Ansel Pereira prefers not to refer to himself as a bartender.
"As bartenders, we call ourselves doctors, psychiatrists, priests. But I like to call myself a liquid chef," said the long-time barkeep at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler's Mallard Lounge.
It's a moniker that seems fitting for a man that goes to such extreme lengths in creating the perfect cocktail. Pereira grows and picks his own herbs and spices out of the Fairmont garden, infusing premium liqueurs with a burst of added flavour that lends his drinks a distinctly localized taste. He spends days aging a batch of St-Remy brandy in a maple-syrup coated oak barrel with cloves, cinnamon, juniper berries, fresh ginger and nutmeg for the Mallard's signature holiday drink, the full-bodied, eminently complex Spiced Sidecar. And when he wanted to learn how to make an authentic batch of glühwein — a holiday staple on European ski slopes made from mulled red wine — he went straight to the source.
"I've been to Alsace, northwest of France, where the Germans love their glühwein," he said. "I wanted to get the actual recipe, and some locals invited me to their house — it was one of the best things I've ever tasted."
Pereira is something of a throwback to an era when bartending was as much a craft as a career, when every glass told a story and a cocktail meant more than simply adding a splash of watery soda to bottom-shelf booze. And while his creative concoctions certainly pay homage to the speakeasies and saloons of the past, he remains very much on the cutting edge.
"What we want to do is respect and acknowledge the bartenders that started the trends and kept that classiness intact," he said. "We're not just pouring the drink here, it's about finesse and putting on a show."
Serving some of the best cocktails in town also means Pereira has to play the role of educator for a public that increasingly cares about what is going into the glass.
"For guests who come to my bar and are getting into the cocktail trend, we try to educate them so when they go to other bars they know what they're talking about," he said.
If you're lucky, Pereira will regale you with tales of his grandmother who inspired the après favourite Grandma's Toddy, made from the aforementioned barrel-aged spiced brandy, fresh lemon, honey and ginger and which tastes as close to Christmas in a cup as you're likely to find. He can wax nostalgic about the Prohibition-era story of the Old Fashioned, or quiz you on your beverage preferences to create a customized cocktail made exclusively for one. And if he happens to recognize you from a past stay at the Fairmont, chances are he'll remember exactly what you were sipping.
"My brain is constantly going back and forth," said Pereira. "It makes us happy when people remember a drink they had here from years ago. Bringing back a memory in a glass means a lot to me."
Check out the Mallard's seasonal cocktail and après menu at the Fairmont or online at www.fairmont.com/whistler.