Today’s Top Bartenders Are Creating New Rules

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By: Jennifer Febbraro

[dropcap size=big]T[/dropcap]he word “foodie” has been added to the dictionary. But there doesn’t seem to be an equivalent term for someone who is interested in the creation and consumption of alcoholic drinks — think bartenders, mixologists, sommeliers and their customers. This comes at a time when Canada’s award-winning bartenders and sommeliers are being hired for their creativity and innovation, their ability to translate a mood with a single sip and their well-attuned sense of smell. Three such individuals sat down with F&H to share their inspirations, philosophies and advice.

Jen Agg

Widely known as the owner and operator of Toronto’s acclaimed Black Hoof, Jen Agg is also a master mixer, opening the Toronto bar Cobalt at 21.

Bartending made sense to the entreprenuer who had noticed a steady decline in the quality of alcoholic beverages being sold. “In this culture, nobody knows what good is, and everyone thinks ‘OK’ is great,” she notes. Agg surmises she’s been successful because she cares about the quality of the drinks she serves. “Canada has a young food culture; we have a young culture in general and that’s pervasive,” she says. “But I push for quality and keep away from all the BS.” And, there’s plenty of the latter in the male-dominated industry, says Agg.

Regardless, in 2011 Agg opened the rustic Cocktail Bar across the street from the Black Hoof, where she bases her drink creations on what she likes personally, not on trends. Customer favourites include the “Lavender Hound” ($9), a unique blend of lavender gin, red grapefruit, lemon and maldon and Satriale’s Iced Tea ($11) made with Amaro, Averna, Earl Grey gin, cucumber, lemon soda and salt.

And, Agg isn’t slowing down. Last year, she opened another drink-focused establishment — Rhum Corner, a creative take on the Haitian café. The casual bar, conveniently located next to the Black Hoof, features an array of rums that are not available at your typical liquor store. One of the popular drinks is the Fresco ($10), which features a blend of pomegranate syrup, falernum (a Caribbean ginger-lime syrup) and imported Havana rum. Agg’s favourite is “Daiq’d Up” ($12), a double rum and Coke topped with a frozen lime. It’s another quality drink from the prolific entrepreneur.

Jenner Cormier

Originally from Halifax, Jenner Cormier, Canada’s 2013 Diageo World Class Bartender of the Year, now calls Toronto home. And, although the 28-year-old drink-slinger has worked in Halifax, where he was involved in the opening of The Middle Spoon Desserterie & Cocktail Bar and the Noble cocktail lounge, he’s now surveying Toronto’s cocktail scene, having bartended at hubs such as Home of the Brave, a new King Street West lounge and the Toronto International Film Festival. Cormier’s main gig is working with Diageo as a Canadian Ambassador and drink consultant for the U.K.-based company that touts a collection of alcohol brands, including spirits, beer and wine.

“Toronto’s an inspiring place for the cocktail industry,” says the surfer-turned-serious bartender. “And there are a lot of trends we are seeing — with Sherry, for example, which has also seen a big boom in London, England and the U.S.” Cormier also names Agave-based spirits as an upcoming trend. “Tequila and Mezcal have been gaining attention from international bartenders. That’s not going away anytime soon.”

But the explosion in cocktail experimentation and house-made ingredients, such as bitters and shrubs, is inspired by today’s educated consumer. “People are begging to really understand and learn about what they are drinking,” explains Cormier. “It’s similar to how people are concerned about their diet and pay attention to the ingredients of their food.”

One of Cormier’s enduring favourite drinks is the Sazerac with a base of cognac or rye. “I like to add three or four dashes of Peychaud’s Bitters, a little simple syrup, and a couple of ounces of George Dickel Rye Wisky,” says Cormier. “Then I finish the drink with a zest of lemon.” Understanding the classics is necessary. “Though it is important to stay current, it doesn’t matter how good your cocktail list is if you cannot offer a guest a unique experience,” he says.

Veronique Rivest

In 2013, Véronique Rivest became Canada’s top sommelier, placing second at the World’s Best Sommelier Competition in Tokyo. In doing so, she became the first female to take the podium. Rivest spent years preparing for the competition. During time off from her day job as the GM and sommelier at Les Fougères in Chelsea, Que., she trained her senses by blindfolding herself to learn how to discern a Riesling from a Grüner Veltliner.

When it comes to recommending wine, Rivest understands it’s not about offering guests what she likes. “There is a ‘rock star’ or ‘celebrity status’ that is wrongly attached to the image of what a sommelier does. Many people, for instance, will design a wine menu based on their personal favourites, as opposed to reflecting — who is the clientele, what’s on the menu?” she says.

Last month, Rivest opened Soif (French for ‘thirst’), a wine bar in Gatineau, Que. “But don’t expect to see any ‘cool’ wines on the menu,” laughs the owner. Rivest likes to curate a diverse wine list, including many ‘underdogs’ of the wine industry, those made in small quantities, from organic ingredients and mostly locally made. These are the wines she knows and loves — the ones “made with passion” she says. They include Quebec wines Les Pervenches from Farnham and Vignoble du Marathonien from Havelock.

Nevertheless, Rivest loves sparkling wines best, noting that many Canadian drinkers don’t realize that some of the most incredible bottles come from Canada. Four of her favourite sparklers include: Nova Scotia’s Benjamin Bridge, which she compares to some of the best Champagnes in the world, Quebec’s L’Orpailleur Brut, Ontario’s Henry of Pelham Cuvée Catharine Brut and B.C.’s Blue Mountain Brut.

Meanwhile, Rivest notes that wines from muscat grapes are hot sellers, while orange wines are for imbibers who want something more experimental. (Orange wine is made by macerating the skins in with the flesh of the grapes, granting it a brownish hue and an almost bruised apple aroma.)

Having recently judged a provincial sommelier competition in Ontario, Rivest offers advice to industry newcomers: “Persevere. No one wins competitions at 21, and there is a reason for that.” She adds: “In wine-tasting, age is a bonus —
it connotes experience.”

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