A Canadian Mash-Up of Chinese Medicine and Burlesque

Welcome to "About a Bar," a column that explores North America's most notable bars and cocktail programs. Today: Vancouver's The Keefer Bar.

On the edge of Vancouver’s Chinatown neighborhood, past the teashops and Chinese gardens, you’ll find a small patio fire ablaze in the misty Canadian night. The silhouette of a burlesque dancer moves through the window, beckoning you through the velvet curtain and toward a long and narrow bar. The standard multitude of liquor bottles, bitters and cocktail glasses line the backlit wall alongside jars filled with weird, floating objects and glowing illustrations more often found in a biology textbook. Big white letters spell out: MEDICAL CENTER.

The Keefer Bar is an apothecary-style bar with a cocktail menu culled from the roots of Traditional Chinese Medicine (the drinks promise to “soothe ailments and balance one’s mood”), but its vibe is an amalgamation. Set on the ground floor of luxury lofts, it still maintains a dive bar feel, albeit with a cool, swanky, this-won’t-hurt-a-bit injection of Eastern exoticism and nary an ounce of cheese.

Owner Cam Watt, a real estate developer who bought and renovated the historic building, was first inspired by a visit to New York’s Apotheke—yet another apothecary bar concept set in Chinatown—but knew he wanted to do something different. He brought on Bar Manager Danielle Tatarin, already a local cocktail darling, who took the concept and ran. While Apotheke—as well as a handful of other spots playing the apothecary angle across the globe, such as Percy’s & Co. in Seattle and House of Wolf in London—uses a wide variety of organic produce, herbs and botanicals in their well-wishing drinks, Tatarin chose to both specify Keefer’s concept and honor its neighborhood by focusing on ingredients particular to Chinese Medicine.

“We didn’t want to be just another pithy cocktail bar not really doing anything to be a part of the community,” says Tatarin. “We’re paying homage to Chinatown…we get all our herbs and ingredients within a four-block radius. We’re a part of this community.”

Tatarin frequents a variety of neighborhood shops to pick up dried lavender, tea, several kinds of mushrooms, dried lemons, ginseng, astragalus—which in root form looks like a misshapen tongue depressor—even seahorse. If you pull up a stool at The Keefer Bar, she wants to know if you have a stomachache or can’t stop sneezing. For the former she might suggest The Dragon Fly—Dragonfruit Gin, Pearl Sake, Lemon, Ginger Syrup, and Magnolia Bark Tincture, the last of which is known to aid in digestion. For the latter, perhaps a Smokey & The Bandit—Ardbeg 10, Mezcal, Aperol, Cinzano, and Astragalus Syrup, made from a root believed to fight immune deficiencies and allergies.

She stresses that her drinks aren’t meant to be “a quick fix,” but rather serve as an introduction to ingredients that will have positive effects over time if added to your drinking diet. It’s a smart way to keep your regulars coming, but after working with these ingredients for so long, she is a true believer. “I had really bad allergies,” she says. After a few years of astragalus, they’re gone.

The notion of alcohol as remedy is not new. In the introduction to his book, Apothecary Cocktails: Restorative Drinks from Yesterday and Today, Warren Bobrow explains that before standardized medicine, people often went to their local pharmacist—or apothecary—to cure their ailments. “Many of the most effective curatives in the United States were introduced by immigrants from Europe, Asia and the Caribbean islands, who brought some of their healing methods (and their exotic ingredients) with them. Folk treatments using herbs suspended in alcohol had been commonplace in all of these locations for hundreds of years, so the methods these immigrant healers practiced would have dated back centuries—if not millennia.” It wasn’t until the early 1900s that the government got involved, moving “alcohol-based ‘cocktails’ and other curative preparations involving alcohol out of the pharmacies and into the cocktail bar, where they have remained ever since.”

The Keefer Bar has been helping to cure Canadian ailments since 2010, smack dab in the middle of the gentrification that’s spread through Downtown Vancouver over the last decade. And while there are several other excellent cocktail programs nearby, many of them even Asian-inspired—Bao Bei, a hip and homey dim sum spot just a few doors down; The Union, a fusion-happy mess of coconut and lychee—there’s something about The Keefer Bar that stands alone.

With its weeknight DJs, huge burlesque following and medicinal slant The Keefer comes off as more quirky than hip—a place where the loft-liver and long-time local co-mingle to form a scene that can be described as nothing if not delightfully Canadian.

TO DRINK

The Belly Soother: The Dragon Fly. Dragonfruit Gin, Pearl Sake, Lemon, Ginger Syrup, Magnolia Bark Tincture. $11

The De-Stressor: Opium Sour. Wild Turkey Bourbon, Grapefruit, Tamarind, Lemon, Poppyseed Tincture. $11

The Anti-Allergen: Smokey & The Bandit. Ardbeg 10, Mezcal, Aperol, Cinzano, Astragalus Syrup. $14

The Clear Head: Unpredicted Season: El Jimador Reposado, Salted Plum, Chrysanthemum, Anise & Vanilla Bean Syrup, Lemon, Egg White $14

The Cough Suppressant: Lăoshi: Bulleit Bourbon, Shaoxing Aperitif, Nin Jiom Syrup, Black Sea Salt