The Rebirth of Booze

The Rebirth of Booze

At the hottest restaurants, cocktails are as sophisticated as the food. Bartenders are playing with liquid nitrogen, concocting infusions, and changing the way we drink. It’s the most exciting gastronomic development in years

Smoke and firewater: Barchef, on Queen West, serves a $45 haute manhattan, a mix of whisky, vanilla cognac and bitters that arrives in a bell jar filled with hickory smoke (Image: Finn O'Hara) 

There are only two kinds of cocktails—those that are dead and those that are alive—and the only way to tell them apart is to taste them. A dead drink is at best two-dimensional, merely a mixture of liquids; a living cocktail is full of motion as its flavours unfold on the palate. It’s like the difference between a paint-by-numbers canvas and a true work of art. And in this city, the dead outnumber the living by about a thousand to one.

But not for long, thanks to a handful of determined pioneers. Frankie Solarik at Barchef, Moses McIntee at Ame, Jen Agg at the Black Hoof and Bill Sweete at Sidecar make up the new avant-garde, along with Christine Sismondo, the author of the influential book Mondo Cocktail, who is opening her own place on College Street in July, wryly called the Toronto Temperance Society. Each one has a different view of what constitutes a great cocktail, but they all share a single belief: it’s high time the age of the crantini was over.

The most extreme place to observe this revolution is Barchef, the dimly lit temple of mixology on Queen West where Frankie Solarik is the celebrant. Tall, slim and bearded, wearing a black porkpie hat, he works behind a bar crowded with more than 30 spiced infusions and subtle elixirs in various flasks and jars. I’ve never seen such a set-up—like an alchemist’s laboratory, complete with the molecular foams, flavoured airs and gelatinous transubstantiations that are Solarik’s specialty. His masterpiece is a smoked vanilla manhattan, a $45 cocktail set in a bell jar filled with hickory smoke until it smells like a campfire and tastes like heaven.

Solarik got his start at the age of 17 working in a cigar bar in London, Ontario, listening to gentlemen discuss the relative merits of different tobaccos, cognacs and single malts. He learned high-volume bartending in England in the 1990s and then refined his technique at Tocqueville in Manhattan. He really began to explore the possibilities of his profession when he returned to Toronto in 2001 and found work at Rain, Luce and finally Kultura. “That’s where I began doing this kind of mise en place,” he says, glancing down at the potions on the bar. “As an artist, I need to work among my colours, if you see what I mean.”

Barchef’s small but devoted congregation includes superstar chefs Susur Lee, Guy Rubino, Claudio Aprile and Grant Achatz of Alinea in Chicago. Tonight, however, Solarik is freestyling for me, improvising a cocktail to suit the mood and the moment. He finds inspiration in unusual places—the sound of a muted trumpet on Miles Davis’s Sketches of Spain and the scent of his infant son’s cucumber-and-melon bath soap. I just want something to match the charcuterie and cheeses on the bar’s minimal menu. He begins by rinsing a glass with green Chartreuse before taking an ice pick to the massive translucent block of ice on the bar, chopping out chunks for the shaker. Then he reaches for his orange-infused New Amsterdam gin, his house-made coconut bitters, the apricot bitters, a trace of fennel syrup and a dash of Amaro Lucano. Shake and strain. The amber drink shimmers in the glow of the candles. I catch the aromas of orange and spice as the cold, heavy spirits hit my tongue in a swirl of rich, bittersweet flavours—it’s like drinking polarized light. And it’s great with the cheese.

Sketch the history of Hogtown drinking on a cocktail napkin and you end up with something that looks like Libeskind’s ROM, a series of jagged fits and starts. The city’s mid-19th-century smart set wasn’t immune to the American fascination with mixology (the word dates from around 1865), but most knowledge was lost during Ontario’s long Prohibition. Amazingly, hotels were forbidden to serve hard liquor until 1947. A few great bars soon emerged—the Roof Lounge is still with us—and I’ve heard stories of Mad Men–esque cocktail parties in the ’60s (my father-in-law was renowned for mixing batches of dry martinis in the washing machine), but by and large Toronto remained a rye-and-ginger town well into the 1980s.

The ’90s were blighted by sickly custards like the mudslide and by the cosmopolitan and its infantile offspring, sweet drinks whose only purpose was to hide the presence of spirits. Entrepreneurs like Michelle Hunt and Laura Panter of the Martini Club, Brock Shepherd at Azul, and Dave Mitton, now at the Harbord Room, fought back with their own concoctions, but progress was slow. “As recently as two years ago,” recalls Bill Sweete, “when I was planning on opening Sidecar and checking out the competition along College, one bartender told me that he considered himself a traditionalist because he mixed his own lemon-lime for margaritas from powder instead of getting it from the gun.”

A few years ago, bartenders who squeezed their own fruit juices were seen as radicals. Now, that’s standard practice

Sweete, Christine Sismondo and I are sitting around a back table at Negroni, Sweete’s other restaurant on College, nibbling panini and dissecting the scene. A savvy businessman as well as a talented bartender, he was in at the start of Toronto’s bibulous evolution. In 2004, when he put together the cocktail program at Bymark, he was seen as radical for squeezing fresh juices and properly muddling a mojito. At Sidecar, he challenged the Sex and the City brigade head-on. “I tried to wean people off cosmopolitans by doing my own version using cranberry-infused vodka instead of juice. We called it a Little Tart. That was my joke on anyone who would actually order a cosmo. People loved it.”

“Except the people who thought it was just stuck-up,” adds Sismondo. “They didn’t like finding out their beloved cosmo is no longer cool.”

Sweete is a business partner in the Toronto Temperance Society, but it’s Sismondo’s baby. She plans to make the space above Sidecar a private club with a $285 annual membership (a way of ensuring customers can enjoy their drinks in peace on nights when College Street is choked with drunken clubbers), and the cocktail list reflects her preferences. A keen historian of mixology, she intends to revive pre-Prohibition cocktails at TTS, along with some of the more serious tiki drinks from the ’50s, plus a line of “market-fresh” cocktails. The club will feature house-made infusions and her own tonic water, made with cinchona bark, allspice and citrus. She has brought some for me to try, and it’s incredibly quenching: tangy, edgy and not nearly as sweet as the commercial stuff.

But, unlike many of their peers, she and Sweete draw the line at bitters (“the bitters you buy are better than what we could make”), and she won’t be using any of the molecular techniques that Frankie Solarik uses at Barchef. “I think it’s mostly just smoke and mirrors,” she explains. “I don’t want an olive that explodes in my mouth and has something that tastes like a mojito inside it; I want an actual mojito. Not that I’m criticizing Frankie,” she adds quickly. “It’s great someone’s doing it. But if Frankie is the haute couture of the bar scene, we’ll have more of a ready-to-wear collection.”

Molecular mixology seems to be the ideological divide among our new star bartenders. “Let’s just say, it’s totally not for me,” is Jen Agg’s response when I bring up the question one evening, sitting with her at the Hoof Café’s bar. “It can be fun, but it can also be silly, and I think drinking is serious.” A tall, elegant brunette, Agg prefers to be called a bartender rather than a mixologist, finding the old word pretentious. She has been behind a bar all her working life, starting out as a teenager at Toby’s Good Eats, then moving to the Imperial Public Library and Souz Dal. She was co-owner and operator of Cobalt for eight years. That she still has a passion for the business is obvious from the frequently changing cocktail lists she devises for the two Dundas West spots she co-owns with chef Grant van Gameren. Using spices and seasonal fruits, she makes dozens of variations on her house bitters, each one designed for a specific cocktail. For example, blood orange bitters goes into a Pink on Pink, a fragrant union of fresh grapefruit juice and gin infused with red sorrel flowers. “What I really like to do is take a great idea and twist it, make it modern,” she says, “but you need to be able to make the classic drink exactly the right way before you can twist it.”

To prove the point, she mixes me a manhattan, stirring 10-year-old Alberta rye, red vermouth and a dash of her own clove-heavy bitters and garnishing it with a cherry she has steeped in amaretto, rye and sugar. It’s magnificent: the bitters hover at the centre of my palate like the spinning nucleus of an atom, surrounded by the sweet vermouth and cold, sharp whisky.

Given the Hoof’s obsession with charcuterie, it’s entirely appropriate that Agg should make a bacon-washed rye, curing and smoking her own bacon, then steeping the rind in whisky, imbuing the spirit with a salty, maple-sweet smokiness. More than just a tasty gimmick, it’s emblematic of the new, symbiotic relationship between cocktails and the kitchen that is transforming the way we drink. Old-time bartending had nothing to do with food beyond slicing a lemon or impaling an olive; today’s cocktail masters are making their own artisanal ingredients and using seasonal produce as conscientiously as any chef.

“I’ve always wanted to be a cook,” says Moses McIntee, the head bartender at Ame. “Philosophically speaking, my work comes out of the kitchen, not the bar.” He learned high-end bartending at CinCin in Vancouver, and when he came home two years ago he ended up at Nota Bene and then School Bakery and Café. At Ame, his mandate was precise: to create an Asian-inspired cocktail menu using as many fresh ingredients as possible. Chinatown’s grocery stores have been an invaluable resource, and many of McIntee’s ideas come from Ame’s kitchen—a cocktail using the red, green and white fronds of arame seaweed, for instance.

A sophisticated clientele is a vital component of a true cocktail culture, which is why the Mercer Street hot spot started holding cocktail classes in the early evening, spreading the idea of well-made drinks as much as bringing in new customers. I joined one of the sessions, taking my seat at the bar beside a dozen other eager students who had each paid $50 to take part. McIntee turned out to be an entertaining professor, teaching us how to chip ice from the huge block on the bar using his $5,000 Belvedere ice pick. He helped each of us prepare a perfect bourbon sour, then set up a competition in which we created our own wacky concoctions while nibbling on sashimi and tempura. To finish, McIntee and his team showed off some molecular techniques. They looked like mad scientists as they poured liquid nitrogen into a dry martini, chilling it down to minus 15 degrees Celsius.

“It’s not a parlour trick,” he says. “Just the perfect way of chilling a cocktail.”

The glory of our burgeoning cocktail scene is its inclusivity—the same characteristic, incidentally, that gives our city a culinary identity. There’s equal room for a 19th-century sazerac made properly with cognac, absinthe and Peychaud bitters (McIntee stirs up a doozie), for Agg’s horseradish gin, for Sismondo’s old-fashioned, and for Solarik’s espresso caviar. Space may even be found for a cosmo, if made with integrity under proper adult supervision. The new mixology embraces many styles as it straddles the old divide between food and drink: it’s the most interesting gastronomical development in years.