Twitter time – describe your job in under 140 characters:
Guiding people looking to explore the whisk(e)y world – and showcasing that awesome world in the brightest light I can.
How did you get into bartending? What was the inspiration for your career route?
I actually originally fell into bartending as a result my love for music.
I was working as a freelance music journalist after graduating from Langara College oh so many years ago now – and wanted to land a gig that would keep me in touch with the music scene. So I scoured for a gig in a live music venue with essentially no experience. Every place I applied to, of course, put me in the back of house. But I lucked out at the Arts Club Theatre Company’s Backstage Lounge who gave me a shot as a busboy. It was a union gig also, so I had to work my way up to a porter spot.
I held that role for years working with some great bartenders who taught me the ropes. It was very different from learning cocktails, certain drinks and all that. Sure there were elements of that – but it so much more about customer service. It was more about learning situationally – how to deal with the bar atmosphere. How to read what people were looking for on the other side of the wood – and how to deliver that creatively as part of their experience.
Eventually a bar spot came up and I took whatever shifts I could get. Years later, I was offered a music related job and tried unsuccessfully to hold on that bar spot. I did the music job for two years, but when the company completely shifted gears and left me in the dust – I found myself really wanting to get back behind the wood somehow. Oddly enough – it no longer needed to be about the music at all. I just wanted to explore a little more behind there. Get creative and find a niche maybe.
Around that time, a friend and I were just getting our feet wet so to speak in exploring whisk(e)y. It was a good way for us to catch up and have a laugh – and the old Shebeen across the way was our favourite haunt. So I applied there, but found out it was moving across the street to the new location. The GM there at the time, actually hired me essentially because we had a common love for fly fishing. I guess he took that as a character thing – and I got my spot learning whisky in what I believed to be the best environment possible. I learned by having conversations with people there about what they were drinking. What they liked / didn’t like / wanted in a whisk(e)y etc.. Nine years plus of those conversations now, and I don’t see those conversations stopping anytime soon.
Is it barrels, carbonation or cocktails on tap? What’s the latest trend you see in bartending?
I’m usually preoccupied with what’s new and innovative in the ever-changing whisk(e)y world, and keeping an eye on those trends. And it’s been an interesting past couple of years as the industry shifts a bit into ‘the age of the the no-age statement’ and we’re staring to see some great creativity from distilleries with younger / multi-vintage value offerings that kind of keep things real and down to earth for the every day consumer.
And interestingly enough – I see that happening in other circles as well. People are looking for value.
I’m not doubting that there’s some fantastic $20 cocktails out there that really provide people with an experience. But I’m staring to see more and more places offer cocktails that provide really interesting flavours at really reasonable prices. But I think there’s a real art in coming up with an arsenal of cocktails that keeps things accessible for people – but pushes the boundaries at the same time. By that I mean, cocktails that don’t break the bank but are exciting and innovative and have something exotic and explorative about them.
So I don’t know if I’d call it a trend per se, but more and more I see great value being rewarded. Whether it’s people finding a new whisk(e)y that they feel comfortable making their new home base – or a cocktail they come back for time and time again.
What’s the best part of what you do? And what’s the most challenging part?
The absolute best part of it – is connecting with people about whisk(e)y. On all levels. Whether it’s someone who’s been brought in by a friend to try whisky for the first time or my being dragged over the coals by the guy who ‘really knows his Scotch’ and comes in skeptical about any whisk(e)y he hasn’t tried. I love being in a spot that’s a hub for whisk(e)y nerds like me. Having people come into the Shebeen and explore and chat about the product makes my day.
The most challenging aspect is being satisfied with what I provide. I have a hard time with believing there’s not an extra level I can take everything all the time. Maybe the real challenge is finding the time and methods to take it where everything is truly at it’s absolute peak.
What is your favourite spirit to work with behind the bar?
Whisky. Is there anything else? Oh yeah… Whiskey. if I had to pick something else, it’d either be Rum or Gin – and I’ve developed a bit of a passion for Amaro. But whisk(e)y will always own the throne.
Do you have a definitive cocktail style?
I’m always in my mind trying to provide a caricature of the core spirit. I always relate to people who say they’re trying to keep it simple and classic not to bury the spirit itself. But I think for me it’s about finding what I love about the spirit and then extrapolating on those to provide some sort of new balance in cocktail form.
What’s the most memorable moment you’ve ever had working behind a bar?
Oh there’s been a few over the years – some good, some bad. That’s part of the gig, but the bad memorable moments always offer you a chance to grow as a bartender. But I’ll choose to focus on the good here.
One story comes to mind right away – mind you again, there’s a few. But I remember on a busy weekend – we had a chance to serve some Bourbon and Ryes to Sam Rockwell and a few of his friends on a Friday night I believe, which I got a kick out of as I was essentially serving Zaphod Beeblebrox in my mind. But he was a great guy and he was super excited about whisky – particularly the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection Thomas H Handy Sazerac Rye and William Larue Weller, so it was tons of fun.
The next night he came back, and Willam H Macy was also in the room – and at one point, I could here when they were in front of the bar Macy ask something Rockwell along the lines of, ‘why are we here? Probably wondering why he was in a bar that was through an alley and behind another bar. “Oh good bartenders Eh?”
My face lit right up.
I mean It’s always nice to get a little love. But to have someone you respect and admire the work of so much compliment you on your craft, really helps you to know you’re doing something right. And that stuck with me, not because they’re stars particularly, but I remember the feeling of satisfaction from that resonating.
What’s the next step for you when it comes to tending bar?
It never stops really. I’m always trying to push forward in so many ways where I think I can learn more that it’s almost overwhelming. I think I have so many areas in which I can grow. But I guess if I was going to lay out a blueprint – I’d love to really spend some time exploring with cocktails for a while.
Really working with some great whisky to put some really tasty cocktails out there. And on the other side – I’m really working on trying to keep whisk(e)y fun. Making it accessible for people to learn about it, enjoy it and explore it – so working on ways to present it to people in new and innovative ways is something I think I can always work on. Also, maybe learn a bit more about sherry oddly enough, to really fully understand it’s influence on whisk(e)y fully and completely.
What’s your go to drink to mix?
A good ‘ol Manhattan. I think it’s good name has been dragged though the mud – but I just love a good strong Manhattan. Throw in a little Amaro for a little extra spice and depth.
Fernet, Mezcal or Chartreuse?
Oddly enough, I’ve been enjoying playing around with Chartreuse. Particularly in cocktails that have a smoky / earthy sort of component to them, the herbal elements and the sweetness of Chartreuse is a lot of fun. Not knocking Mescal or Fernet at all – they’ve all got their place – but I’m reaching for the Chartreuse more than the others these days.
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