Vv Magazine’s Danielle Jobb talks shop with Drake Hotel bartenders Sandy De Almeida and Gord Hannah, and gets the inside track on how to make a career (and an art) out of making drinks.
It’s a rainy Monday night in the lounge at The Drake Hotel. A cover band jams to a sparsely populated but lively room as Toronto bartender and legend in her own time Sandy De Almeida interrogates me from behind the bar. “What spirits do you usually like? Do you want lots of booze? Do you want refreshing? Long or short?” I answer with the uncertainty of someone who usually opts for whatever’s on tap. Then finally she says, “Okay, I know what you like. Give me a minute.”
Dwarfed by the massive wall of liquors and spirits behind her, De Almeida strains, stirs, and tastes each component of my custom-made cocktail. She works with the creativity of a great chef and the precision of a mad scientist. Her fellow Senior Bartender, Gord Hannah, joins me on the other side of the bar. He sips a Corona and chats away, his sense of humour and easy banter making me feel right at home in his bar—the same bar where he has been working for eleven years. But of course, that charm is what has turned him into one of the city’s most successful bartenders. Bartending is his chosen career and god-given gift, but twenty years ago, he was on a very different track.
In the late nineties, Hannah was simultaneously studying neuroscience at Dalhousie and bartending at a cocktail bar called The Velvet Olive. In a time when university students had limited options, he was part of a team of bartenders who had travelled from Toronto to introduce the East Coast to old school cocktails. “We were the first to go to the classics. It was only at hotel bars where you could get Negronis and Martinis, and they were the drinks your parents drank. We like to think we were the Footloose of Halifax – we taught them how to drink and dance!” (It was an analogy that stuck with him, and when he served Kevin Bacon at The Drake during TIFF, he told him with a straight face that he would not be allowed to dance there.)
At that point, The Velvet Olive was part of a string of Hannah’s side jobs in the industry. “I was always bartending to get myself through school. Then I got sick of academia. I was on track to do a masters and a PHD but I realized I liked bartending better. It freed up my days,” he explained.
The first time I spoke with him, he told me that “if you really want a special experience from any bartender, anywhere in the world, go in when it’s slow. If you’re there on your own, it’s all about you.” So there I was, on that rainy Monday night.
I inspect the drink De Almeida places in front of me. In the dim light of the Drake Lounge, I believe the cocktail to be a vibrant shade of amber. There are layers upon layers to the smell and the taste. I detect the smoky mezcal and a rosy hint of amaro buried in this cocktail topped with one delicate slice of cucumber, custom-made to my taste preferences. She returns after my first few sips, “What did you think?” she asks. I sing her praises. She returns several minutes later with a remedied concoction; “Same ingredients, just less smoke!” They encourage me to name my signature cocktail after my favourite film, so if you see an Almost Famous on the menu at the Drake anytime soon, you’re welcome.
“This is exactly how we develop new cocktails at The Drake Lab,” Hannah explains to me. The Drake Lab is the brand’s way of making sure the three Drake properties (The Drake Hotel, The Drake One-Fifty and The Drake Devonshire in Prince Edward County) stay connected without becoming a chain. They periodically pull bartenders from each location, provide them with a room full of ingredients and let them do their thing. The bartenders spend a day creating cocktails, then adjust and perfect the ratios and balances. At the end of the day, they take the best creations and add them to whichever Drake menu they suit best.
Hannah’s effortless hospitality and De Almeida’s exquisite cocktails prove to me that bartending is an art, one that was lost for many years. “It used to be that the bartender was the royalty of the working class,” says the documentary Hey Bartender! But then came the prohibition and the the art was lost and forgotten for decades.
There are now a number of international cocktail competitions and conferences held annually. These forums allow professionals from all around the world to meet, discuss ideas, bring everyone up to the same level and learn from each other. “If someone comes up with a new idea, they hold a seminar at a conference and 60 people go and listen and then go back to their bars in their home countries and implement the new techniques. The overall effect has been so progressive. It has increased the intellectual level of the industry.”
Toronto is now holding its own when compared to major cities traditionally known for cocktail culture. Moses McIntee, another pioneer of mixology currently working out of Good Son, remembers his Gin Dip & Lick, a whimsical, one of a kind cocktail inspired by the classic Fun Dip candy. Frankie Solarik of BarChef is internationally renowned for his Vanilla & Hickory Smoked Manhattan, which has been favoured by Drake himself. The technique and skill of De Almeida and Hannah at The Drake is one of many notable contributions to Toronto’s drinking scene.
However, good technique and a delicate palette can only take a professional working behind the bar so far. “Part of the trick of being a good bartender is to read the situation,” Hannah says. “Jim Meehan, a famous mixologist and author of The PDT Cocktail Book once said ‘mixologists serve drinks, bartenders serve people.’ If someone wants me to be a mixologist, I can do it. If someone’s on a date, then I know they just want me to be background and oil the machinery, make everything look cool. The trick is to make sure each guest gets the right experience.”
And that experience is about so much more than just the cocktails. In a world where we work behind computer screens all day, so often it seems that human interaction is optional. We move quickly, time is money, and the small gestures that once meant so much are lost in the shuffle. “There aren’t very many jobs that teach you manners anymore. How to act in a room, how to hold a two minute conversation. How to remember someone’s name. Look people in the eye. Shake a person’s hand. Always address someone. All these respectful nuances come from 1950s etiquette guides. These gestures are like lost art forms in a world where we move so quickly and don’t care for the little details. Respect is a lost art.”
Part of the allure of bartenders is that they commemorate a simpler time for us. An era when people had time to sit at a bar, enjoy a cocktail and chat with their bartender. Cocktails, like fine steak, are meant to be enjoyed and appreciated and are all part of one grand experience that fuses social and culinary.
After five cocktails, each one named after an excellent movie, the band is wrapping up and De Almeida does her last call. And as the happy, tipsy patrons take their last sips, find their purses, say their goodbyes and meander out the door, it’s clear that they are leaving fulfilled by great drinks and great company. “Bartenders are a secret ring of people who know what’s going on. It’s our job to hold the keys to our cities,” Hannah told me the first time we spoke. It is clear that he and his team are part of that secret ring, and understand that what it takes to unlock the doors are a few balanced, well-made cocktails.
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