Find the latest trends and figures in the 2010 BAR Report
A man walks into a bar, where the veteran behind the wood instinctively strikes up a conversation about life, love and whatever he’s poured into the glass.
There’s a certain nostalgia about the barkeep stereotype, complete with a towel over the shoulder, tie neatly tucked into the collared shirt and a pharmacist’s knowledge of the brews and concoctions he’s sliding across the counter. Thankfully, a renaissance in Canadian booze culture over the last few years means tipplers needn’t search the annals of time to recapture the idyllic image; they might just find it at their own local.
Until recently though, it was merely a memory. The trade of the bartender, or even wine steward, saw some rough days during the ’90s and into the early part of this decade. It was hampered by a new wave of prefabricated cocktail everything, a duopoly dominated domestic beer scene and a VQA designation, which meant, at best, sickly sweet icewine. With few stories to tell — how much prideful banter can a bartender create around a cocktail made out of third-rate vodka and a splash of pre-mix — the drink pouring business was reduced to its lowest common denominator.
But something funny happened on the way to the draught tap: consumers started to care. To be fair, this awakening didn’t necessarily start behind the bar, it was in the kitchens and dining rooms of the nation’s restaurants. But it didn’t take long for the culinary sensibilities informing the chefs to start influencing a new generation of drink slingers, too. Today, armed with a new set of cocktail rules — there are none — a local wine scene that garners serious street-cred and a new bevy of beer brewers thumbing their noses at convention, there’s finally something worth talking about.
Photography by Will Lew
Out with the new, in with the old
When the girls on the HBO hit Sex and the City started quaffing cosmos with aplomb, it was a catch-22 for mixologists across the country. Sure, women were lined up at the bar looking for what they called a martini, but what they were really after was a syrupy, confected concoction that hid the alcohol. As for the drinks, they tasted like sour apple and phoney watermelon, which is to say they didn’t taste like gin, bourbon or anything close to a well-crafted cocktail.
Fast-forward a few years, and things couldn’t be more different. Today, you’ll find classic cocktail enthusiasts working bars across the country, and they’re converting candy martini drinkers, one prohibition-era original at a time.
“This is the third year now that we’ve been really pushing the cocktail menu, and I think in that time we’ve seen a bit of a dialing back in the extreme innovation, and people are now more focused on making the best possible classic they can,” says Nathan Cameron, beverage manager for Prime Restaurants. “People are having fun with it though, and taking pre-prohibition or prohibition names like the Manhattan, drinks with some equity behind them, and re-delivering them in a fresh new way.”
That’s certainly part of the mission at Montreal’s trendsetting hotspot LAB Comptoir à Cocktails, where owner-mixologist, Fabien Maillard throws together some of the city’s most cutting-edge creations, while also offering deliberate nods to the originals. “Until two or three years ago, no one here was specializing in cocktails,” says Maillard. “But, since then, the Montreal scene has really started growing up, and more customers are curious about the kinds of cocktails that can be made. It’s led to a comeback, particularly in the kinds of modern classics we do,” he adds. Today, imbibers in Montreal can stop for a selection from the Neo-classic menu, like The Twister Old Fashion, a blend of Armangac, angostura and orange bitters, maple syrup and grated cinnamon.
Cocktail culture is booming on the West Coast, too, thanks in part to a communal sense of success, shared by mixologists at what would normally be rival bars and restaurants. Wendy McGuiness, bar manager at Vancouver’s Chambar, says the local scene is one of stiff, but friendly competition. “It’s a great culture out here amongst all of the cocktail bars these days. It’s very competitive, but it’s different in that we push each other to get better and learn more,” she says. “A bunch of us even get together at least twice a month to experiment and raise the level of our own game. We’re starting to nerd-out on different kinds of ice, glassware, ingredients — you name it. We all try and top one another in competitions, but we’re also coming together to raise the profile and the education behind the bar,” she adds.
At the end of the day, mixologists agree that part of the scene’s new sheen is partially in the rituals behind the drinks themselves and the artful presentation of the final product. It’s what Rob Montgomery, from Toronto’s Miller Tavern, calls the ‘sizzling plate effect.’ It’s achieved when a bartender is muddling fresh citrus with infused bitters for a hand-crafted sazerac adaptation and other patrons get that ‘hey, what’s he doing, I want one of those, too’ moments.
At LAB, Maillard attributes his cocktail success to customers. Today, they demand more than just a college kid on summer holidays behind the bar, they crave knowledge and education. “That’s what they love about the culture today,” he says. “Customers have an understanding of the profession, but they want to know more and learn more, so they’ll ask a lot of questions. If the guy behind the bar doesn’t have the answers, or can’t make the drink, they’ll know he’s not a real bartender, and they’re not in a real cocktail bar.”
By the glass, split or bottle, Canadian wine has finally arrived
Of all the categories, wine produces the closest natural connection to a sense of place. Increasingly, chefs and sommeliers are taking their locavore mandates and applying them to their wine lists, with the numbers at provincial control boards corroborating the hype. According to the 2010 VQA Ontario Annual Report, wine sales by retail value were up 14 per cent at wineries, and two per cent at restaurants, for the year ended March 31, despite production being significantly lower for many table wines. And, in B.C., where winemakers have benefited from more than a decade of extremely strong local support, the sale of domestic wines was up 5.5 per cent, while the sale of imports was barely better than stagnant, at 0.14 per cent.
In the up-and-coming Ontario wine region of Prince Edward County, Norman Hardie, winemaker at his eponymous vineyard, says the success of indigenous wine is owed to a shift in thinking, demographics and the quality of the juice. “The restaurants around Ontario are doing that whole local push, and that’s helping us, but also, the quality is obviously there, too, because the restaurants are hearing the demand from their customers,” he says. “What’s great is the 21-plus crowd has embraced the local product. To them, there’s no stigma of shake ‘n’ bake wine that used to be out there. More importantly, they eat out a lot more than their parents used to. It’s a bloody good position to make some inroads,” he enthuses.
In B.C.’s Okanagan Valley, Ross Hackworth, owner, winemaker, and as he’ll tell you, the Tuesday morning vacuum operator at Nichol Vineyard, has been making inroads into the West Coast restaurant scene for years. “Small wineries like ours do everything we can to embrace the customer, and the best way to do that is through the restaurant market,” he says. “They’re just fun people to work with. They’re keen, up-to-date, and they know first-hand what’s going on in the food and wine world.”
The restaurant industry represents about 30 to 40 per cent of Hackworth’s business every year, so he works hard to provide clients with unique solutions. “Even though I can’t make any money on them, I’ll always do splits — 375-mL bottles,” he says. “Some years I even lose money doing it, but those half-bottles can be so important for a restaurant crowd, maybe for a lunch, or a couple just looking for a glass of wine with dinner; that’s something we do to support them,” he adds.
Back in Toronto, Maja Baltus, who oversees the wine lists of both Four and Far Niente, says producers like Hardie and Hackworth are right on trend with what she sees from her clientele. “People are more wine savvy today than they used to be, and they know what makes a wine great — from the terroir to the historical elements that have made a wine what it is. They know what they want.” she says. “But they also like a good story, and, at Four, where all our wines are biodynamic, sustainable or organic, people love learning about that kind of stuff. They like to know their wines have a personal touch.”
As for the local approach, Baltus says that, while Far Niente specializes in California wines, she’s always sure to provide some VQA options from Ontario, and when available, from B.C., too. “We’re usually able to carry the second label from Osoyoos Larose, and I try and keep Mission Hill Merlot in stock, but people go crazy for it,” she says. And, at Four, Baltus says VQA plays heavily into the mix. “Tawse uses the gravity flow processing system, and Southbrook just went biodynamic, too, so Ontario is perfect for the list at Four, and people are loving them,” she says. “The tourists absolutely love Ontario wine. They’re really interested in what we’re doing, and they should; it’s pretty killer,” she adds.
Getting crafty from coast to coast
Say what you will about the complexities of the perfect cocktail, or the terroir that is producing some brilliant Burgundian wine in the Okanagan or Prince Edward County, but most bartenders and restaurateurs still see beer as the bread and butter of the beverage category. However, while it used to be that beer was beer, and an operator could sign a licensee agreement with one of two major Canadian breweries and be done with it, the same sort of attitude that shifted the game in both the spirit and wine segments, is also affecting the beer market.
In short, consumers today are looking to niche beer producers who are giving them a less homogenized product. In B.C., the shift is proven in the most recent quarterly report from the B.C. Liquor Distribution Branch, which shows that, while the sale of beer made by a producer pumping out more than 150,000HL is down 2.5 per cent year-over-year, the sale of brew from companies with production under that amount, is up 23.3 per cent. People are still drinking beer, they’re just looking elsewhere for the experience.
Those numbers don’t surprise Mill Street Brewery’s co-founder Steve Abrams, whose Toronto operation has been making small batch, hand-crafted beer since 2002. “The shift to craft beer is really just a reflection of what’s going on in terms of the larger food trends today,” he says. “People are opting for a higher quality product; they understand the kind of passion involved in making it, and they’re looking for a new experience or a new story to tell. More and more, they want variety, and they’re not a single-brand drinker.”
At Prime, Cameron’s summer program depends on the types of brand-ambivalent, adventurous beer drinkers who make up the fast-growing cohort. What’s more, he notes the product being pushed, doesn’t have to be local per se;
it just has to have a cool, authentic story. “We’re always looking at different seasonal options,” says Cameron, about putting together a unique list of offerings for the company’s Bier Markt outlets in Toronto. “Every year we bring in something special from Europe that’s seasonable and novel and will give our customers that sense of discovery. But we’re also supplementing that kind of program with a lot more local craft beers. We try and take advantage of those great global equity brands along with some fantastic niche brands as well.”
Keeping up with the huge global brands is something craft brewers today are doing a brilliant job of in terms of growth. Craft beers are the single fastest-growing segment at Ontario’s LCBO, up 46 per cent. But Abrams notes it wasn’t always easy, particularly breaking into the restaurant business. “It took a long time for us to get established in the licensee market,” he says. “Initially, there were a lot of barriers to entry, but fortunately, we’re at a point now where the customer is asking for a craft product. Eventually you’ll start seeing differentiation on menus and beer lists too, in that you’ll have a domestic beer section, and then a separate craft beer section on its own…Well, maybe I’d just like to see that,” he laughs.
Whether your establishment specializes in cocktails, wine, beer or all of the above, customer demands are evolving. In the past, restaurateurs may have gotten away with going generic, safe or homogenous, but that will no longer do. There’s just too many exciting, experimental and exceptional options out there, and, seeing as the customer is searching for it, you’d better start pouring it.