Vancouver Molinari Sambuca Cocktail Competition.)
“I started studying wine, going ‘Do these flavours in this wine pair with this food?’” Dhaliwal remembers. “Then an opportunity came up to step behind the bar, working under [Vancouver legend] David Wolowidnyk, and it was like ‘Oh wow, this is a whole other realm. And I’m way out of my element.’ It was a slow ascent—a slow, continuous process—but I was always learning, always tasting, and always learning new things. At home, you can get stuck on what you know and enjoy. But in a professional setting you’re always pushed to step outside your comfort zone.”
Guests can do just that at the Chickadee Room by checking out items on what’s dubbed the “Secret Menu”, or taking a chance with the Dealer’s Choice, where the customer selects a spirit and style, and then Dhaliwal and her team take over.
“Sometimes it’s a drink that we’ve been thinking about or trying to work out,” Dhaliwal says. “Don’t get me wrong—they are always delicious. It’s just that they may not be list-ready, if that makes any sense. A Dealer’s Choice is often very esoteric and designed to that individual’s palate. But they also usually end up, in one way or another, as a listed cocktail.”
As for how Dhaliwal knows she’s hit gold with a new creation, that’s usually easy to tell from the reaction of the person on the barstool. Just as, if not even more gratifying, is the feedback from her peers. If the last person Dhaliwal is interested in impressing is herself, that’s because she sees herself lucky to be working in a city with no shortage of bartending rock stars.
“There’s not one telltale sign when you’ve made something great, but there are times when I’m like ‘Well, that was spectacular,’ ” she says. “It does happen, where you’re like ‘Holy shit!’ I work with Lily Duong as well, as she’s been bartending for 20 years now. She has incredible experience and an incredible palate as well. When she tastes something and her eyes light, that’s when I go ‘I nailed it.’ She’s one of the most underrated bartenders in the city. And she’s someone that I really look up to.”