Which Canadian city makes the best cocktails, Toronto or Vancouver?
"Vancouver has always led the pack, no question," says Dave Mitten, owner and head bartender at The Harbord Room in Toronto and president of the Ontario Chapter of the Canadian Professional Bartenders Association.
Not that it's a contest. Unless you consider the Diageo World Class Canada bartending competition, which was held this week at Senses restaurant in Toronto and is a reliable barometer of what's happening now.
The day-long event featured 10 finalists from across Canada. Of the 10, a whopping seven were from Toronto, and only one from Vancouver.
As opposed to a pure cocktail competition, World Class is also about presentation and storytelling; the complete bartender. Here, theatrics ranged from an Inspector Clouseau impersonation to a Gin Fizz cocktail agitated in a shaker for six minutes. In one round, Toronto's Nishantha Nepulangoda served scotch with slices of Kobe beef he sautéed on a piping-hot stone, nearly lighting his sleeve with a blowtorch.
This is the first time Canada has been invited to participate in World Class, the largest and most prestigious bartender competition. Heralded by the biggest names in mixology, World Class has been called "the Olympics of bartending." At the finals, held this July on a cruise ship off Monte Carlo, 60 countries will compete over 20 rounds across four days. "I enter competitions frequently, but this is the biggest," says Oliver Stern, who tends bar at the Toronto Temperance Society, a members-only cocktail bar located above Sidecar restaurant in Little Italy. To qualify, Mr. Stern submitted a cocktail recipe featuring aged Zacapa rum, Grand Marnier, fresh pineapple juice and bitters. Served in a rocks glass filled with hand-crushed ice, the drink is topped with maple syrup and served with a spoon. "It's like when you're a kid at a sugar shack, eating maple syrup on snow."
Emblematic of the best cocktail bars in Toronto, TTS is the type of place where patrons are willing to pay $14 for a drink – an establishment where tonic, syrups, bitters and mixers are made in-house; where a customer can say something like, "I want something sour, but with lavender," and on the spot, the bartender, in this case Mr. Stern, creates a summery cocktail featuring gin, fresh spearmint and house-made soda and lavender syrup.
Toronto is now teeming with cocktail bars. Mr. Mitten says that Toronto is now on par with Chicago and L.A. "You want molecular? Go to BarChef. You want a spectacular tequila and mescal experience? Go to Reposado. You want an extensive cocktail list? Go to Churchill."
But if Toronto's so hot now, what took so long?
Part of the problem, initially, was that bartenders here couldn't source basic bar staples, such as orange or Peychaud's bitters. "Selection at the LCBO was dismal until maybe five years ago," says Joe Howell, head bartender at the Spoke Club and one of the World Class Canada finalists.
But this lack of product ended up working in Toronto's favour. "What we couldn't buy, we'd make," says Mr. Mitten, "and so you saw bartenders coming up with recipes for everything: vermouth, syrups, tinctures. bitters …" This adventurous spirit, bred by necessity, resulted in a flavour profile unique to the city.
Toronto won't be representing Canada in the finals in Monte Carlo this summer – then again, neither will Vancouver (the best bartender honours went to Jenner Cormier of Halifax). But its strong showing at the competition is a sign of more cocktail innovation to come in Toronto.
"We're where New York was in 2002," says Mr. Mitten. "We're seeing some crazy things; lots of food components. I was judging a cocktail competition recently, and someone made a drink that tasted like a pizza. It wasn't bad."