From the bars of British Columbia to the nightclubs of Nova Scotia, and all points in between, Canada has become cocktail country. The new frontier of intriguing potables is being forged by a wave of creative mixologists who are as comfortable with the classics as they are with creating their own signature libations.
Once tied with the epithet “bartender,” today’s mixologists do more than tend the bar; in some cases, they actually own the bar. In fact, they are much like executive chefs of the liquid realm, creating original recipes using fresh, unique and often local ingredients for their typically extensive menus. “A mixologist is a creator, an artist. A bartender is someone who executes the creations of others and follows a recipe,” emphasizes Pierre-Olivier Trempe, whose company, MadeWithLove, has staged mixology competitions in major cities across the country starting in 2009 (many of the mixologists interviewed in this article are regional winners of such competitions). Trempe sees mixology as more than just creating cocktails.
“There are so many beautiful things and creations reserved to a selected group of people. Mixology and cocktail culture are part of those. The mission of MadeWithLove is to democratize mixology and cocktail culture in Canada to as many people as possible. On a more personal level, I love working with passionate people. Giving them the opportunity to showcase their art to the public and to give them the spotlight they deserve fulfils me.”
Laura Panter, of the Toronto-based The Martini Club International Inc., a company of professional mixologists and drink designers, adds that mixology “is an exciting combination of art and science. The deeply rooted history of cocktails tells an incredible story that links politics, entertainment and culture. The classic cocktail resurgence has given bartenders a wonderful foundation to work from, building and creating modern classics.”
Considering the responses received from these not-so-called “bartenders” during my cross-country bar-hop (read, sending out a zillion emails and praying for responses), there can be no arguing that passion and artistry are indeed key weapons in the mixologist’s quiver of exotic ingredients. What motivates these people? What inspires them? What led them down a somewhat off-the-beaten-track career path, and what trends do they see emerging in Cocktail Country?
You may be the type who enjoys a good cigar with a drink. But a good cigar in a drink? The brainchild of mixologist Jason Browne of Vancouver’s Calabash Bistro, the Cohiba Rackstone combines Browne’s favourite spirit, rum, with, among other things, a mist that he created by infusing over-proof rum with portion of a Cuban Cohiba cigar and a vanilla pod. If anything, this shows you the length today’s creative mixologists will go beyond the usual. Then again, Browne’s journey into professional mixing followed something of an unusual route. “I was originally planning to go to university to study marine biology,” he concedes. “But after hitting a bunch of bars after I turned the legal drinking age, I decided it would be a whole lot more fun to own my own bar.”
Originally from Reading, England, Browne moved to Vancouver in 2009 and landed his current gig at Calabash in 2010 having worked his way though a variety of restaurants, both chains and smaller establishments. The chain establishments saw Browne acting in a “bartender” position as defined by Trempe — mixing drinks developed by others. The smaller restos offered more leeway to get creative. “I had free reign to do what I wanted, so it became more about creating seasonal drinks with fresh ingredients and also finding out about the classics so I could tell a story and educate people about what they were drinking.”
Browne acknowledges that there is certainly an interest in the “classic” cocktails among consumers, but the trend many mix masters are jumping on is in actually recreating the classics, not just mixing them. He says this involves “taking them apart and looking at every minute aspect of the drink, then rebuilding them with homemade bitters, syrups and liqueurs. Even looking at the type of ice they use, which many people would never assume would be one of the most important parts of the drink.”
About a six-minute drive from Calabash, on Granville Street, Graham Racich is shaking things up at The Refinery. Racich (who, coincidentally, also comes from a science background), sees mixology as creating a “harmonious whole from contrasting elements.” He’s noticed a trend to bolder, more assertive “spirit-forward” cocktails, and this suits him just fine.
“I like bold!” he trumpets. “Bourbon has been the spirit of choice as it has a sweeter, more robust character.” He also notes that those in his position are becoming much more knowledgeable about their craft and their ingredients, and this, in turn, has intensified customers’ thirst for more information. “The ability to knowledgeably create cocktails and inform guests of what they are drinking and why has created a retro-revolution back to spirit-forward cocktails. We are ushering in a new era of greater understanding and appreciation of our libations.”
Travelling about 3,300 kilometres east of Vancouver by way the crow (or Boeing 737) flies will deliver you to another city with a flourishing cocktail culture. The bar scene in The Big Smoke is thriving and cocktails are cool thanks to award-winning bottle slingers like Nishantha (Nishan) Nepulangoda of Blowfish Restaurant and Sake Bar. With a slew of international awards and guest appearances to his credit, the Sri Lanka-born Nepulangoda has worked with some of the best mixologists in the business and loves the ever-changing pallette of fresh ingredients that Canada’s natural bounty provides. “The choices in Canada are endless, and I never get tired of experimenting to find out what works with a particular spirit or liqueur,” he confirms.
For Nepulangoda, the cocktail scene has been alive and well since he first got into it in the 1990s, but it has changed somewhat since then. “Cocktails are now trendier, and the preparation of them is more elaborate and time-consuming,” he observes. And probably the most time-consuming of all to make are the new wave of barrel-aged cocktails that Nepulangoda says have become the rage. These are often classic cocktails like the Manhattan or Negroni that have been “finished” in oak barrels for several weeks, or even months. The oak reduces the drink’s alcoholic bite and imparts an added level of complexity to the end product. If you think this sort of technique pushes the limits, you should see what Nepulangoda has up his sleeve.
Taking a page from the molecular gastronomy handbook, a French mixologist devised a way of creating “alcohol pearls” using Cointreau, water and a special vegan “gel.” When processed in one of the very few specialized kits given exclusively to VIP bartenders by Cointreau, the alcohol hardens into pearls. Where does Nepulangoda fit into this? “There are a very limited number of these Cointreau kits around the world,” he explains, “and I fortunately own the only one in Canada. I got this for winning first prize in the Cointreau cocktail competition two years ago.” He uses the “Cointreau caviar” in his signature cocktail, Caribou Crossing — you can find the recipe below — but you’ll have to get in good with Nepulangoda if you want the real deal.
Just as Cointreau saw the potential in Nepulangoda, the largest Cognac house in France, Hennessey, was so impressed by the talents of veteran mixologist Jordan Bushell that it appointed him Media and Trade Specialist (aka Brand Manager) to represent Hennessey cognac across the country.
One doesn’t typically think mixed drinks when it comes to cognac, though producers have been flogging as mixable spirit for well over a decade. “It’s very exciting to work on a brand that has such a rich history, and a drink that’s so versatile to mix with,” Bushell reports.
With over 12 years of experience under his belt “manning the sick behind a plethora of venues, from seedy rock bar to white tablecloth restaurants and high-end nightclubs,” Bushell puts experimentation and innovation front and centre when it comes to uncovering the secrets of a great mixologist — and a great cocktail. “Mixing is all about experimentation,” he asserts. “Through trial and error we find out what works, what doesn’t, and what we can build off to create some really fantastic beverages.” His recipe for San Fran Sour puts his words into a glass using such ingredients as cognac, yuzu juice, agave nectar and cherry bitters.
Lou Berkowitz at Cuisine Urbain developed a passion for cooking at age 15, and spent several years as a pastry chef before hanging up the apron and picking up a shaker, as well as a few other not-so-common items.
“I went out and picked up some liquid nitrogen, oak barrels and a deep freezer and in doing so, a certain passion was born which has now become full-time work. I have since been devoted to the development of bitters, syrups and plant infusions,” he says.
Though he took a few courses on the subject, Berkowitz considers himself to be self-taught, using a few books and a lot of experimentation to hone his craft. However, his connection to the food world gives him a unique approach to cocktails. “Mixology is very close to the kitchen,” he explains, adding that the ability to combine ingredients to create flavour sensations is the common ground between chefs and mixologists. “People who like cooking are the ones who like cocktails,” he asserts, while also noting that creative cocktails typically appeal to adventurist palates who are willing to part with a few bucks for the chance to enter a new taste territory. “It’s not everyone who is willing to pay $14 for a barrel-aged Negroni, or a gin and tonic made with nitrogen and served in a soup bowl with some picked cucumber.”
Like a chef, Berkowitz is specific about the ingredients used for certain of his creations, like his Maker’s Iced Tea. “I’m using Maker’s Mark [bourbon] for that one. The reason is simple; it contains a high percentage of red winter wheat, which results in a comparatively soft and gentle spirit that marries nicely with the oolong tea, fresh herbs and birch syrup.” And since he’s noticed a trend towards cocktails that feature different sugars and salts, the Maker’s Ice Tea is rimmed with a blend of cane sugar and pink salt.
As with Berkowitz, experimentation and trial and error got Marc André Fillion (Boudoir Lounge/mixologyquebec.com) hooked on mixology. “I love to play with liquids,” he confesses, “to make totally new flavours by mixing things together in a way that seems weird but which leads to wonderful results.” Cocktail gestalt, as it were.
Though he has seen an increased interest in the classics, Fillion is much more interested in putting new twists on old faithfuls, or creating totally new “concocktions”. His featured recipe, the PizzMartini, is pretty much a meal in a glass. “The secret is to frost the rim of the glass with Parmesan!” he reveals.
“People tend to forget that we have one of the most exciting bar scenes in the country. They seem to stop once they hit Toronto,” laments The Middle Spoon’s Jenner Cormier in response to my queries about mixology out east. “It would be amazing to get some exposure for Halifax; to put us on the map, so to speak, for a cocktail destination.” With guys like Cormier leading the charge, that kind of exposure should take nothing more than a bit of time.
Cormier’s cocktail epiphany came while taking a bartending course at Toronto’s BartenderOne. Heeding the advice of one of his instructors, he headed out one night to Barchef Toronto on the city’s hip Queen West strip. “Once the bartender started mixing my drink, I literally had to pick my jaw off the floor,” he confesses. “I sat at the bar that night from eight o’clock till they closed the place at 2:30 am trying to digest as much information and as many cocktails as my body and wallet could afford.” The guys at Barchef (Frankie Solarik and Aaron Gaulke) became Cormier’s mentors, sharing with him mixing techniques as well as business insight.
Though he admits the geographical location of Halifax typically means trends arrive slower, he makes a few predictions as to where things are going. “Bitters-based cocktails, aged cocktails, the use of egg whites, yolks and full eggs, savoury cocktails, beer cocktails, wine-based cocktails and punches” will all continue to gain popularity, he thinks. But the most important trend may be a change of attitude among the indigenous population.
“I’m extremely happy that Halifax is finally starting to step outside its comfort zone and experiment with cocktails,” he confides. “I am really enjoying the passion that is starting to spread among some of the bartenders in this city. It is a very slow trend, but I feel it will continue to grow, and this is what I am trying to accomplish; to spread the awareness and interest in well-crafted cocktails.”
Over at The Bicycle Thief, mixologist Jeffery Van Horne reports that his clientele are pretty aware of cocktails, and are all over the spectrum when it comes to classics or new creations. “We do our best to satisfy our customers’ traditional requests while also introducing them to new, exciting creations,” he explains. Trends behind the bar mimic what goes on in the restaurant’s kitchen. “The Bicycle Thief serves fresh Italian food made by hand,” Van Horne reveals. “At the bar we follow the same philosophy. We use all fresh ingredients, hand-pressed juices, handmade syrups that include fresh herbs, spices and nuts. Fresh ingredients are very important. People don’t want to be served a pre-frozen meal, so why would they want a cocktail made from an add-water mix?”
à votre santé
To conclude, Panter from The Martini Club International Inc. offers a summation of the state of mixology in Canada: “There are many incredible inspirations in our industry, from the innovative bartenders at the turn of the last century (the most famous being Professor Jerry Thomas), to those who made mixology a craft before it was trendy again (such as Dale DeGroff). These days, the craft of the cocktail involves historians, philosophers and alchemists, and the international community that we are thrilled to belong to is a constant source of inspiration.”
maker’s iced tea