A telling trend has emerged at the top of the World’s 50 Best Bars list, which every year since 2009 has been voted on by 600 drinks experts from around the world. (It’s a tough job, but someone’s gotta do it.) For four of the last five years, the No. 1 spot has been occupied by venues based in London, England: The Connaught Bar in 2021 and ‘20, Dandelyan in 2018, and the American Bar in 2017. More specifically, however, all three of those establishments are set in luxury hotels.
Why are hotel bars owning the top spot? Because of their well-heeled globetrotting clienteles and relatively deep-pocketed and discerning owners, these upscale drinkeries tend to embrace high service standards, stylish decor, inventive cocktail menus featuring epicurean ingredients, and extensive beer and wine lists that are often shared with hotels’ fine-dining restaurants.
These tendencies certainly apply across Canada, with the hotel bars that follow making their own cases for “World’s Best” — and in a couple cases, “World’s Weirdest” — consideration.
Rundle Bar, Fairmont Banff Springs, Alberta
The high calibre and abundance of hotel bars across Canada owes much to the legacy of the country’s grand railway hotels, and there’s no better example of this than the Banff Springs’ Rundle Bar, which recently emerged from a $5-million refurbishment and renovation more palatial than ever.
Backed by a pair of soaring arches that were once part of the original building façade, the rectangular bar glows with custom bronzework and wood engraving. A faux-bookcase on one side reveals a speakeasy-style private room, while a rolling library ladder enables bartenders to reach the exotic makings of “Mountain Series” cocktails inspired by Fairmont’s three hotels in Banff and Jasper.
“Wildflower,” for instance, mixes house-distilled gin, Lillet Blanc, St. Germain, and plum bitters into a flowery package that is almost as eye-catching as the Banff Springs itself. Guests can learn the finer points of preparing all three Mountain Series cocktails at home by taking part in laid-back mixology courses at the Rundle’s mezzanine bar.
Bar Artefact, Auberge Saint-Antoine, Quebec City
Adorned with historical artifacts unearthed from the riverfront grounds of the Auberge-Saint Antoine boutique hotel, this comfy-chic venue hits its stride mid-afternoon when sightseers return from their wanderings to sip signature cocktails and snack on tapas-style dishes.
The former includes “Port-au-Prince,” a beguiling melange of Barbancourt rhum, peach liquor, black tea, and honey, while the wine and beer list includes Quebec’s own Domaine de l’Espiègle winery and blueberry cider from Apicole Desrochers Farm. Combine these refreshments with a plate of warm oysters rolled in herb-infused butter and breadcrumbs, and who knows where the afternoon could lead?
Lobby Bar, Drake Hotel, Toronto
The Drake’s new Modern Wing is breathing new life into what has been an epicentre of Hogtown hipsterism since 2004. This gloriously retro rejuvenation starts with a new street-facing Lobby Bar that blends the intimacy of a brick-wrapped fireplace with the comfort and style of a plush cane-and-tambour wood banquette. Hotel guests and passersby may be lured into this cozy boite by its good looks and throwback vibe, but they’ll stay for the habanero-honey bang bang shrimp and a few “Queen St. Dawa”s — a cocktail that combines Spirit of York vodka, sencha tea, melon, lime, and honey.
The Velvet, Josie Hotel, Rossland, B.C.
While an inordinate amount of après-ski fun can be had at Red Mountain Resort’s Rafters Bar, the Velvet offers a much more sophisticated and epicurean alternative. Separated from an expansive outdoor patio by floor-to-ceiling glass doors, the slickly illuminated lounge and rectangular bar fit right into the design-forward Josie Hotel. Seconds after stepping off the slopes, guests can pour George Dickel Rye Whisky out of bartop-mounted mini-barrels into ice-filled rock glasses, and sit down for plates of maple- and sake-marinated baked sablefish swimming in bacon dashi broth with bok choy, soba noodles, and daikon slices.
Flâneur Bar Lounge, Le Germain Hotel Montreal
Coined by Charles Baudelaire to describe a cool and hedonistic observer of urban society, the term “Flâneur” suits this intimate venue to a T. From the abundance of freshly shucked oysters to the impressive Champagne inventory, hedonism is easy to come by at Flâneur. Pair that with the signature cocktail and tasting platter named after Le Germain Montreal’s Le Boulevardier restaurant — the former blends Maker’s Mark bourbon, Campari, and Cinzano, the latter eight oysters, beef tartare, and foie gras terrine — and guests who aren’t already there will soon start feeling like flâneurs themselves.
1927 Lobby Lounge, Rosewood Hotel Georgia, Vancouver
This cozy and stylish tribute to the Hotel Georgia’s opening year carries a throwback vibe all the way through its opulent decor, extensive cocktail list, and locally-sourced menu. Invented in 1951, the hotel’s namesake tipple combines botanist gin, orgeat, lemon, orange blossom water, egg white, and nutmeg dust, while West Coast oysters share tables with Salmon Aburi Sushi.
Shelter Cocktail Bar, Hotel Arts, Calgary
What do you get when you combine high-design elements from other hotel bars with Soviet-era industrial grunge? You get Shelter, Canada’s edgiest hotel lounge, where many unique design elements include a wall of gas masks behind the bar and a head-turning 5,000-bulb light fixture undulating above the main seating area. The extensive cocktail menu also keeps guests guessing, with a “Late Night Reviver” mixing brown butter-washed Northern Keep vodka with coffee, two-bean brew coffee liqueur, and maple syrup.
Sourdough Saloon, Canada’s Best Value Inn Downtown Hotel, Dawson City, Yukon
If extreme cocktail quirkiness determined the best hotel bar in Canada, then the frontier-rustic Sourdough Saloon would win hands down. Without its signature ingredient, the Sourtoe Cocktail is just a glass of Yukon Jack whisky. But when a preserved human toe is dropped in, the bar’s sipping rules suddenly make sense: “You can drink it fast, you can drink it slow, but your lips must touch this gnarly toe.” One Sourdough guest has gone a step further and swallowed the digit, which now carries a $2,500 fine.
Photos courtesy of Fairmont Banff Springs, Auberge Saint-Antoine, Drake Hotel, Josie Hotel, Le Germain Hotel, Rosewood Hotel Georgia, Hotel Arts, and Klondike Visitors Association