Fairmont Empress Hotel bar manager Rob Williams practises his bartending skills by whipping up a Q 1908 cocktail made with Victoria Distillers’ Empress 1908 gin at the hotel’s Q Lounge. Don Descoteau/Monday Magazine

BEHIND BARS: Get ready to be Empressed

New Q Lounge bar manager Rob Williams helping usher historic hotel into modern era

If you haven’t been in to the Q Lounge at the Fairmont Empress Hotel, you’re in for a nice surprise.

Not only does this comfortable, well-appointed room permanently relegate the “old boys club” style of the Bengal Lounge to the history books, it is helping usher in a new era of modern hospitality. Mixing unique cocktails – some with Victoria Distillers’ trending Empress 1908 Gin –yet offering something for everyone, the Q Lounge has reinvented the idea of relaxing with a drink at The Empress.

The latest overseer of that continued transformation is bar manager Rob Williams, a 32-year-old Welsh/Scottish wunderkind who worked at some prestigious hotels in London and Glasgow before joining the Empress crew five months ago. Along the way he created a concoction that earned him a European title and third place in the House of Angostura’s Global Cocktail Challenge: Rock Paper Scissors.

On this day, Rob “practises his craft” by creating this signature cocktail for me. It was installed on the recently revamped cocktail menu. He calls it a “great after-dinner drink,” partly due to the chocolate bitters and creme de cacao that nicely complement the Gosling’s dark rum, tawny port and antica formula vermouth. It goes down easy, with distinct flavours that become apparent as it travels over your tongue.

Rob was brought in to “create consistency” in the Q Lounge’s offerings, and that includes the new menu, featuring a collection of cocktails that “pay homage to the martini.”

So let’s hear more from this worldly bar manager:

What traits make a good bartender?

For me it’s likability every time. You may have won world class, make incredible drinks or have unreal technique but if you’re (unlikeable) it all means nothing. I’ve sat at bars all over the world and I always go back for the bartender with the best banter. Hospitality is about being hospitable, I think people forget that at times.

What’s hot right now?

I guess it depends where you are, but sustainable products and practises are hugely on trend, which kind of annoys me, as it shouldn’t be a trend it should be the norm. But I guess it’s still a great first step. Other than that, we will continue to see more non-alcoholic distilled products.

What’s your signature drink?

It depends on the time of year. I have a drink I used for the global Byrrh cocktail competition, which consisted of two ounces of Byrrh Grand Quinquina vermouth, an ounce of Peychaud’s bitters (this is before their aperitivo was released), lemon juice, sugar and egg white. Pretty much a low ABV sour, goes well this time of year.

What are you drinking these days?

Anything from the Island. I’m blown away by the sheer amount of topnotch products here. There are only a handful of places in the world that I can think of producing this number of gins, vermouths, wines and beers to such a high standard. In particular I’m drinking a lot of Salt Spring Heather Ale, it’s one of the finest balanced beers I’ve come across.

Your claim to fame/best up-the-sleeve trick or technique?

Being a part of teams that get mentioned at Tales of the Cocktail is always a special feeling. Seeing your work recognized on the world stage is very humbling, and reminds me of why I have stayed in this incredibly rewarding industry for so long.

Best memory from behind the bar?

There is far too many over the last 12 years, but probably my time working in Glasgow’s Blythswood Square hotel, where I was very fortunate to work and learn from an exceptionally gifted bar team. I’m very proud to have been a part of a team that would go on to win countless awards and be named one of the best hotel bars in the world.

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