21+ with Donnie Wheeler

To get better at anything requires a lot of hard work. Learning, practising, making mistakes and doing it all over again. The bartending community is full of veterans. Those people who have been behind the wood for decades. Who have seen trends and cocktails evolves. From these people we can learn a heck of a lot both when it comes to bartending and when it comes to life in general. We reached out to those who have been bartending for over twenty-one years to answer some questions about their experience over this time.

Today we talk with Toronto-based Donnie Wheeler. Donnie is currently the Canadian ambassador for Havana Club. He has worked in bars ranging from standard “college” bars to high end cocktail spots. While living in Vancouver he spearheaded that city’s tiki revival. Besides all of that, he is one of the kindest and friendliest guys out there.

Donnie Wheeler | Bartender Atlas

Bartender Atlas: Where was your first job behind a bar and what month/year was it?
Donnie Wheeler: HooDoo McFiggians, Guelph, Ontario, December 1995

What was the most popular drink you poured at the time?
“China White” shots, and “Whoo Hoo” a Gin & Tonic with grenadine.

What was the first drink ordered that you had no clue how to make?
A Manhattan , thank goodness for Mulligans Bar Guide .

Concerning entertainment in bars and restaurants at the time, was it mostly live music, or had DJs crept in? What was the vibe of the bar/cocktail scene back then?
Dee Jays for sure, but you’d have to help them in with their crates and crates of Compact Discs.

What trend in bars and drinks are you happy to have seen come and go in your career?
Smoking in bars was still a thing. Establishments spent serious money on machines that hung from the roof and sucked up that dark plume of death. Sadly powdered lime bar mix still exist, still waiting for that to go, but its at least on the decline.

Would you describe yourself as a pack leader (manager/trainer/educator) or a lone wolf?
“Pack Leader”, I am usually the oldest guy in the room. So life experience & common sense go a long way. A typical line I use in training is “I’ve already made the mistakes so you don’t have to.”

Any truly outstanding surprises that the industry has thrown your way? Something you genuinely had no idea would work but became popular?
Dressing like a 18th century blacksmith / apothecary , yeah that was a thing for a few years.

Are you in a long term relationship and has your career been a help or hinderance to your personal life?
Currently Single, but I have been in serious relationships in the last 2 decades. It does help when both parties are in the industry. However when dating someone who wasn’t in the industry, I found it more challenging with schedules for sure.

What do you do when not working that you didn’t do when you started in the business?
Sleep? mostly drink less but better

What is the greatest lesson that you have learned through bartending?
That most people on the other side of the wood deserve your respect, most.

What surprises you most about bartending now versus when you first began?
Somewhere we lost focus on the guest, don’t know what caused it or when. But I’m glad it’s making a comeback.

What advice do you have for new bartenders?
Build a community, no one gets through it alone or unscathed.

Any other advice or wisdom that you would like to pass on?
Take this job serious, but remember your job is providing someone else’s fun.