The Keefer Bar endures as one of Vancouver’s most innovative cocktail shrines

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      Sometimes it doesn’t take much to make you feel like you’ve found your people.

      Vancouver’s Amber Bruce knew that she’d discovered something special upon her first visit to the Keefer Bar, the self-styled Chinatown apothecary that’s consistently voted one of the best cocktail spots not only in Canada but the world.

      “I just remember that the vibe was immaculate,” says Bruce, who is now the Keefer’s bar manager. “It’s just a timeless space that isn’t really like anywhere else in the city. One of my first shifts here was during a burlesque night. I was bartending on the well closest to the stage and I got a stocking wrapped around my head. That’s when I was like, ‘This place fucking rules.’”

      It’s a sunbaked spring afternoon, and Bruce is at the Keefer with general manager Keenan Hood, who’s been on board ever since the room opened in 2009.

      Like Bruce, Hood knew the Keefer, voted Best Cocktail Bar in this year’s Golden Plates, was special right from the moment it first hit his radar.

      “The pitch to me was that it was going to be a cocktail bar, Chinese medicinal-inspired,” Hood recalls. “And I was sold on it—I wanted to be making cocktails here. Then I saw the pictures of the place and it seemed wild—I’d never seen anything like it.”

      Recalling his earliest days at the Keefer, he says with a laugh, “There were 10 girls—I was the only guy at the time. They were all in Betsey Johnson outfits—they’d been fitted for them, two each. And so I had to figure out what my wardrobe was going to be.”

      Right from the beginning, the Keefer was focussed on becoming one of Vancouver’s most innovative cocktail shrines—famous for pushing boundaries with rosemary syrups, seahorse tinctures, and peppercorn infusions.

      Dark and exotic, with a vibe that finds a sweet spot between upscale Chinese apothecary and old-school back-alley opium den, the Keefer was where you found bartenders experimenting with everything from ginseng, lemongrass, and pandan leaves to magnolia bark and Chinese yun zhi mushrooms.

      That kind of exploration has become part of Vancouver’s cocktail culture today. But when the Keefer first came on line 15 years ago, it seemed revolutionary—daringly forward-thinking in the same way that Death and Co. in New York, the Violet Hour in Chicago, and Clyde Common in Portland are.

      Staying curious and innovative, Hood suggests, has been key to the room’s success.

      No one would complain if the Keefer limited itself to enduring classics like its Rosemary Gimlet (Beefeater, lime, rosemary syrup) or Buffalo Soldier (Buffalo Trace, lemon, ginger, and tamarind). But right from the early days, the bar has rolled out new “prescriptions” every four months. That continues today.

      “The lucky thing is that we’ve got a wicked team of bartenders who are super curious and love what they do,” Bruce says. “Because they come from all walks of life, they have all sorts of interests, and they end up doing a lot of the research online. They’ll bring an idea forward and it’s never, ‘What is that?’ but instead more, ‘How can we make that work here?’ That’s where a lot of the ideas come from. We also theme our menus to make new drinks a whole package, rather than just a bunch of individual, random things.”

      This season’s spring prescriptions include the Chivo (Siete Misterios mezcal, Aalborg akvavit, black raspberry wine, beet shrub, goat milk, beet meringue), and Wood & Whimsy (Beefeater gin, pisco, pinot gris, applewood, lemongrass, galangal cordial, and chilli wonton chip).

      The inspiration for the menu? The Keefer describes it as follows: “Make  Believe. Be it an octopus’s garden, building a pillow fort castle, imaginary friends, or tea parties, our bartenders tapped into their deepest, darkest corners of their imaginations to a time when they played pretend.”

      That playfulness has attracted some of the city’s most admired cocktail-scene rock stars over the years—including certified local legends Dani Tatarin and Gez McAlpine. The Keefer is a place mixologists aspire to; Bruce admits that working at the Keefer was an early career goal. Bruce and Hood note that the last bartender they hired was a couple of years ago, with everyone on the team today not only tight, but operating on a hive-mind level of creativity.

      It’s that teamwork that has helped the Keefer stay at the forefront of a mixology scene that becomes more sophisticated each year,

      "People know so much more about cocktails than they did 15 years ago when the bar opened,” Bruce says.

      That, Hood argues, continues to change the game.

      “It takes longer to come up with new cocktails, and a big reason is that there’s so much going on out there and you want to do something that’s different,” he offers. “Giving people a flavour they haven’t experienced before is a real challenge. We’ve done a few pop-ups around the world, and the amount of effort that goes into a drink before it even hits the bar—it’s like being in a laboratory. Knowing that everyone else also has a laboratory that they’re doing stuff in. It’s pretty wild.”

      One of the spin-offs of that experimentation is the way that, much like restaurants, cocktail landmarks have become destinations for the world’s liquor nerds.

      “Cocktail bars have become a reason to travel, much like food has,” Bruce said. “That’s how the Michelin Guide started—giving people a reason to get out of the house. Going to bars and drinking is now a part of that. We had someone just last night who was sitting at the bar asking, ‘Can you do a two-to-one martini with a barspoon of absinthe?’ And I was like, ‘Okay, this person kind of knows what’s going on.’ He said, ‘I’m here because I always look up the best bar in a city, and then I go on the bartender’s recommendations for the bars after that.’ ”

      Keenan asks Bruce, “Were we his first bar?”

      To that, you already know the answer.