I worked as a bartender in Canada for close to a decade and, I imagine, like many of my peers, I fell into it completely by accident. I originally moved from England to Toronto in 2007 to pursue a career in graphic design. A few years later I found myself bartending, eventually working at some of my favourite cocktail bars in Toronto. Even when I decided to take a year out and backpack through Latin America, I found that I couldn’t escape the pull of the bar, even jumping behind the wood on several occasions and ending up with a bartending gig in Colombia. Bartending had caught me in its grip and would colour my experiences traveling, living and working in Latin America, culminating in an invitation in 2018 to come back to Colombia to make gin.
Aside from a summer job in a local restaurant on the South Coast of England, and another summer selling duty-free on a ferry to France, I didn’t have any designs on working in the service industry. I went to school for graphic design, and upon graduation was happy in my work and gave no thought to changing careers, let alone to one where the hours were longer and the stress levels even higher. But fate had different plans in store for me.
In England I had written for several music zines in my spare time, but since arriving in Canada I had begun to get involved more seriously with journalism and had taken a freelance writing gig at a national music publication, as well as launching an electronic music podcast. At the time I lived with a couple of friends (in what was a fairly desolate part of Toronto) and we were half-heartedly looking for a venue to host DJ nights, parties and art exhibitions. My roommates met the friendly owner of a local dive bar and started putting on DJ nights which I gladly helped out with. Long story short, our events drew a decent crowd (sometimes double the official capacity) and the owner asked me to get my Smart Serve so I could help out behind the bar when the bartender was overwhelmed. This lead to the occasional weekend bar shift when they had trouble with staffing or were going to be busy.
My roommates and I had started to help renovate the bar in our spare time when the owner announced that he was going to back to Bangladesh for an arranged marriage. We managed the bar between the three of us, alongside our full-time occupations, for what ended up being a period of five months. My initial motivation for working there was to program the music but during this time, unlike my roommates, I found that I came to enjoy bartending. It made a change from the sedentary lifestyle of web design, so when the owner finally returned I quit my design job and ran the bar full-time allowing him to concentrate on the kitchen.
This was in 2010 and the cocktail revival had already spread from New York to Toronto, and even though we were very much a dive bar, more and more people were ordering classics such as Manhattans, Old Fashioneds, Sidecars and Whiskey Sours. Dark & Stormies had become our house drink and some nights it was almost the only drink we made (at a time when you could barely find one in the city). My attitude was that if people were coming to the bar expecting cocktails then I wanted us to make them properly. I took suggestions and tips graciously, ordered a bunch of out-of-print recipe books online and sought out better ingredients following guests’ advice. On my one night off a week I went to local institutions like Harbord Room, The Drake and Czehoski to try drinks, to watch the bartenders and, when it wasn’t too busy, ask lots of questions.
After my stint at Stella I worked in several other quirky neighbourhood bars and eventually I summed up the courage to enter the Auchentoshan Switch competition, which to my horror I qualified for. Going to the final at Dead Rabbit in NYC was a great experience and one that introduced me to a lot of my peers. Very shortly after I went to work at Northwood, a buzzing neighbourhood spot that already ran a popular cocktail program. The clientele were relaxed yet also open to trying new cocktails and it was a good proving-ground for multi-tasking and service. After about a year I went to work at Geraldine, a cocktail and absinthe bar, and my favourite room in Toronto at the time. Geraldine had a stellar cocktail program and the prep work was intense – infusions, clarified milk punch, a plethora of syrups and a non-alcoholic cocktail program. After Geraldine closed I received several job offers but I took the one that scared me the most – Bar Raval. The hours were intense, the standards high, the bar always busy but with a level of job satisfaction to match. The pace and the creative challenges kept you very much on your toes as the restaurant attracts a knowledgeable clientele, including a lot of hospitality industry peers, who demand obscure cocktails and know their spirits. As a big fan of fortifieds and having been to Spain many times it was a joy to have a whole fridge full of sherry and vermouth to make cocktails with to complement the beautiful tapas. Not to mention a back-bar brimming with interesting amari, herbal liqueurs, mezcal and a ton of house-made infusions and syrups at our disposal.
After bartending in Toronto for over a handful of years I decided it was a good time to take the long trip to Latin America that I had been putting off for exactly a decade. I finally had my Canadian citizenship, so I was free to leave the country for a long stretch of time, and I felt like I was at a point in my career where I hopefully would be able to find work when I came back.
I set off with a budget of $60 Canadian per day, which is not a super-tight budget in Latin America. You can travel for cheaper if you are happy to stay in dorms (I’m not) or if you drink local beer (I can’t) and I wanted to experience some restaurant culture as well as the street food. The idea of traveling was threefold: to see Latin America, to improve my Spanish and take a break from bartending, in order to make more time for writing.
It didn’t take me long however to grow antsy sitting on the wrong side of the bar and even staying alone as the only guest in a hostel in Guanajuato, Mexico I yearned for guests to converse with about the local amargo (a bitter local digestiv like an Italian Fernet) I was pouring that night for myself. I was headed to Mexico City to write about the new surge of Mexican electronic artists playing at the MUTEK festival but was hoping to check out a few bars while I was there based on recommendations from bartender friends in Toronto. In DF (as the locals still call Mexico City) I was invited to come behind the bar of the beautiful Maison Artemisia, to show the staff ‘a typical Canadian cocktail’. I chose the Toronto. Okay, it’s most likely not Canadian in origin but the name worked and it’s a good drink that’s not that well known in Latin America. Mexico City and Oaxaca in particular are fascinating places for a bartender, with an abundance of cocktail bars and beautiful mezcals. At risk of spending my entire budget in Mexico, I finally headed southwards in order to explore Central America.
In Nicaragua, on the beautiful volcanic island of Ometepe, I propped up the bar of a bartender called Nelson (“Nelson, como Nelson Mandela”) who proudly showed me off to his friends as “el barman desde Canadá”. In a small hotel in rural Panama I jumped behind a hotel bar to show the young bartender a couple of drinks he had orders for from an American couple but didn’t know how to make.
After 3 months of backpacking I decided that to really improve my Spanish I would have to settle in one place, as the constant change of accent and slang was proving difficult for me to keep up with. I decided to head to Medellín, as I had heard good things about the city from other travellers and Colombian Spanish is also a lot clearer to a foreign ear than other dialects. By chance, I found a job helping set up the bar in a new boutique hostel. I had a freelance writing contract for a music festival in Montreal but was also looking for some additional money while staying in Colombia.
Setting up the bar was challenging for several reasons: imported liquor is incredibly expensive (imports are heavily taxed in Colombia); local liquor is usually of very low quality; and there are effectively zero lemons in Colombia (although there are plenty of limes and pineapples and a mountain of interesting tropical fruits). There is also very limited access to spirits in general — initially we couldn’t get any bourbon or mezcal; only Tio Pepe Fino sherry and Martini & Rossi vermouth for the fortifieds (as opposed to an entire fridge-full of vermouths and sherries I had access to back in Toronto); and even Angostura, the only bitters usually available, was unavailable. The situation now has improved slightly with the introduction of products like Fernet Branca and Yellow Chartreuse but the selection is still sparse and incredibly overpriced, making cocktails a difficult proposition. Limón Mandarina (a local variety of calamansi) came to the rescue for sours but the star of the show was lulo, an acidic, flavorful fruit looking like an unripe tomato but tasting like a cross between kiwi, pineapple and passion fruit. I realised early on that a Colombian Milk Punch would be something we could make, albeit without the overproof spirits. As long as the ratios are right and the fruit is fresh the infusion process can mask the quality of the alcohol within it.
My planned time away from bartending had become anything but and I came to the realisation that bartending is a career much easier to get into than out of. After a few months my Colombian visa was up, and after a detour to Zürich to intern in a gin distillery, I went back to Toronto and worked for another year split between Bar Raval and (sister restaurant) Tennessee Tavern. I found that my year away had changed my bartending style, drawn away from my previous reliance on amaros, spirits and bitters and replaced by a new interest in minimalist yet tropical flavours.
Currently I find myself back in Colombia, this time in Bogotá, to help develop a gin brand — we’re currently in the seemingly endless bureaucracy stage, but plan to launch in early 2020. Alongside this project, I’ve also been helping out at a few bars throughout the country to help develop their cocktail menu and service. I still write from time to time but bartending, and its related industries, clearly has more pull on me, or maybe it just pays more. Looking back, maybe it’s not really that surprising that I ended up as a bartender as both of my grandmothers came from publican families — the maternal side in Galway, Ireland and the paternal side in the South of England. Like many of my peers can attest to, bartending is something you fall into by chance and it slowly becomes your life. And I’m okay with that.