If you still abide by the idea that vodka is colorless, odorless, and flavourless, now would be a good time to head to the Bearfoot Bistro.
A 20-minute tasting in the infamous Ketel One Ice Room is all it will take to convince you that vodka can be lots of fun—and, indeed, flavourful and fragrant.
So where did the colorless/odorless/flavourless myth originate? “Marketing,” says Scott Barber, vodka specialist at the Bearfoot Bistro. “It’s all completely untrue because vodka does have a flavor. It does have an odor.” Anyone who has ever downed a shot of Schramm’s Pemberton potato vodka or the infamous Polish Zubrowka (complete with a blade of bison grass) will concur.
I trust Scott; after all, he’s picked up a thing or two over his five years at the Bearfoot Bistro, a large portion spent inside the infamous ice vodka tasting room. I try to absorb as much as possible as he teaches me the ins and outs of the spirit, such as the different laws and regulations that stipulate what, exactly, can be called a vodka in Canada. For instance, “Ciroc – P. Diddy’s vodka – is made from grapes,” says Scott. “On the bottle, they can’t actually label it vodka in Canada. They can’t sell it in the vodka section—it would be in the eau de vie section.”
In a sense, I’m studying for what’s ahead: my own sojourn into Canada’s only vodka tasting ice room, and at a frigid minus 25 degrees Celsius, the coldest one in the world. After half an hour or so spent chatting with Scott, I feel well-prepared for what’s ahead as I zip into my oversized Canada Goose jacket in the Bearfoot Bistro’s signature white. Incidentally, the jackets are so popular that the restaurant is a licensed retailer for the brand and carries a stock of multiple sizes for sale. It’s a souvenir that trumps a decaled shot glass, you’ll surely agree.
Before the group heads in, Scott briefs us on what to expect. He also warns us to resist the urge to lick the ice walls. “I’ve had 5 grown adults stick their tongues on the wall and get stuck. It is a thing. It will happen,” he told me earlier in the evening.
Finally, we step into the L-shaped ice room. In response to high demand, the vodka tasting room was recently expanded to accommodate two bars, one at either end. It was also rebranded as the Ketel One Ice Room, a fitting collaboration given that the Nolets, the family behind Ketel One, are regular visitors to Whistler and fans of the Bearfoot Bistro.
The walls of the room are made of perfect, crystal-clear ice. Bottles of vodka are displayed within the walls; some are set behind the ice, while others stand in carved compartments. Even the bar itself is made of ice.
Scott prepares our group for the first round of the tasting. The tasting consists of four different samples from the restaurant’s menu of over 50 different vodkas. All tastings begins with either Ketel One or Ketel One Citrus; my group gets the former. From there, it’s a choose-your-own-adventure of sorts. “Some people want to stay with flavours,” says Scott, “A good way to do the tasting is different vodkas from different countries, or vodkas made from different grains, or with different filtration and dissolution techniques. You can see what you like and see what you don’t like.” Time in the ice room is somewhat limited, and Scott has developed a knack for reading the room and choosing vodkas based on personalities.
After three more tastings and few gratuitous ice room photos, we’re back into the restaurant, grateful to be at room temperature once again. It feels good to be able to feel my hands, but sampling the vodkas in the ice room definitely enhanced the experience. “The temperature takes away the ethanol burn from the vodka, which allows you to then notice the flavor profile differences without that overwhelming sensation. The coldness affects the sugar content, which makes it much more viscous,” explains Scott. People who think they aren’t into vodka often find themselves pleasantly surprised after the ice room experience.
Ready to experience the Ketel One ice room for yourself? The cost is $48 per person, which includes four vodka samples. They don’t take reservations, so go early and grab a drink at the bar if there’s a wait. Those staying for dinner get priority, so consider making a meal of it.