Cocktail Czars: Secrets of Victoria’s top-notch bartenders
Did you hear the one about a Victorian who walked into a bar and never left? We heard about five of them, actually. The intoxicating allure of mixology was too strong to resist for the five people who have since become some of our city’s most promising and prestigious bartenders — though they didn’t all start out that way.
What would it take to follow in their shakers? Here’s a hint: “Your ability to create a drink is relatively low on the priorities list — I don’t care if you know how to make an Old Fashioned; I can teach you that,” says Simon Ogden, bar manager for Veneto Tapa Lounge. “I am looking for eagerness, and an over-the-top need to take care of people.”
As winner of the 2011 Art of the Cocktail Best Bartender competition, few would suspect that Josh Boudreau’s first passion is music — he’s in few bands — or that he had to “scrape a lot of gum off tables” just to get a shot behind the bar, or that he was fired from his first bartending gig.
But what many might guess is that Boudreau is a lightning-quick study, schooled in performance and has a magnetic personality stronger than any drink.
How it all began: Boudreau, 25, has been a champion bartender at Veneto for just over two years. Back in 2008, though, as he was working through university, it was his passion for cooking that drove him into the service industry and to a gig bussing tables at Canoe Brewpub. Soon he was drawn to the atmosphere and glamour of life behind the bar and, months later, Boudreau was given his chance — one bartending shift, during the day, every Monday.
“It wasn’t great, but I busted my ass, I did all my homework, I learned the drinks and I loved it,” says Boudreau. “It was like a performance, being on stage, and I felt at home.”
So when a better position at the bar opened up, but Boudreau was passed over, sour grapes got in the way and he was eventually let go. His passion for bartending didn’t leave, however, and knowing he didn’t have much to offer — nor a lot to lose — he applied to a posting at Veneto.
“I went to the interview and told them, I don’t know all this stuff yet, but teach me and I will do it your way,” says Boudreau. “Really, a lot of it has to do with timing — you can teach anyone to make a drink, but you can’t teach someone personality.”
Lucky for Boudreau, historic bartenders Solomon Siegel and Simon Ogden were there to challenge him, and his work alongside award-winning bartender Katie McDonald led to a second-place win in the 2010 Art of the Cocktail competition and first-place in 2011.
“As a bartender, your job is to take care of people,” says Boudreau. “No matter who comes through that door, you greet them like they are a long-lost friend. You make them feel special, and your bar becomes the place they call home — they don’t want to go anywhere else.”
Favourite drink: “Straight bourbon.”
Culture shift: “The days of pre-drinking are really coming to an end, and drinking itself is becoming an activity again — it’s become sexy.”
Tip from the bar: “It sounds obvious, but if you want to get a job as a bartender, look like you want a job: dress well. Even at casual bars, the look is ‘perfectly imperfect.’ You are the first or second person the guest sees, and how you look matters.”
Two years ago, personal chef Janice Mansfield wanted chocolate bitters in her Manhattans. That motivation prompted her to invent her own line of bitters through her subsequent company, House Made. Now, Mansfield has become an institution of food and cocktail knowledge through Real Food Made Easy, where she specializes in creating customized meal plans and baking for people with food sensitivities.
Boasting over one million followers on Google+, Mansfield teaches cooking to a worldwide audience through ChefHangout.com, and also happened to win the 2011 Art of the Cocktail’s “Best Home Bartender” title.
How it all began: “The economics of things have really changed how we look at food and drink,” says Mansfield, 46. “It’s pricey to go out all the time and, as people become more comfortable with the idea that you can do this at home, the more we start to democratize it — I’m all about democratizing food.”
Mansfield was tired of going out just to order “blue slushy” drinks, so she turned to wine. But when her husband could no longer drink, a bottle of wine wasn’t an economical option for one. So, Mansfield entered the world of creating pre-prohibition era cocktails — the only problem: few bitters existed. A handful of experiments later, and more than a few conversations with experts, and Mansfield has created everything from chocolate to lavender, to rhubarb, to celery and sun-dried tomato bitters. In fact, Mansfield can make a bitter out of almost anything: all the substance really needs is an extractable flavour.
“We’re starting to lean away from labels like ‘foodie’ and realizing that good food and drink is not a privilege or an exclusivity thing anymore,” says Mansfield. “People care about what they put in their bodies. And it really isn’t hard to start your own professional bar at home — you don’t even have to buy top-shelf liquors.”
Favourite drink: “That’s like asking, ‘Who’s your favourite kid?’ Though I’ll often make a large batch of the ‘Jet Pilot’ tiki drink for camping — rum, citrus, Falernum-spiced syrup: it packs a punch.”
Latest trend: “I’m really into punches right now,” says Mansfield. “Punch is this really old, pre-cocktail beverage that was an economical way to use ice and serve a communal drink. It has four components: sweet, sour, strong — a spirit — and weak — usually a tea.”
Tip from the bar: “Trust your palate. Just because someone says ‘this is a really good cocktail,’ doesn’t mean it will be to your taste. Proportion makes all the difference, so experiment at home, and try everything to see what you do like.”
When Nate Caudle started bartending, he was thrown a curve. Not because he couldn’t handle the drink chemistry, complicated orders, or often high-stress environment — but because he needed to learn how to like people again.
Now, as one of the top bartenders at Clive’s Classic Lounge who can even be seen toting his Spiderman onesie come Halloween, Caudle has iced his jaded edge and cinched noteworthy spots in the Pacific Northwest bartending scene, coming in second in the 2011 Art of the Cocktail competition, and being hand-picked by some of the industry’s most historical trendsetters.
How it all began: Caudle found his way to bartending after a long stint as a gas station attendant. “No one is pumped to see you when they have to get gas,” says Caudle, 26. “People are pissed, you deal with a lot of transients, and it can feel like one bad day after the next.”
Then, in 2008, finally fed up with the grind, Caudle decided to take a class in bartending. He found a position working at the prestigious Solomon’s when it was still open on Herald Street. With new contacts in the industry, he was picked up at Pagliacci’s restaurant, where he was given a crash course in manners.
“Customer service is paramount at Pag’s. A lot of stuff can go on, but you cross a guest once and you’re out the door,” says Caudle. “It really forced me out of my shell and taught me how jaded I had become. In this industry, it doesn’t matter what you’re dealing with at home — if someone died, or you had a bad day — that guest is there to have a good time, and your job is to make sure they do.”
Manners minded, Caudle was soon snatched up by Clive’s.
“If you told people five years ago you could make a career out of bartending, people would have said you were stupid. This was the job people took because you had to find a job — now, being a bartender is a respected trade again.”
Favourite drink: “Gin and Tonic, hands down,” says Caudle. “Never be ashamed to order something so simple from a bartender. It’s a classic for a reason.”
Lesser-known facts: “The industry takes care of its people, and bartenders take care of each other,” says Caudle. “There is always competition, but it’s there with this feeling of family, too.”
Tip from the bar: “Humility in bartending is huge, and so is being a people person. The nerdy guys who know everything about certain liquors are needed, but they might never do as well as the fun guy who can strike up a conversation. And, who you work with is important. If you are having more good days than bad, you are on top. I have more good days.”
Lee Snider has been a fixture of the bar at Fiamo Italian Kitchen ever since the restaurant opened in 2008 — and even before that, when it was still Luciano’s. At 37, Snider has been a bartender her entire adult life, since leaving for Europe at age 17 and starting her first bar gig in Austria. She was drawn to the energy, the people, the fun, and learned her craft from a military bartender with a “strict pecking order” and sharp expectations.
How it all began: When Snider returned to Canada, it was part timing and part luck that got her a bar job at the Oak Bay Marina in 1997. From there, she picked up posts around the city at places like Darcy’s Pub and Upstairs Cabaret, then The Tapa Bar and Luciano’s, which later became Fiamo.
“Certainly, if you are a people person by nature, if you draw on the energy from the music, this role comes easier,” says Snider. “That, and finding a way to put that extra attention into every drink, while simultaneously serving 200 people. You have to remember the room full of guests, and not get too involved with one person, yet make every person feel as though they are the most important.”
When it comes to that attention, Snider is keenly aware that bartending has been considered a male-dominated industry. While the sexism still exists, both from clientele and colleagues, Snider says there are ways around it. The biggest factor: choosing your environment.
“The situation in a night club is going to be different than a place like Fiamo, and you have to be part of a culture you feel good about,” she says. “I’m married with two children and people can see I’m not available, but there is still that desire to flirt and be playful and know it isn’t going to go any further than that. You have to have firm boundaries, though, and be very clear.”
Favourite drink: “Mint Juleps with my sister — lemons, mint, bourbon; it’s fresh and herbal and you can’t go wrong.”
Most commonly served: “The Prosecco movement is huge right now,” says Snider. “I love that this is no longer considered a female drink, and that we see just as many men holding long-stem glasses.”
Tip from the bar: “Most bartenders crave to give you exactly what you want,” says Snider. “Even if you don’t know what that is yet, have three descriptors in mind: sweet, sour, juicy, tart — this is the ultimate challenge in bartending, but these requests are what inspire new drinks.”
Those who know Ryan Malcolm wouldn’t discount this 22-year-old as being one of Victoria’s youngest and shiniest rising stars in the bartending world.
Despite his short time on the scene, Malcolm has already landed high-end gigs as bar manager of Glo Restaurant and Lounge, and supervisor of a prestigious event at Craigdarroch Castle that saw a crew serve over 650 drinks in one night, on multiple levels of the castle, with only one sink of running water.
Malcolm also took home third place in the 2011 Art of the Cocktail competition, and has seen his name spiking ever since — straight to bar manager of Sauce Restaurant and Lounge.
How it all began: Malcolm “always knew” he wanted to be a bartender. So much so, that he snagged a gig as a barista when he was 16, since that was as close as he could get. When Malcolm found a position at Glo, he worked in every role from parking attendant, to host, to busser and server until he found his way into his first bartending position at the barely legal age of 19. Not long after, he was managing the bar.
“You really need a stand-up act to become a bartender, because it’s really on you to provide the entertainment,” says Malcolm, who holds another job as a representative of a tonic company. “Of course, getting the awards and being noticed can really help you establish credit in the industry, and with your peers, too.”
Now leading the bar at Sauce, Malcolm is still drawn to the creativity of bartending.
“I love this work, because it does fulfill a creative part of me,” says Malcolm. “I don’t sing, I don’t dance, I don’t paint — I make drinks.”
Favourite drink: “Beer — but my preferences change with the season.”
Bartending surprise: “I’ve been so impressed with how the whole city has been upping its cocktail culture, and that’s been because people are demanding quality products and classic drinks.”
Tip from the bar: “Don’t be discouraged in your initial stages of becoming a bartender,” says Malcolm. “You might have to take that crappy bussing job to get in the door, but it can get you there.” M