HOME | IN THE MAGAZINE | BACK ISSUES | NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2012
Story by Adam McDowell
Photos by Tracy Cox and Wendy Tancock
Toronto passed Montreal to become Canada’s biggest city in the 1970s, but it wasn’t ready to raise a toast to itself. The dour influence of Toronto’s Scottish Presbyterian roots had made it a dull town, its nightlife hobbled by draconian liquor laws. Certain districts remained dry long after Prohibition; the last holdout neighborhood only voted to go wet in 2000. Toronto didn’t drink like an honest-to-goodness big city.
More recently, however, a feverish mania for dining out has taken hold, spurring an explosion of youthfully energetic and trendy restaurants in the relaxed, green-canopied neighborhoods that ring the downtown core. The local food revolution has led to a rethinking of the city’s liquid diet—sophisticated cocktails are blossoming across the city, and local brewers are introducing formerly unfamiliar styles of beer. The city is even honing a few niche capabilities, with special expertise developing in molecular mixology, infusions and cask ales.
In early 2011, a couple of visitors at The Harbord Room, Dave Mitton’s popular bistro in the Annex neighborhood, boasted about having scored a gluttonous portion of the city’s precious supply of Luxardo maraschino liqueur. The essential cocktail staple only shows up sporadically in the province’s government-owned Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) stores. “It disappointed me,” Mitton recalls.
To the co-owner and head bartender of The Harbord Room, this most un-Canadian display of selfishness pointed to bigger problems holding back Toronto’s cocktail scene. He believes bartenders ought to help each other survive in a challenging environment— challenging because there was no local tradition of cocktail drinking to speak of, and much educating needing to be done, and because the LCBO, while improving of late, continues to present supply and selection obstacles that drive bartenders mad.
In other respects it doesn’t make sense that Toronto has lagged as a drinking destination. The number of residents in Greater Toronto has doubled since 1976 to 5.6 million, half of which are foreign-born. And the Great Recession withered here in the face of a seemingly unstoppable condominium boom. Prosperity and a multicultural backdrop have made Toronto a hungry city, figuratively and literally.
With that in mind, Mitton made it a mission to put Toronto on the drinking map. He gathered 30 prominent bartenders, and pleaded his case. “‘You guys want Toronto on the map? It’s not, and here’s why I think that is: no camaraderie,’” he remembers telling them. “‘Alone, we’re never going to do this, but as a whole, we can cause a bit of a buzz.’”
Mitton closed his restaurant one frigid night in January 2011 to hold the meeting. “There were some scraps,” he says. “Some people butted heads.” But many new friendships were formed, and in the end, 30 bartenders wrote their email addresses on an empty pizza box, anointing Mitton as disseminator of information on tastings, competitions and other events meant to bring the bartending community together. The email roll has grown to more than 200 people, all committed to the goal of developing and elevating Toronto’s cocktail scene.
Take Nishantha Nepulangoda, who oversees the bar operations at Blowfish, a high-end Asian resto-bar focused on sushi. Born in Sri Lanka and trained at a luxury resort in Dubai, he’s one of the few prominent bartenders to emerge from Toronto’s large immigrant population. He’s particularly skilled at borrowing challenging Asian ingredients from the kitchen, such as tamarind and kaffir lime leaves, and incorporating them into elegantly calibrated cocktails. Nepulangoda experiments with Cognac- and bourbon-based cocktails, but especially popular are his vodka- and sake-based creations like the Green Tea and Ginger, which blends vodka and Campari with housemade ginger cordial and green tea syrup.
Meanwhile, Rob Montgomery has specialized in expanding the comfort zone of local cocktail drinkers. He oversees the bar at the uptown Miller Tavern, established 1857, and a downtown satellite near the arena where the Toronto Maple Leafs play hockey. A well-perfected Canadian standby is the Bloody Caesar, a variation of the Bloody Mary that includes clam juice, and Montgomery’s may be the best around. Another locally popular cocktail is the Manhattan, one of the few that red-blooded Canadian men have considered sufficiently macho to safely order. Montgomery offers nine variations and close cousins of the classic formula. While his inspiration comes from New York, the whisky is often Canadian. Montgomery’s version of the Carroll Gardens, first seen at Death & Co. in New York, contains Crown Royal Black Canadian Whisky, Punt e Mes, Averna amaro and maraschino liqueur. His rendition of the Bensonhurst, inspired by New York bartender Chad Solomon’s original, employs Canada’s Century Reserve 15 Year Old as its rye.
The members-only Toronto Temperance Society, a seductively lit, speakeasy-style cocktail bar in Little Italy, offers modern renditions of the classics to drinkers willing to pony up C$285 annually for a black membership card. And, for the masses, Toronto has a plethora of tiny neighborhood bars, many of which have ambitious cocktail leanings. Churchill, for example, offers the hard-hitting cocktails of Sandy De Almeida, who masterfully mixes brash spirits like bourbon and tequila with more subtle notes from amari and other liqueurs. Take her Battle of Algiers, which pairs bourbon with doses of Green Chartreuse and chai-infused sweet vermouth. Her Autumn Sonata, meanwhile, is a full-throttle but balanced mix of clove- and orange-infused Port, Calvados, an amaro and Peychaud’s bitters.
Restaurants have taken a lead role in Toronto’s cocktail awakening. To visit Mitton’s Harbord Room today is to witness a new behavior for the city: people starting dinner with a cocktail. Mitton’s cocktail list swings with Toronto’s extreme seasons. Among recent highlights is his adaptation of the Scottish Athol Brose, a centuries-old Scottish tipple. He (perhaps mercifully) skips the traditional oatmeal and emphasizes honey, cream and single malt scotch. His Lady Sniper, meanwhile, deftly combines blanco tequila, Cynar and Yellow Chartreuse.
Another small neighborhood eatery serving solid cocktails is The County General, which complements its casual, Southern U.S.-influenced food menu with a short but punchy drink list and healthy supplies of rum and bourbon. The Showdown combines both categories, pairing Demerara rum and bourbon and sealing the marriage with housemade cherry vanilla bitters.
Perhaps more than any restaurant, The Black Hoof, which opened in October 2008, has pushed Torontonians into unfamiliar drinking territory. Food writers have showered it with accolades for its nose-to-tail, charcuterie-focused menu. Four years ago, “there was almost nowhere to go” for cocktails in Toronto, says owner and cocktail creator Jen Agg. Her focus was running the restaurant (and, later, the seafood-oriented Raw Bar next door). But having sharpened her craft running a now-defunct cocktail bar called Cobalt from 1998 to 2006, Agg had skills to share, and Toronto had a void to fill. The hooch was such a hit that The Black Hoof expanded last year to include a satellite called Cocktail Bar across the street. Its spare moniker is a testament to the single-mindedness of Agg’s goal: introducing Toronto to the concept of a confident, competent, American-style cocktail bar.
The restaurateur found part of her inspiration in the mid-2000s during trips to New York, gleaning lessons from bars like Milk and Honey. “I became fascinated with infusions and making my own [ingredients], particularly because we couldn’t get a lot of stuff here,” she says. Infusions and other housemade ingredients gave Agg more command over flavor profiles, allowing her to transcend the LCBO’s limited selection.
But while she’s serious about her cocktails, Agg leaves any pretenses behind and tries to keep things low-key and accessible. “We don’t do the whole vest-and-monocle thing,” she says. “Not that I object to it—I think it can be very cute. But I like the clash between old-timey and modern, and I think my drink list reflects that.” Her menus feature original creations as well as classics, plus modern twists like a Martinez made with oak-aged Beefeater gin.
The challenges of the LCBO helped inspire another star Toronto bartender. Frankie Solarik, co-owner of BarChef, credits the state’s limited selection for his boundary- pushing cocktail repertoire. The molecular mixology side of his menu has been the big draw for the cavernous, dimly lit bar on bustling Queen Street. BarChef made a flashy debut in late 2008, wowing a cocktail-shy city with such molecular trickery as mojito “ravioli.” A dip in a sodium alginate bath wraps a spoonful of mojito in a skin of calcium gluconolactate, creating a gelatinous pouch that bursts deliciously in the mouth.
Complex planning goes into each new offering, as evidenced by moisture-wrinkled, much-scribbled-upon notebooks Solarik keeps behind the bar. His skills with chemistry are self-taught, while his inspiration comes from unusual mental wiring. “Apparently I have this thing called synesthesia,” he says. “It’s the misdirection of the senses. It’s a very positive thing for what I do. It allows me to feel flavor; to make flavor a tangible object.”
BarChef’s signature vanilla hickory-smoked Manhattan is pure cocktail theater. The bartender flames hickory chips before your eyes, then stirs in Canada’s own Crown Royal Cask 16, vanilla-infused Cognac and house cherry-vanilla bitters. The drink is placed on a pedestal over the smoldering woodchips, under a bell jar that traps the smoke so it can percolate into the drink. At C$45, it’s not cheap, but the result has a pleasant smoky-caramel flavor that has been known to provoke deep memories of sitting by a campfire in some drinkers.
Beyond the sorcery, humbler ingredients and techniques form the backbone of BarChef’s four-page punch and cocktail list. Solarik’s recipes require a rotating arsenal of 50 jars of housemade ingredients. He suspects Toronto cocktail menus feature an especially diverse variety of infusions because of local bartenders’ quest to transcend the restrictions of the LCBO. “Would drinks ever have reached where they are here if we didn’t have those limitations?” he asks. “Probably not.”
Solarik takes particular pride in the international media attention his unique approach to mixology has brought Toronto, and BarChef in particular. “We’re known as a go-to spot … for people visiting the city. I would say almost every night we have someone in from the U.S.,” he says.
Where beer was concerned, Ontarians used to more or less have three options: Molson, Labatt or imports. Emerging in the 1990s, microbreweries focused on popular pilsners and pale ales, a survival strategy that only reinforced Toronto’s conservative beer tendencies. Circa the mid-2000s, a wide beer selection was a rare thing. Keen beer drinkers could make a pilgrimage to Smokeless Joe, a tiny subterranean nook nestled among the mega-nightclubs of the Entertainment District (it has since moved to above-ground digs in Little Italy) or the much larger Beerbistro. Opened in 2003 steps from Bay Street, Canada’s equivalent of Wall Street, Beerbistro’s been packed with thirsty, beer-loving suits ever since. Both spots specialize in mussels, oysters and Belgian beer, and both have swiveled their attention more towards Ontario beers as the variety thereof has expanded.
That expansion has been especially rapid over the past two years. In a bid to break the mega-breweries’ hold, local advocates of great beer have adopted a spirit of experimentation—rebellion, even. Several small operations have opened since 2011, including Junction Craft Brewing, named for the Junction—the very neighborhood that held out against alcohol sales until 2000. It’s a sign things have changed.
Another sign of Toronto’s changing beer landscape: The Beer Academy, something of an “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” effort from the Six Pints Specialty Beer Company, Molson’s craft beer wing. It has a mandate of educating locals about unfamiliar beer styles, and achieves this by brewing small volumes of beer to take away from its on-site shop. Some of the styles, including a Belgian brown ale, have seldom been tasted in Toronto. Group tastings and food pairing seminars are key activities for the Beer Academy, says Six Pints’ Aaron Bilyea.
The fact remains that the LCBO licenses only a handful of companies to control all draught distribution in Ontario, and while the LCBO does stock a few dozen American beers in bottles, Torontonians seeking U.S. craft beer on tap typically have only two choices: Samuel Adams Boston Lager and Brooklyn Lager.
Deprivations of this kind inspired the Saloon League. The underground club was formed last year by Canadian beer enthusiasts tired of being excluded from the best that the U.S. craft beer scene has to offer, at least in draught form. The League holds occasional, semi-secret parties at members’ houses, tapping kegs brought in from Quebec or the United States. They usually arrive in the car trunks of members, who say they follow the law by declaring the loot at the U.S.-Canada border.
Establishments that operate above ground have to find other ways to expand the beer options. Around six years ago, Bar Volo was an ordinary Italian restaurant. But the Morana family, which had opened Volo in 1985, found its affinity for beer was growing. Finally, a couple of years ago, the family took a risk and agreed to reboot Volo as a beer bar.
Among Volo’s numerous beer-evangelizing initiatives, the House Ales program is perhaps the most intriguing. The Moranas ripped out part of the kitchen to set up a nanobrewing operation, revolving around a stainless-steel, all-in-one brewing apparatus. The experiments, brewed one 100-liter batch at a time, have been a success. Scion Tomas Morana looked sheepish last April when blind judging of a competition between 32 Ontario cask IPAs at Volo placed three of its own ales in the final four.
Palates are slowly changing. Torontonians have a thirst for American-style IPAs, and in the absence of U.S. imports on draught, local breweries, such as Spearhead Brewery, are stepping in. At the same time, the city’s British influence remains strong. That may help explain the popularity of Bar Volo’s Cask Days events, which have advanced the cause of real ales in Toronto. Today the Moranas have an “amazing” number of customers for another side project: the sale of cask ale equipment. “You’ve got all these new trendy bars, and the first thing on their mind when they’re setting up is, ‘I want to have a cask engine,’” says Morana.
The Canadian pub, the primary beer-drinking locale, is another consequence of the British influence here. Torontonians have a deep-set loyalty to the localized version: In Toronto, a “pub” is often an establishment where fish and chips and chintzy pub decor serve as the only nods to British roots. Otherwise, patrons wash down American-style sports bar food (and Canada’s ubiquitous poutine) with big-brand beers. But the Canadian pub is getting an update at a few places around town, with English transplant Jamieson Kerr leading the way. Kerr opened the Queen and Beaver Public House downtown in 2009 and added The Oxley in tony Yorkville last spring with chef Andrew Carter as partner. Both pubs serve well-made smashes, Mint Juleps and Pimm’s Cups, but the smartly designed properties aren’t necessarily cocktail destinations, and Carter’s menus dismiss the idea that British food is bland. Think malty, local County Durham Brewing ales on cask and lamb’s kidney on toast.
Ontario is also borrowing ideas and flavors from another influence: Quebec, the majority French-speaking province next door. Bar Volo doubles as a small-scale distributor for Dieu du Ciel!, a Montreal-based microbrewery best known for its Rosée d’Hibiscus, a fragrant and thirst-quenching wheat beer flavored with hibiscus blossoms. “The Quebec brewing scene is really interesting, and you don’t get the same style range as you do anywhere else,” Morana says.
Not content to let the Québecois have all the fun, Ontario microbreweries are at last introducing styles that were rarely seen here until very recently, even styles that have never been seen anywhere. Beau’s All Natural Brewing Co., located near the Ontario- Quebec border, recently partnered with Quebec’s Microbrasserie Trou Du Diable to create Fous Alliés (“Crazy Allies”), a mango saison ale.
Meanwhile, a puckeringly dry and food-friendly Farmhouse Saison has graced the tap at Bellwoods Brewery, which opened in a former auto shop on the achingly hip Ossington Avenue last spring. Co-owners Luke Pestl and Mike Clark left Amsterdam Brewing, a more established Toronto microbrewery, to take a chance on the idea of West Enders taking a liking to adventurous libations like their Berliner weisse and the challengingly bitter Witchshark Impreial IPA. “Toronto, as far as craft brewing goes, has definitely been a little more on the conservative side,” Clark says, “but in recent history, that’s rapidly changing.”
Indeed, Torontonians are being won over, judging by the thirsty throngs that congregate on the Bellwoods patio. Brewers might do well to woo the bureaucrats next. The paperwork alone to establish the retail side of the Bellwoods operation was “a massive hassle,” Clark says. He doubts Toronto drinkers were ever really as timid as their reputation suggested. Perhaps they have been a slumbering giant, waiting for the next wave of entrepreneurs to unleash even greater creativity in the local cocktail and beer scenes. And Toronto’s bartenders, restaurateurs and brewers aren’t waiting around any longer for regulations to change. They’re busy turning Canada’s biggest city into one of the world’s great places to slake a thirst.