A mid-afternoon stop by Victoria’s Hotel Rialto began with a crash course on the sordid history of the property. The bar wasn’t open yet, but a barista in the lobby cafe told me that the building previously housed the Hotel Douglas, known as the Dirty Dougie, since it was supposedly dangerous and riddled with drug users. Now the neighborhood and hotel have found new life, in no small part due to the addition of Veneto, a contemporary bar and tapas lounge.
Bartender Katie McDonald, who moved to Victoria for university and “fell in love with flavors,” gave me a rundown. She credited two resident cocktail mavens for Veneto’s success, including head bartender Simon Ogden “our guru” and Beverage Director Solomon Siegel, who previously owned a restaurant in town and featured a menu geared towards cocktail geeks.
The attractive bar featured a marble top, flower shaped lanterns, mirrored back bar and a lounge up front. The beer taps framed a mallet. As the manager said, “It’s for ice, or if you get out of line.”
Consumption wasn’t possible in the afternoon, with several other impending stops, but my initial visit allowed me to learn and see the ambitious beverage menu, which included local beers from Driftwood, Howe Sound and Phillips on draught, classic cocktails like the Vieux Carre and Sazerac and originals like the Ghetto Punch, a combination of tequila blanco, gunpowder green tea, ginger of the Indies, Madeira and orange bitters. To say I was intrigued would be an understatement.
My chance to actually enjoy Veneto’s cocktails came later that night, which turned out to be a de facto industry night. A number of chefs and bartenders from other Victoria establishments joined me at the bar, including Glo bar manager Ryan James and Cory Pelan, who was getting set to debut The Whole Beast artisan salumeria.
It was dealer’s choice, and Katie McDonald turned to The Stranger, named for the narrator in The Big Lebowski, who always requested sarsaparilla. She honored him by making an Old Fashioned with sarsaparilla bitters muddled with orange peel, a sugar cube and vanilla-noted Makers 46 bourbon. She flamed a lemon peel for aromatics and mist, stirred and served on the rocks with a lemon twist. McDonald pointed out that in the old days, citrus masked the flavor of bad whiskey. Now, whiskeys have never been better, but citrus still provides balance. Apparently, so does Veneto.