From Vancouver to Cabo: The Hustle of Life and Embracing a New Country – An Interview with Danielle Tatarin

Cocktail culture doesn’t ever “just happen”. There are people and places that work tirelessly to build it. Someone has an idea and then they act on it, either alone or with help. That idea comes to fruition and it brings people together. Danielle Tatarin is one of those people. After moving from “Shooter Girl” to running The Keefer Bar in Vancouver, then moving to Los Cabos in Mexico, she has dedicated large parts of her life to inspiring people to drink and think more creatively.

Danielle took some time to answer some of our questions about where she comes from, what drives her and where she is going next.

Danielle Tatarin | Bartender Atlas

Bartender Atlas: When did you start bartending and what kind of bartending were you doing?
Danielle Tatarin: Ahhhhh. Well technically when I was 11 years old I made my first drinks for my parents and our neighbours at a bbq at our house. I was the little kid hanging out with the adults and my stepdad was like “I’ll teach you how to make these drinks we like to drink.” This was 1991 and they were drinking Harvey Wallbangers, B52’s and China Whites. I became obsessed with making the shots because finding out that liquids could float on top of one another by pouring carefully over the back of a spoon was fascinating to me. So there was about 8 people hanging out and I think I made like 4 rounds of shots over the course of the night. Enough to kill a bottle of Baileys and everyone was having a lot of fun laughing and I felt so happy that I was helping them have a good time. I had no clue I was getting everyone wasted! Just really enjoyed making everyone drinks.

So after that night, I was the bartender at most get togethers and when I became old enough to work in a bar, I got a job at a nightclub in West Edmonton Mall. I was 18 and they already had all the bar positions taken by guys so I became a ‘shooter girl’ who walked around with bottles in a holster or trays of pre-poured shots. Not so glamorous, but fun, and I made good money and learned pretty quickly about the industry. It was always my goal to get behind the bar so after about a year of working serving highballs and shots on the weekends I decided to travel and got a job actually bartending at a busy bar called Melbas on the Gold Coast of Australia. There they had high turnover, so to keep your job there every week you had to pass a bartending test and written cocktail exam. It made me study drinks and really enjoy working fast. I worked there for a few months while backpacking, but have to say that experience was really valuable because it got me into learning about drinks and I became a fast efficient bartender.

When I moved back to Canada and decided to relocate to the warmer West Coast I was 22 and still had the drive to bartend with the goal of eventually owning my own bar. I got a job bartending at a Sports Bar but also started a side business catering to private parties and events. We specialized in garnishes! Through this business, West Coast Garnish Girls, I continued to educate myself on everything bar related, reading every book I could learning about the history of drinks. I eventually said to my friends, “Do you know the history of the Martini?” “Do you think people would pay for a class learning about drinks and sampling them?” Everyone’s answer was, “For Sure!” So I put together my first trial cocktail class on the history of the Martini for a group of friends at my house and they loved it! We had a commercial kitchen in East Vancouver and I created a flyer with some shakers and ingredients and went to one of the TV stations and gave them out. A few days later I received a call from one of the news anchor’s wives who had a group of 10 women who wanted to take a class. That first class was in 2005 and for about three years from 2005-2008 I hosted classes around Vancouver, in peoples homes, in my loft, in our commercial kitchen and in a specialty food store. I was making a good amount of money doing the classes. In fact, the classes were more successful than our catering and garnish business, so we closed Garnish Girls and I created Designer Cocktail Company, my consulting business.

2008 was a pivotal year for me. I went to New York and mixed drinks with Wild Hibiscus Flower Co. as their drinks ambassador for their North American launch and I went to my first Tales of the Cocktail with them. I met some of my idols like Dale DeGroff, Bridget Albert and Charlotte Voisey and went to all of the seminars and learned a tonne. That experience at TOTC 2008 was amazing. I saw how big the industry was and felt changed after I came home and saw how much Vancouver could grow when it came to drinks culture! I entered a competition with Tabasco and ended up meeting Cam Bogue through that. We grabbed a drink and talked about the industry, he was working on a new project opening DB Bistro and looking for a lead bartender. At this point I was full on doing classes at 3-4 nights a week but the opportunity to get behind a bar again was appealing as was working with Cam, who was super open about sharing techniques and drink nerdery. The idea of working with amazing chef’s and equipment was also high on my list, so I got behind the bar again. We opened in December 2008 and it was an awesome project where I met some amazing people who are still my great friends to this day. It really was a turning point for me because I had a bar to work behind again making some super creative drinks. I also learned how to run a bar program, cost efficiency and inventory control and I value that hugely as something that helped me become more business minded.

BA: Vancouver was very much ahead of the curve as far as the “cocktail renaissance” (or whatever we can call it!) was concerned. You were big part of that. Tell us about working in Vancouver around 2008-2012?
DT: Continuing the story above 2008 was a big transitional year in Vancouver. We had all these bartenders who were doing awesome things. Nick Devine, David Wolowidnyk, Jay Jones, Brad Stanton, Josh Pape, Robyn Gray, Simon Ogden, Justin Tisdall, Lauren Mote, Wendy McGuinness, the list could go on. I started becoming more aware of cocktail competitions and instead of providing products, I was competing and did a good job of making a name for myself as a creative and technical competitor. But really what the conversation was around that time between all these people I was becoming friends with was “Why doesn’t Canada have any representation in Global Competitions like World Class?” We got together one afternoon in 2009 and decided Canada needed a new Bartenders Association to be able to get us on the map globally. By mid 2009 we had formed the Canadian Professional Bartenders Association and I was voted in as the President! Wow! That was a huge moment for me, that all these peers who I Iooked up to saw me as a leader. Our goal was to foster community, growth and the advancement of the Profession of Bartending in Canada. We ended up creating a network across the country of likeminded bartenders and I’m so happy to see the CPBA going strong after all these years! The Giffard Iron Bartender Competition, was the only competition around at the time that offered the chance to compete globally. How things have changed!

In 2009 I left DB Bistro & Lumiere for the opportunity to open The Keefer Bar, I was given full control over everything to do with the opening and had the chance to design the bar from scratch. I took everything I learned and experienced as a bartender up to this point to design a bar and program that I thought could compete globally against some of the best bars in the world with a functional ergonomic bar and creative drink program based on classics but pushing the envelope using TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) ingredients. My goal from the beginning of the project was to create one of the best bars in the world. When tasting some drinks before we opened, the owner Cam said, “wouldn’t it be easier to just serve Vodka Sodas?” to which I replied, “You could, but then there’s no need for me here.” We opened The Keefer Bar on February 12th 2010, the first day of the Olympics. I remember that first year really well. We were one of the first businesses in the area that started the trend of the neighbourhood changing. We had an original drinks list of only 8 drinks between $8-12 and I remember getting flack for charging $14 for a Maker’s Mark Old Fashioned. The industry at the time was receptive but there was also this fine line that we still needed to push to be able to get people to buy into the drinks we were making. Luckily, our drinks and room were something people really enjoyed and kept coming back for more. Between growing The Keefer Bar and CPBA it was always a goal to put Canada on the map with what we were doing.

In 2010 I competed in France at the Global Giffard Competition and won! It was a great honour to win a global competition! As a woman and Canadian I felt like it was a big step in showing the world that Canada had real talent. The industry was still dominated mostly by men and I think another one of the pivotal points in that time was when Lauren Mote and I joined forces to push the CPBA forward. We really bonded together as women who wanted to see more women in the industry. We worked really hard from 2011 to 2013 to get traction and expand the CPBA and I think we were successful. In 2012 I was the first woman to be awarded Bartender of The Year for the VanMag Awards and we also worked with Tales of the Cocktail to be the first city on their Tales on Tour program. At TOTC 2012 there was a big Canadian presence and lot of seminars lead by Canadians.

I think these years between 2008-2012 were super impactful in putting Canada on the map globally and growing the cocktail culture in the city. We went from playing around with Molecular Mixology, Making Bitters and Tinctures and getting creative by incorporating local ingredients into well balanced drinks to becoming recognized as a hub for cocktail culture. The community in Vancouver, and I think Canada, has really grown up and fostered amazing growth through the country. You can see that bartenders have bonded and have been successful in sharing their talents with the world! It took us those years to learn from each other and push each other to be better and make better drinks.

BA: You ran the beverage program at The Keefer Bar in Vancouver for a few years, what do you think made The Keefer Bar stand out, not just locally, but internationally?
DT: I was at the helm of the Keefer Bar from 2009-2015 during that time I pushed myself and my staff to be the best version of themselves and make not just delicious drinks but a curated experience. We pushed the limits of what ingredients we used and techniques to make unique drinks themed around TCM. The environment and idea was to take the concept of drinks back to before they became social lubricants and look at creating medicinally inspired ingredients like tinctures and decoctions to use in modern drinks. I think this concept paired with the location and room made us stand out as innovators. Our team worked, and still works super hard, to be creative and make memorable experiences for everyone walking through the doors. We are eclectic and embraced that all the way. It got us lots of press and got people in the industry to come through our doors. For the industry and public to be impressed by the drinks and experience enough to keep coming back was what kept us fired up about continuing to push the boundaries in the drinking experience we curated nightly. I think always pushing our staff to think of our location as a top bar in the world and to be faster and better every time they stepped behind the bar was something that got us to be recognized globally as a top imbibing location. When we reached the “One to Watch List” #51 in 50 Best Bars list in 2014 that was a huge moment for me to see that dream come true of seeing a Canadian Bar in the top 100 Bars in the World! In 2015 Keefer was #86 and each year, The Keefer Bar continues to top lists locally and nationally. I think after almost 10 years of operation that is a huge accomplishment to have built a bar that continues to evolve and have a team that are continuously inspired by the concept is something I look back on and it continues to inspire me even after not being there involved in the operations since mid 2015.

BA: Walking into the Keefer Bar in 2010 and being surrounded by a myriad of jars and containers was unlike anything I’d seen before. What were some of your inspirations to go that direction with the drinks program?
DT: When Cam Watt approached me with the project he said one word: Apothecary. I asked him if he had any qualms about taking inspiration from Chinatown and Chinese Apothecary ingredients. He said as long as we are selling drinks I had free creative range on the program. So I basically went back into everything I learned about the history of cocktails and thought about the medicinal history of bitters. Looking at all the shops in Chinatown, they were basically doing the same thing with all these bitter herbs. You’d see jars of herbs on top shelves steeping in alcohol and all the ingredients you could buy in bulk as well. That became my inspiration for the program. To take these medicinal Chinese ingredients and traditional Chinese Apothecary shops with the herbs and jars everywhere but to make our drinks out of them. Basically I was like, turn the lights down low and play cool music in an apothecary shop where you can drink delicious drinks. That’s what I wanted the space and experience to emulate. Like you could be anywhere when you stepped in the bar. The whole experience of walking into somewhere that transports you.

BA: When did the plans to move away from Vancouver come into play?
DT: Around 2012 after The Keefer Bar was running successfully for a couple years and Cam had sold the units in the Keefer Suites he started working on the project in Mexico and asked me if I could create the beverage program. The project would take years to get off the ground but the plan was to eventually move to Mexico to get that project started. So what I worked on was building the program at the Keefer to be efficient enough that I could remove myself from it eventually. I was excited to have the opportunity to be challenged again by a new project and by mid 2015 I made the move to open Acre not just as the beverage development but as the opening manager. It was a huge challenge but I felt like I needed a change and was eager to learn about another culture and live outside of Canada.

BA: What were the biggest challenges for you to go from bartending in Canada to Mexico? What adjustments did you have to make?
DT: Well it was a huge adjustment since I went from running a bar in the middle of a big city to living and working in a small tourist town on a farm. I went from dealing and working with lots of young people to working directly with the owners of Acre who had never built a hospitality project like this. I focused on the bar originally but then it became so much more operational. It was crazy challenging. I missed being behind the bar but did take the opportunity to help the community of bartenders here to grow and become better. Coming from Canada to Mexico my mentality changed as well. I didn’t want to take any bartender positions away from the locals but I wanted to help them become better. It was a big challenge adjusting to the culture shift.

Danielle Tatarin | Bartender Atlas

BA: Can you tell us about the concept and the process behind opening Acre?
DT: I wanted to keep the concept in line with what the owners Cam and Stuart were focused on: Sustainability. So when I started designing the program I was like “Will we have gardens?” “What can we plant?” “Can we get this type of citrus tree?” It became a similar process to when I opened the Keefer but instead of TCM ingredients in Chinatown I was inspired to create a program based around Mexican culture and garden to glass ingredients.

BA: While at Acre, besides sourcing Mezcal specifically for the business, you also created your own line of distilled flavoured waters, Las Animas Botica. What drove you to take that path?
DT: The whole concept of being a sustainable development really stuck in my head. While developing the concept I started to research ways to preserve herbs and plants beyond making tinctures, bitters, teas and syrups. I discovered that you could distill herbs and transform them into shelf stable herbal, floral waters that were NON-ALCOHOLIC! It was an Ah-Ha moment for me. I became obsessed with herbs and bought my own still, took a course on distilling and wanted to really incorporate these ingredients into the cocktail program but also I thought (this was in 2014) that the category for NA drinks needed more options. So my goal became to create a brand that could eventually be used by bartenders everywhere where I was preserving herbs and fruits through distillation. Look at Orange Flower Water, that’s a hydrosol. My idea was to create products that were versatile enough to inspire bartenders to create. After making drinks since I was 11 I thought, I can’t be behind a bar all my life, what can I do that I could eventually transition into a business?

Danielle Tatarin | Bartender Atlas

BA: In 2017 you decided to create a cocktail festival in Los Cabos. As we all know, this is no small undertaking. How did you come to that decision and who were you working with to bring something like this together? What were the greatest challenges with doing Cabo Cocktail Festival?
DT: Since moving to Mexico in 2015 I noticed that the industry for drinks here really needed to grow. I started meeting some people who were also doing innovative drinks and became friends with Osvaldo Vasquez. We both agreed that Los Cabos and Baja California Sur had a huge potential for raising the level of cocktails served and the professionalism of bartenders here. Osvaldo heads the beverage program at Chileno Bay and he was lucky enough to have a budget to bring in international bartenders for seminars and guest spots. One of these guests were none other than Phil & Elayne Duff in the summer of 2017. Over drinks after their seminars we started talking about the industry here and how beautiful a spot we live in. The question came up “Why is there no Cabo Cocktail Festival?” Literally that was the moment we were like, “Yeah, why not?” It took us a bit of time to figure out how to make it happen but the next year we ended up getting the support of the government and enough sponsors to make Cabo Cocktail Festival Happen! We were lucky enough to have contacts of amazing friends in the industry who supported us so yeah it was like “Let’s do this!” The biggest Challenge putting on the festival was definitely securing the sponsorships and organizing the programming.

Danielle Tatarin | Bartender Atlas

BA: You have recently left Acre. What new projects are on the go?
DT: I left Acre in Nov 2018 and that was a big move considering I had put all of my eggs in the Keefer/Acre basket for so long. There was a turning point at the end of the year when I realized that I needed a big change to start building my own future beyond these concepts that I had poured so much of my soul into. I didn’t know exactly how that path would work and it terrified me but I was and am still empowered to be at the wheel of my journey. Currently, I’ve been consulting on some new places that are opening up, working on educational programs as well as developing some projects I have had on the back burner. I bought a 1975 Airstream trailer in 2015 with the dream of turning it into a mobile bar trailer. So, I’ve been figuring out how to make that dream come to life and working with some great architects on the planning of that. But the biggest thing I’m working on is building the Las Animas Botica brand and concept. I have big news coming down the pipe that I can’t wait to share! So follow me on Instagram (@lasanimasbotica & @danifish) to keep in the loop when I announce my next moves.

I’m also working on a building a new mezcal brand called Gota Gorda (translated to The Fat Drop) and recently just got this trademark approved. I’ve been super passionate about mezcal since travelling throughout Mexico for years now so having my own brand where I can continue to support families producing traditional small batch mezcales is another project really close to my heart.

Thank you Dani for taking the time to speak with us!

Josh Lindley
Co-Creator at Bartender Atlas
Josh Lindley has been bartending in Toronto since 2007. Before working for Hendrick's Gin as a Brand Ambassador he was bar manager at Campagnolo and a hired gun at Bar Isabel before working at Chantecler, Le Phenix and Eataly. He has contributed to many magazines, tv shows and newspapers with his recipes and opinions. He recently put his diploma in Radio Broadcasting from Humber College to good use through The Blackbird audio documentary. Currently pouring at Civl Liberties and teaching cocktail classes for Evelyn Chick's Love of Cocktails, he enjoys being an ambassador to Toronto and talking about horror movies, punk rock and basketball.
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