In several U.S. States, including Pennsylvania, Utah, Oregon and Michigan, state governments still control when and where alcohol can be sold. While this impacts many businesses and consumers, bar professionals can gain inspiration from
Montréal’s cocktail renaissance
According to founder Pierre Olivier Trempe, MadeWithLove was conceived to broaden the bartending craft and cocktail culture through a series of memorable competitions open to the public. Since its inception in 2009, MadeWithLove has staged over 30 events across Canada and Mexico as well as the annual Invasion Cocktail Festival every May.
An important byproduct of Made With Love’s activities, according to Trempe, is putting Montréal and Québec City’s bars and cocktail chefs on the map.
“When we started Made With Love, we had difficulty finding bartenders who could compete in our Montréal and Québec City events,” he recalls. “There were maybe one or two guys bold enough to show off their skills. However, it was those first competitors who showed the rest how cool it was to perform behind the bar and create entirely new cocktails. Seven years later, we have more than 50 bartenders interested in competing in this year’s Montréal competition. 20 of those bartenders will move on to another competition.”
Even though regulations of the S.A.Q. (Société des Alcools de Quebec, the government monopoly controlling sales and distribution of alcohol) and
Régie des Alcools du Québec (
the commission which sets the laws for bars and restaurants) continue to prove challenging for Montréal bars owners, Trempe, believes these challenges bring out the best in their bartenders.
“As we cannot do things like make our own bitters or infusions, we have to find ways to innovate and keep our patrons coming back,” he says. “There are bartenders building bar concepts different from the old speakeasy formats that were popular ten years ago.”
“The Montréal bar scene requires the bar itself to be as much fun as the cocktails,” says Warner. “People come to Montréal to escape, whether they want to feel like they're in Canada, or they want to feel like they're in a bit of Europe within Canada. There's a sense of adventure in the city, and this requires bar owners to create an experience that's different from what guests are used to in their everyday life.”
There is a consensus among bar owners and bartenders that the modern Montréal cocktail scene began in earnest around 2005. Also, like other North American cities, customers embraced familiar and long-forgotten recipes before getting more adventurous and savvy about what they order.
“We were one of the first craft cocktail bars in town,” says Philippe Haman, CEO of La Distillerie, which opened in 2005 and now has three distinctive locations reflecting the character of the Quarter Latin, Plateau and Rosemont neighborhoods they serve.
"We always try to reinvent ourselves, especially when it comes to the guest experience aspect, making people feel at ease with different cocktails,” Haman continues. “As some newcomers to the cocktail scene may not know what kind of cocktail to choose, we divide our menu into different flavor profiles.”
The current incarnation of La Distillerie’s prolific menu is a seasonally updated lifestyle magazine. Funky content is wrapped around user-friendly guide to all of the original drink recipes to take stress out of ordering. Cocktails in Mason jars are beautifully photographed and broken down into categories (Puissant = Strong, Delicate = Light, Tropical = sweeter, fruiter drinks and so on), and each feature a meter with a scale of one to five to indicate how strong the cocktails are. Many of them are offered in single serving or shareable large sizes.
“We first used the meter to measure the alcohol intensity in a recipe book we published a few years ago in 2005, but started using this in our menu about three years ago,” says Haman. “The way we develop new drinks is through a committee that meets up during a one month span to plan and build cocktail recipes for the next menu. We start with various themes and inspirations and build them as a team. What's also interesting is that our bartenders are allowed to test the cocktails during the bar service with the guests. This procedure helps us with teaching and training new bartenders.”
Newer spots, such as Russian café-themed Bar Kabinet, on the border of Plateau and Mile End, put their spin on the basics even while further defining their niche with new inventions.
“Our basic Moscow Mule, inspired by the original 1940s recipe of Los Angeles’ Cock & Bull, is our bread and butter,” says Kabinet bartender Bradley Langon. “It is a great starting point for discovering the rest of our menu, as we do different variations on it using different spirits. We have a Jamaican Mule, a Cuban Mule—fun for our American guests as they don't have as much access to Cuban Rum--and a Sicilian Mule with Averna. However, we’re excited about our coffee cocktail program, launched this summer, featuring originals with ingredients that include cold-brewed coffee, house-made tea syrups and espresso.”
Bradley Langdon, bartender at Bar Kabinet.
Calgary native Graham Warner says brining Le Mal Necessaire to life two years ago was a labor of love. He collaborated with Alex San Gregorio (who also owns Bar Kabinet) to create an establishment a familiar lived-in feel, staffed with a team bringing modern spins to tropical favorites. Even more interesting was the fact that the partners had similar visions long before they met face to face.
“Alex had been looking in Chinatown because he liked the location and I had been looking in Chinatown because I liked the location, and then our other mutual partner, David, had introduced us,” Warner recalls. “When we started comparing notes, we had similar reasons as to why Chinatown was good—a central location in the city, easy to get to, and underserved, as there are a lot of restaurants but few places to get drinks in the area.”
The Mal Necessaire team was not sure what to expect when they opened. For years, Chinatown was a destination for inexpensive Asian food. However, as the area became more cosmopolitan, the partners found their customer base to be a mix of Montréal’s Chinese community, area cocktail enthusiasts who found out about them through the “Bartender Railway,” and visitors stumbling upon them going through Chinatown or brought in by their local friends.
“We believe successful cocktail bars are a reflection on those who care enough to use good spirits and ingredients,” says Warner. “Its like a good restaurant gains its reputation for the ingredients they use. We want our drinks to be visually pleasing but not too pretentious, kind of like a pushback to the speakeasy (style bars) that became popular a while back.”
Rus Yessenoe, Manager of the year-old Mayfair in the Plateau neighborhood, observes customers are eager to go beyond the comfort level of vodka tonics. The London-themed bar differentiated itself through integrating Kusmi teas as key ingredients in almost all of their 11 signature cocktails.
“One big reason why you will find so many interesting bars in neighborhoods like Mile End and Plateau is because of the high rents in the downtown area have driven away some bar owners,” Yessenoe explains.
“Even if you come to Mayfair for the drinks, the first thing you will notice is the décor, with furniture and fabrics imported from England, and specially curated antiques, the music and the little details,” he continues. “It’s the overall package that keeps local customers coming back and people from the outside interested in seeing what’s up.”
Yessenoe’s bartender on duty whips up two bestsellers: the exquisite Saffron Sour, where bourbon is balanced out with chamomile tea and passion fruit, and the Red Scarlet, a concoction of vodka, orange, Lilet and pomegranate rose syrup. As most of the signature cocktails are relatively light, he recommends newcomers can try more than one, and enjoy them with the kitchen’s hearty-but-elegant spin on a high-tea service with mini portions of fish-and-chips, bangers, and other British pub snacks.
“Over the next ten years, trends will come and go,” concludes Yessenoe. “In terms of quality, however, the competitive nature of the bar scene means customers and bartenders will benefit. It’s a race to the top, and will push bars and bartenders to be better.”
Trempe predicts an even bigger growth trajectory for the next decade in the wake of what’s been happening since 2005
“I hope people from the States and overseas will come to see what we’re doing in Montréal, especially with the Invasion Cocktail Week in May and with Made with Love Montréal every December. It’s a great opportunity for people to see what makes us different and special. I look forward to our events becoming more internationalized. I am glad bars and bartenders are shifting from traditional bar concepts rooted in the classics."
by Rus Yessenov, Mayfair Cocktail Bar
- 1½ oz. bourbon
- ¾ oz. saffron and chamomile-infused passion fruit purée
- ½ oz. fresh lemon juice
- Egg white
- Angostura Bitters
- Shizandra powder and sugar rim
Combine bourbon, lemon juice, infused puree and egg white in a shaker. Dry shake and fine strain into a rimmed Old Fashioned glass over fresh ice.
Sprinkle on bitters and garnish with saffron.
Philippe Haman, La Distillerie
- 1¾ oz. Tanqueray Gin
- 1 oz. peach puree
- 1 oz. Elderflower Cordial
- ¾ oz. Homemade green tea syrup
- ¾ oz. Lemon Juice
Pour the peach puree into a 16 oz. glass (Mason jar or Boston). Fill the glass with ice. Pour all the ingredients in the glass. Shake it for about 10 seconds. Top the glass again with ice and soda.
by Bradley Langdon, Bar Kabinet
- ¾ oz. Bombay Sapphire Gin
- ¾ oz. Meletti Aperitivo
- ¾ oz. cold brew syrup
- 1 oz. grapefruit juice
- 2 dashes orange Angostura Bitters
- Orange peel garnish
Blend all ingredients except bitters. Pour into a coffee cup or rocks glass. Top with bitters, and garnish with peel.