by CHARLENE ROOKE
According to Makina Labrecque, it might be Canada’s nerdiest drinks list. Inspired by literature and divided by genre— from classics to sci- and horror—instead of by spirit, Proof’s menu rewards the thoughtful imbiber.
“It’s challenging all our guests to think about the flavors a little bit more,” says Makina Labrecque, the self-declared “caretaker” of Calgary’s top cocktail bar, taking me back to a memorable visit last fall when she slid a neat cocktail napkin under a perfectly balanced drink.
For instance, the romance section has fun, whimsical, oral-tinged drinks like the King of Hearts, a bergamot and passionfruit potion inspired by Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale that’s served with a wee playing card clipped to the rim. A destination bar like Proof, with its towering wall of spirits, can be intimidating. But “by creating these moods for cocktails, it makes it a little more human, and creates an interaction,” explains Labrecque, who describes the bar’s philosophy as “keeping it real, while making it relatable and using our creativity.”
There are advantages to being around the corner from the chic Hotel Arts, and to being a sibling business of Vine Arts Wine & Spirits, which has a location just down the street. Even within Alberta’s expansive private liquor-retail scene, Vine Arts is dear to shoppers coveting rare and unique bottles, which can end up behind the bar at Proof. “We can’t get everything we want, but we have a really great advantage, just being related to Vine Arts,” says Labrecque, whether it’s an allocation of rare Pappy Van Winkle bourbon or a scare pour of Campari Cask Tales.
Another perk of being behind the wood at Proof is that “people who can carry on a good conversation about spirits come and sit there,” says Labrecque. Like any curious bartender, she’s an occasional eavesdropper who delights in patrons’ candid conversations. With one well-groomed eyebrow raised, she occasionally overhears tidbits about herself, her boyfriend or her cat.
It’s all part of being a bar star in the social- media age when cocktails are Insta-fodder and the details have to be perfect. “Cocktails are expensive, and I still kind of think of them as a luxury,” Labrecque says refreshingly. An impeccably trimmed citrus twist and fragrant bouquets of mint are among the “little things” that matter, she reminds her team.
“I’m not a trend-cocktail creator,” she observes. “I think if you’re serving great drinks with flavors that are challenging or interesting, it doesn’t need to be more than that.” But Proof is more than that—it’s elevating the art.