The Very Western Canadian History of the Shaft Cocktail

Shaft Cocktail from Park Distillery
PARK Distillery/Banff Hospitality Collective

If you’ve ever traveled to Western Canada, there’s a good chance you’ve come across the Shaft cocktail, a coffee-based bevy that packs a boozy punch. Lesser known but equally as iconic as the very Canadian Caesar, the Shaft is so commonplace in Alberta and British Columbia that its ubiquitous presence on every menu is a given, but the fun story behind it is a mystery to many. Read on for everything to know about the Shaft cocktail.


Related: The Boozy History of the Caesar Cocktail

What is a Shaft cocktail made of?

“Traditionally it’s made with vodka, a coffee liqueur like Kahlua, and fresh espresso or cold brew. Most add a splash of cream liqueur, whole milk, or oat milk for something a little more indulgent” says Sam Clark, Fairmont Western Canada’s Manager of Bars and Mixology and resident Shaft expert.

Shaft cocktail from Park Distillery

PARK Distillery/Banff Hospitality Collective

What is the origin of the Shaft cocktail?

Like any juicy history, the exact origins of the Shaft cocktail are much debated. There are two prevalent theories: many Calgarians argue that it was invented by Mark Smith, a bartender at The Living Room in Calgary. However, British Columbians are quick to claim the cocktail as their own, with many claiming that it was actually invented by a bartender at Hugo’s bar in the Strathcona Hotel in Victoria, BC. The drink became popular in both cities in the early 2000s, and has since spread to all of Western Canada.

“Mark Smith served his Shaft with Kahlua, espresso and a splash of milk to guests as a short serve. Controversially though, it’s Victoria, BC who has helped project the Shaft into stardom over the years, with many bars having their own variations,” Sam tells us, which might help to explain the muddied history. “As the drink found its way over to BC, vodka and cream liqueur were morphed in,” Sam explains. “Whilst Albertans and British Columbians will have their own bias of its origin story, what we can all agree on is that this drink is delicious, and we simply can’t get enough!”

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Why is it called a Shaft cocktail?

“The drink’s name has nothing to do with the urban slang definition of screwing someone over; rather, it’s a nod to fictional detective John Shaft, a character from the 1971 cult movie Shaft,” says Nicole Mendelman, Director of Brand & Partnerships, PARK Distillery (Banff, Alberta’s first and only distillery, whose Shaft on Draft cocktail has become a household name in Banff). “Apparently, it was called that because it’s tall, dark, and cool just like Mr. John Shaft.” Although it’s debatable if this naming convention would still fly today, it helped to establish the shaft cocktail as an easily recognizable drink that was easy to order at any bar.

Why is the Shaft cocktail so iconic?

“Locals in mountain towns quickly adopted the drink as their go-to cocktail to kick-start their night, or keep their night going,” says Nicole. “A cult following began to build as locals shared the concoction with new friends and visitors coming through to a point where it became the worst kept, but also best kept secret. If you know, you know.”

Bottled Maple Shaft from Fairmont Hotels

Fairmont Hotels

How can I make a Shaft cocktail at home?

In a cocktail shaker filled with ice, combine 1 oz vodka, 1 oz coffee liqueur, 1 oz Irish cream or milk of your choice and 2 oz chilled espresso or cold brew. Shake and serve!

Are there different variations on the Shaft cocktail?

Modern interpretations of the Shaft abound, with PARK Distillery offering both their kegged Shaft on Draft and a made-to-order version that features oat milk, housemade Park Classic Vodka and cold brew made with ethically sourced beans. “It packs a mega caffeinated punch; and will pick you up from your deepest, most tired states,” says Nicole. You can also pick up PARK Distillery’s canned version of the cocktail, called the Mountain Joe, to take home or enjoy any time.

Meanwhile over at Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, you can find a similar bottled version of their Maple Shaft (sweetened with maple syrup, of course!) to take home or enjoy in your hotel room. At the hotel’s many bars, they serve an elevated version of the drink over craft ice in a frosted glass, and you can even add a shot of Nanaimo Bar cream liqueur for the ultimate chocolatey, coconutty Canadiana sip. “It’s a toast to Vancouver Island, tying together this origin story perfectly,” says Sam. “With the friendship between Alberta and BC bar communities, the Shaft has truly become a Canadian icon.”

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