Toronto Cocktail Conference Wraps Up Successful First Year

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TORONTO — Bartenders, restaurant operators and cocktail enthusiasts recently participated in the Toronto Cocktail Conference hosted by the Drake Hotel from August 13 to 15. A total of 18 seminars were held during the three-day event, which welcomed more than 325 people — some of which came from as far as B.C., Nova Scotia and Southeast Asia.

Featuring bar-management tips, a cocktail competition and discussions about mental health, the event was an opportunity for industry professionals to network with colleagues, learn about the latest trends and taste delicious new cocktails from vendors such as the Shameful Tiki on Toronto’s Queen Street West.

“Events like these help to make sure people are aware that these issues [and challenges] exist,” says Jonathan Humphrey, corporate Beverage manager at the Drake Hotel. “We all have very demanding jobs. The industry as a whole has a lot of work to do to layer on support for employees in that regard. We’re all just starting to pay attention to health and wellness and treating each other better.”

He adds that many of the seminars were well-received including one by Chris McMillan, a legendary bartender from New Orleans and co-founder of the Museum of the American Cocktail.

Another seminar, titled Is This Job Killing Me? — hosted by Jordan Stacey of Corby Spirit and Wine Limited and Michael Fortier of El Rey Mezcal Bar — focused on the mental-health and wellness challenges bartenders can face.

“I had this ‘aha!’ moment where I had to reevaluate what I eat, what I drink and how I take care of myself,” noted Stacey, citing the overconsumption of alcohol as something bartenders have to wrestle with on a day-to-day basis. The importance of getting between seven to nine hours of sleep, eating healthy foods and finding a passion outside of bartending were among the seminar’s key takeaways.

Illisa Jestadt, a bartender at Northwood General and Mulberry Bar, is a 26-year-old bartender who’s been working in the industry for seven years. As a participant in the seminar, she identified with the challenges associated with bartending at least four to five days week.

“If you have a drink, it makes the shift go quicker and sometimes your clients buy you a drink. It can get out of control sometimes,” she says. “All of this stuff — sleeping, eating, self-care — just kind of passes you by if you don’t pay attention to it. I’m a Netflix-and-chill type person after a shift, so sometimes I don’t get enough sleep and it definitely wears on you.”

“It’s not a complicated equation: self-care, paying attention to your body,” Jestadt adds. “We all have to focus on it and we all go through unique challenges depending on our schedules, but it’s something we need to continue talking about.”

Another seminar — From Small to Large Scale Cocktail Bars and their Challenges, hosted by Toronto bartenders Brad Gubbins and Chris McCrabb, of the newly opened Founder Bar — focused on the differences between opening a small and large bar.

The duo proclaimed the death of the cocktail bar, citing the need for different alcohol and food programs that offer variety to patrons. “Jack Astors, Earl’s, the Keg — these places all have cocktails now and they’re pretty good, so the idea of having just a cocktail bar like they did 10/20 years ago is dead,” says McCrabb. “Bartenders aren’t focusing on that one aspect anymore. We’re seeing a movement to having quality wine and food programs. Our message is simple: don’t forget about other sales categories that could help your business.”

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