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Bartender Telephone

A winding, boozy, cross-city journey to uncover Toronto’s tastiest cocktails

 

words by Yang-Yi Goh

photography: Mauricio Calero

One Wednesday evening not long ago, I found myself in the mood for a cocktail. That was the extent of my craving - general and nonspecific - which was peculiar. Normally, I’m a creature of habit: I order either a Negroni or a Jameson on the rocks, and rarely much else. But that night, for whatever reason, I was feeling audacious. Swinging by the recently-opened mixology haven BarFish on King West, I sat at the bar and asked the head bartender, Nishan, to make me whatever he would normally drink himself. After enjoying it thoroughly, I asked him what his favourite bar in the city was outside of his place of employ. Then I went there, and did the exact same thing. And suddenly, a game was born: I like to call it “Bartender Telephone.” Here’s what happened the first time I played.

 

BARFISH

668 King Street West

THE BARTENDER: Nishan Nepulangoda

THE COCKTAIL: The Luxury Burgundy

“I created it especially for this year’s TIFF celebrations. It’s a mix of two vodkas, Japanese yuzu juice, my own homemade fig-and-clove shrub, egg whites and a touch of house-made clove syrup. But what really elevates it is the use of truffles: I fill the glass with truffle smoke before I pour the cocktail in, and then garnish it with shaved truffles and a fig. It gives the drink a rich, sumptuously smooth body that’s perfect for fall.”

THE RECOMMENDATION: “The cocktails are fantastic and they’ve got great tapas-style food, but what I love most is that it has an incredible ambience and scene that is a completely different, unexpected vibe from the rest of the neighbourhood.”

 

PEOPLES EATERY

307 Spadina Avenue (note: layout says 370)

THE BARTENDER: Matt See

THE COCKTAIL: Strega

“Strega is the name of the Italian herbal liqueur we use as the base spirit. We don’t like to give our cocktails fancy names for fear of sounding too pretentious — the spirit is really the star of the show. Strega is a saffron- and botanical-based liqueur, and we accent it with a half-ounce of Pernod, fresh cucumber juice, egg whites and lime. It’s a simple, refreshing cocktail with very adult flavours: there’s a floral sweetness with a slight black liquorice flavour profile, offset by the freshness of the cucumber and the funkiness of the egg white.”

THE RECOMMENDATION: “It’s a fun, cocktail-driven place that doesn’t take itself too seriously. The bartenders really know their stuff and love to experiment, but there’s a joyfulness and boisterousness to the atmosphere that’s not always easy to come by. There’s also no menu, so you have to interact with the staff and let them know what you feel like.”

 

CIVIL LIBERTIES

878 Bloor Street West

THE BARTENDER: Casey Ryan

THE COCKTAIL: The Banana Daiquiri

It’s a mix of two rums (Caña Brava and a little bit of Wray & Nephew Overproof) with lime juice, Crème de Banane, simple syrup and angostura bitters. There’s a bit of a jokey aspect to it, too — I mean, it’s a Banana Daiquiri, so it’s kind of stupid. Every time we give it to people, they look at you like you’re an idiot, and then they try it and say, “Oh, this actually tastes amazing!” So it helps to break the ice and put a smile on your face. It’s a nice, relaxing drink to set the mood and unwind after a long day.”

THE RECOMMENDATION: “Alo, which is a wicked spot that just opened up on the third floor of a building at Queen and Spadina. It’s got one of the best views in the city and an all-star bar team. Not only do they make exceptional drinks, but all three bartenders are terrific hosts — they look after you properly and always make you feel welcome.”

 

ALO

163 Spadina Avenue

THE BARTENDER: John Bunner

THE COCKTAIL: The Herbsaint Frappé.

“It’s our variation on the frappé, which is a mainstay in both France and New Orleans—two cultures that our kitchen takes its inspiration from. We took Herbsaint, which is an absinthe substitute from New Orleans, and a couple of elements often found in French desserts: maraschino, which gives the drink some sweetness, and Austrian kirsch, which gives it depth. We put those together with just a touch of water, shake it up until its arctic cold, pour it into a frozen glass and then dot the top with an emulsion of high-grade cocoa. It tastes like a Black Forest gâteau.”

THE RECOMMENDATION: Cocktail Bar

It’s the kind of place you can go in any night of the week, and no matter who’s working you know you’re going to get a good drink. Their menu is awesome and really accessible—which isn’t to say that the drinks are simple or dumbed down at all—but there are entry points for novices, and plenty to enthuse about if you really love cocktails. Plus, they have lovely little snacks and tiny glasses of beer that I love to have while I’m deciding on my next cocktail.”

 

COCKTAIL BAR

923 Dundas Street West

THE BARTENDER: David Greig

THE COCKTAIL: The Absinthe Whip

Its origins are very fun because it’s based on the Orange Whip, which is the cocktail that John Belushi drinks in The Blues Brothers (un-italicize in layout). What I like about it is that on paper, the flavours are totally bizarre: there’s absinthe, pistachio, orange and coconut cream. You look at it and you think, “How is that going to work?” But it does, and people love it and always come back for it.”

THE RECOMMENDATION: “I’ve been in Toronto for three years, and since Day One TTS has been the bartender’s bar. It’s hidden away, not as out there or as publicized as other bars in the city, but it’s maintained its credibility and there’s always something interesting happening there. The guys there don’t just keep up with the trends; they help to set them as well.”