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Best cocktails in Ottawa

By Erika Nelson on May 1, 2013

I transplanted here from New York in July 2012 and I have a confession to make. In my first few months in Ottawa I dragged my partner into various random places (often on Elgin St.) for a drink, and then complained that, “no one in this town knows how to make a proper Negroni!”  He would simply roll his eyes and tell me not to say that too loudly. Yes, I know it sounds a little pretentious and obnoxious, but it seemed to be the sad, honest truth.  Part of it was just my personal New York nostalgia, and part of it was that hard-to-face reality that a lot of drink menus in this otherwise gorgeous capital city are full of sweet concoctions that involve something vanilla flavoured and something neon.  So the hunt began for classic cocktails in Ottawa.

It has been a tipsy journey, full of great excuses to get a fancy drink on a week night.  Although I retain some longing for an overly hipster, dim-lit basement in Brooklyn run by a tattooed bartender (or should I say professional mixologist) with a post-ironic mustache, I have discovered some amazing drinks, some cool people making them, and a new appreciation for the small independent and creative spots that are making Ottawa so much more than a boring government town.

1.  Union 613 (315 Somerset St. W.)  Best all around!

I had the lovely opportunity of sitting down with Ivan, one of the owners of Union 613, and asking a few questions.  Turns out he is a straight whiskey man and who can blame him? But he also let me know that “The Ottawa” – a version of which regularly sits on their “Standard” permanent menu – is his personal favourite. The current version, concocted with Centennial Rye, Melleti Amaro, Birch Syrup and Angostura Bitters, happens to be one of my favourites, too.  The 6 rotating seasonal cocktails and the Standards are collaborations between staff, the bartenders and the owners.  Their house cocktails include a hibiscus rum punch and hot spiked cider.  They always have the classic Sazerac (one of my personal favorites), which is not a surprise in a place that does modern Southern food so well.

“People say Ottawa is boring, I say it’s a blank canvas,” says Ivan, challenging a judgmental newcomer like myself.  After a couple of cocktails at Union 613, I couldn’t agree more! For their creativity, continuously new treats, and the fact that they have not one but two amazing bars, (their downstairs Speakeasy being the second), Union 613 gets my vote as #1 Best Cocktails in Ottawa.

2.  The Moonroom (442 Preston)  A Classic Cocktail History Lesson

There are many things to appreciate about The Moonroom. First, the menu has the date and location that each cocktail was invented (The Prohibition: Philadelphia, 1920; The Whiskey Sour: Port of Iquique, 1870). They also credit their own creations, like the Brazzo!, the-no-joke-bourbon-based cocktail I loved on my most recent visit (Bookers Bourbon 130 Proof, Raw W&H Walnut Brown Rare Old Oloroso and West Indian Orange Bitters on top of two enormous ice cubes).  Second, in an industry mostly dominated by men, I can’t help but appreciate the very lovely, predominantly female bar staff (and while we’re getting “more feminine”, I loved their killer style and hair).  They seem to do it all, including taking a blow torch to their bacon wrapped olives behind the bar.  On top of that, they make delicious, heavy drinks – our bartender even asked us if we were driving, warning that the cocktails were strong.  Luckily we were on foot, so we just ordered more! An appreciation for the classics, female empowered mixology, and a concern for personal safety, what is not to love?

3.  The Hintonburg Public House (1020 Wellington St. W.)  Simplicity

The Hintonburg Public House may truly shine as a great local beer haven, but they also know how to keep their spirit-lovers satisfied.  It is a simple small menu, but it’s all delightful, unpretentious and tasty. Kind of like the place overall. They have a rotating seasonal cocktail menu with around four options. I enjoyed the French 75, very classic and well-suited for the finally emergent spring.  On my visit they were also featuring a Manhattan made with Mead Wine.  My last brunch visit there included an expert Caesar.  It may or may not have included red wine as a secret ingredient – but I can’t confirm that for sure.  Either way, it was a very necessary and spicy Hair of the Dog.  I love the homey and casual yet refreshing and creative feel of The Hintonburg Public House, and the cocktails are perfectly fitting match.

4.  Gezellig (337 Richmond Rd.) – Sophisticated Standards

It is not the kind of place one can go to every week, but I was delighted with their short but impressive cocktail menu when I splurged on an anniversary treat there shortly after the opening.  They have a Smoked Manhattan, and I make a habit of loving all things smoked. Plus they make a serious Pimm’s Pint and a classic Negroni – my always enjoyable, routine order.  I would certainly return to Gezellig for another special occasion, and that special occasion would certainly involve a cocktail.

5.  Navarra (93 Murray St.)  Best Margarita

Ok, this place is not cheap, but the food is unique and full of flavor and the Margarita list has got to be the freshest and best in town.  A Margarita is not something I want every day, but there is definitely a time (summer) for one, and there is also a place!  A couple people in my party sampled the “Spicy Pineapple” and it received raves all around.  I would definitely have it again. Another member of our party had the classic and it was a totally perfect execution of a Margarita – tart, salty and boozy.  They also do a Mojito, and a Ginger Gimlet, both of which I would have trouble turning down. To top it off, our waiter could not have been more friendly and chatty, recommending all his favorite spots in town.

Honourable Mentions:

Two Six {Ate} (268 Preston)  Most of the drinks on the menu are a little sweet for me, but I think they please a lot of folks as I have heard good things.  They do have an Old Fashioned – which is crucial – and a few appetizing sparkly drink options. Plus, the food, the prices, and the service are so great, that Two Six {Ate} needs to be included on any of my favorite lists.

Brothers Beer Bistro (366 Dalhousie Street)– Mostly a beer joint, obviously, but they can mix up some classics upon request. The bartender fed me a great Manhattan recently.  They also feature a rotating barrel aged/infused liquor option. It was not ready yet when I asked, but apparently some inspiring flavored gin is in the works and I hope to make it back for a sample.