This speakeasy in Victoria asks hopeful visitors to make a literary choice to enter

·3 min read
Inspired by whiskey bars and speakeasies around the world, Artemis Whiskey Bar owner Vaibhav Patel decided to open one himself in Victoria, B.C. (Rohit Joseph/CBC - image credit)
Inspired by whiskey bars and speakeasies around the world, Artemis Whiskey Bar owner Vaibhav Patel decided to open one himself in Victoria, B.C. (Rohit Joseph/CBC - image credit)

In downtown Victoria, B.C., a man in sunglasses, a collared shirt, sleek slacks and sharp dress shoes stands in front of an unmarked door, next to a set of bookshelves.

The shelves contain an eclectic assortment of titles, including Start With Why by Simon Sinek, Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney, and several crossword puzzle books.

If you pick the right book, he says, you can come inside.

But it's not a bookstore, a library, or some kind of literary club.

Instead, he's minding the door of a new speakeasy in the province's capital, called Artemis Whiskey Bar.

Rohit Joseph/CBC
Rohit Joseph/CBC

The bar is owned by engineer, educator and entrepreneur Vaibhav Patel.

"I had a vision that this place could be transformed into something that Victoria has not seen before," he told CBC's Rohit Joseph.

"Victoria is not known for being a late-night city. Most people are in bed by 10 and before this bar I was in bed at nine."

Although it's been challenging promoting a late-night bar like his — Artemis Whiskey Bar is open from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. from Tuesday to Thursday, and until "late" from Friday to Saturday — he says he finds that some people are going out more after being cooped up during the restrictive days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The bar boasts a collection of 200 different whiskeys, but Patel says his goal is to stock 1,000 varieties.

He designed the interiors himself, he says, adding personal touches such as gold foil on the ceiling and colourful chairs and couches, and treating the floors in such a way that they will hold the aroma of spilled whiskey.

Rohit Joseph/CBC
Rohit Joseph/CBC

Patel, who grew up in India, says his interest in whiskey began at a young age.

"I've been around the world twice," he said.

"Whenever I went around, I'd see these cool whiskey bars, I'd see these cool speakeasies all over the world. And I thought, you know what? Victoria has nothing like that. We need something like that in Victoria."

It's not his first career: Patel came to Canada 10 years ago to complete his master's degree in engineering. He still works as an engineer while running the bar, and he teaches interior design and building at a local college.

Offering an experience

Speakeasies sold liquor illegally during Prohibition in the U.S. — from 1920 to 1933 — and in Canada from 1918 to 1920.

Historian Cheryl Warsh says that while Prohibition did happen in B.C., it wasn't as tightly enforced as in other provinces or in the U.S.

"The nature of the B.C., being a very wide-open place, resource industry, mostly men, it would be really hard to turn off the tap if anybody really wanted to," she said.

Rohit Joseph/CBC
Rohit Joseph/CBC

For that reason, she says, speakeasies were more of an American thing.

"Our prohibition was so short and when we ended it, we spent most of our time supplying Americans with booze."

Rum-runners — people who transported alcohol across borders — loaded up boats with liquor made in the province. Because the southern tip of Vancouver Island was so close to Washington state, it was an easy trip — especially with looser border control, Warsh says.

With liquor no longer illegal, Patel says modern-day speakeasies are about offering an experience.

"Speakeasies are about having that unique element," Patel said.

Just like the book shelves by the entrance.

"Unless you pick the correct book, you're not allowed in," he said.

"There have been several instances where people [said] 'I don't wanna pick a book' and then they just leave and we let them leave because we are trying to create that secrecy and trying to create that experience where you've got to pick the right book. We are very unique.

"The business has its own personality."