On April 1st it will be 8 years since the doors opened at BYOB Cocktail Emporium on Queen Street West in Toronto. In 2011 BYOB was stocked with only a few bitters, some kitschy drinking related items, vintage glassware and a few refurbished mini bars. Back then the owner Kristen Voisey had zero employees and lived in the back room of the store.
Today the official name of the company is just “Cocktail Emporium” and they have expanded to two locations in Toronto housing over 2300 different cocktail related products including Japanese bar tools, over 300 flavours of bitters, custom designed glassware, cocktail books, absinthe fountains and much more! In addition to the two brick-and-mortar stores in Toronto (soon to be three), Cocktail Emporium today includes a international ecommerce site, 8 employees, an off-site office and warehouse, and a new house line of bar tools and glassware called Potion House. (And don’t worry, Kristen found a real place to live.)
So what is Potion House all about? And just how does one create their own line of bar tools and glassware and ?! Kristen gives you the answers!
What is Potion House?
Potion House is a collection of bar tools and glassware by Cocktail Emporium created with the professional bartender in mind. This line came from the need to have quality bar tools and glassware at more accessible prices for bars and restaurants. Through years of engaging with and listening to the bartending community of Toronto, we came to understand what was lacking in the market and based our choice of product on what we learned from them. We are lucky we live in a city with such a rich bar and restaurant culture. I don’t think our store would be half as good without the inspiration and input from this city’s talent and passion behind the bars.
How did you begin Potion House?
The first step in having your own line is to ensure you have enough space to receive and store very large ocean freight shipments. We were lucky enough to secure a large warehouse in Midland, Ontario where the bulk of our house line lives. This awesome space is basically the reason we are able to do Potion House! It allows us to keep prices as low as possible for the end user while always having enough inventory on hand. We’ve heard from many frustrated customers about other companies never having what they needed in stock, which is not cool at all in an industry that moves so quickly. So we really invested and focused a lot of our efforts on ensuring the maintenance of a large inventory.
Next was getting a manufacturer for Potion House. One of the things that was really important to us when deciding on a manufacturer of our bar tools was to go to China, meet the team, see the factory facilities, and understand what we were investing in. Fostering a good, strong, lasting relationship with the factories we work with ensures that the products we purchase and sell come from a trustworthy place. And it was so amazing to see HOW the products are made. The amount of work, time and skill it takes to turn a piece of stainless steel into all the different tools we use to make cocktails gave us a new understanding and appreciation of the craft. We also learned a lot about the different types and qualities of stainless steel. If you don’t want your products to break down and rust, you need to select the highest grade stainless steel with the proper composition of chromium and nickel with the best corrosion resistance. We chose this type of material because we wanted to make sure we had the best quality stainless steel for our bar tools.
What challenges have you faced starting your own line?
Although we now have a great selection of suppliers from overseas, we have made a few mistakes and lost a bunch of money in the process. It can be very risky sending your money to a far away land. We had a situation where we paid a deposit on a large quantity of goods, never heard from them again, and found out they “shut down.” We’ve also purchased goods that were completely different from the sample sent beforehand, which end up being useless and can’t be sold. These are hard lessons to learn.
Figuring out how things you purchase finally get on the floor from the factory is also a big challenge. I often joke I wish I went to logistics school as it has become one of the main parts of my job. (Is there a logistics school!?) I know this is the most BORING topic ever but I learn something new about the process with every shipment and am still learning how to make it better. Another trial and error situation. Learn and pay for your mistakes.
What is your favourite Potion House product?
The coupes I designed! Designing glassware has been a dream of mine long before I even opened the store. I would always find vintage glasses and wish there was cool glassware like that now, especially cocktail glasses with the appropriate capacity.
While we love the Nick and Nora glass, it was getting a little boring when every bar we went to used this same glass. So I made two alternatives: the Potion House Classic Coupe and the Dream Deco Coupe, both with 5.5 oz. capacity for spirit forward drinks, and both inspired by cocktail glasses of the past. My favourite thing is to see these glasses out in the world at bars and on other store shelves! I also really love our custom Easter Island Tiki Mug that comes in black and seafoam green.
What are some of your favourite ingredients at your stores?
The Pickett’s Ginger Beer and Jack Rudy Tonic are staples in my house. Both are all natural concentrates that you just add to soda water. I also love the Bob’s Abbott Bitters as my aromatic and the Scrappy’s Seville Orange as my house orange.
What would you drink if you were at a Canadian Legion?
White Russian or Double Rye and Ginger.
What drink would you rather long pour on the ground than drink?
Coors Light or a Caesar.
What is your favourite cocktail?
These days it’s a Cognac Crusta or a good vermouth topped with cava.
Bath + ramen.
Favourite Cocktail Emporium moment?
When Rod Stewart came in and spent a good 15-20 minutes looking around and asking questions. He bought his wife a gold set of Japanese bar tools and some gold rim coupes so she could make French Martinis at home. It was surreal. He smelled so good.
Funniest customer comment at the store?
Points to a Bloody Mary Carry on Cocktail Kit and asks if the little package of pickles was “antique”.
Question most heard at the store?
There are two:
- My boyfriend likes Old Fashioneds, what should I get him? (x 10 daily)
- What’s with the guy next door? He just yelled at me for <insert anything here>. (x 10 daily)
What do you look forward to in the future with both Cocktail Emporium and Potion House?
We are super excited to be opening our third location in Toronto in Union Station this summer. It will be more home bar and gift focused than the other stores, which cater more to bartenders. It’s in the new retail section under the Great Hall where people empty out from the subway and head to the GO trains. There is a large population of people who work in Toronto but live in the GTA and don’t really come to Queen Street West or Kensington Market…so we want to bring the art of cocktail culture to them!
We are also looking to start focusing on the Corporate Gift area of our offerings. Because of Potion House we have been able to do some great custom bar sets for our corporate clients at bulk wholesale prices. We have had great success so far doing everything from engraving booze brand logos into bar tools and custom packaging with the clients own corporate messaging etc. This will really fit into the new Union Station location theme and offerings as well.
The Potion House catalog is continuing to grow. We have a really solid catalog now with about 200 products available at wholesale and industry pricing, and there are more than 50 new products en route, so a new volume of our catalog should be out in a month or two. I am also looking forward to designing more glassware, especially after watching the first two be a huge success.
In terms of our stores, The Tasting Bar at our Queen Street location has been such a fun experience for us! We partner with ingredient and booze brands to sample their products on the weekends using our retro bar corner. Brands get to take advantage of the incredible amount of foot traffic we get on the weekends. It’s truly a win win for everyone! They get a free space to engage with cocktail lovers and our customers love it, creating a better in-store shopping experience for all. (Nudge any booze or ingredient brands who want to do a tasting, give us a shout for available dates!)
We are also looking forward to our new High Roller Lounge we are going to be introducing in the Spring. We have a lot of beautiful, special products, but they can get lost in between the vegetable peelers and $5 tumblers. We are going to create a physical space in the store that focuses on the luxurious Japanese bar tools, high end vintage sets, crystal glassware etc. This will be a fun one to curate. Like a shop within a shop.
For industry and wholesale catalog and price list please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Post in collaboration with Cocktail Emporium.