Classic cocktails make a comeback in Toronto
These days, you can get cocktails chilled in liquid nitrogen, infused with bouillon cubes or riding waves of fog. Many of the tried-and-true rules of bartending have gone out the window in service of the new, and Toronto's cocktail bars are reaching ever-more dizzying heights of novelty. But like anything that inflates too far or too rapidly, it must retract. So with Toronto's cocktail scene, and its regression to the classic cocktail — the heyday of sipping drinks and gentlemen.
In line with this, the city is experiencing a love affair with the brown stuff--bourbon, that is. Trendy joints like Grand Electric and County General pride themselves on the toppest-of-shelves liquor that go down easy as straight-up sippers, while sneaking hard-to-find or well-aged brands into signature cocktails. Bourbon, a corn-derived whisky, comes from the Ol' South, and if it brings to mind images of Kentucky menfolk twirling white handlebar mustaches — well, you and I would get along just fine. It's also a common ingredient in many of the oldest traditional cocktails — including the Old-Fashioned and the Manhattan.
Few classic bourbon-based drinks are complete without bitters, which are also making a comeback. In days of yore, these herbal tinctures were sold as cure-alls for diseases like malaria, and a single dash can sometimes contain hundreds of flavoring agents. The result is a complex drink on par with a well-seasoned dish, with many Toronto bartenders going so far as to create their own. Perhaps the best place around town to get a sense for what can be done with house-made aromatics — from bitters to the oak-aged concentration that helps to make one of the best Manhattans in the city — is Jen Agg's Cocktail Bar.
The granddaddy of old-timey cocktails is the Sazerac, and it'll confuse bar-hoppers used to a clumsy slosh of soda in their gin. It's a two-parter: first the glass is chilled, then washed with absinthe (or Pernod), while your dexterous bartender mixes rye (or bourbon) and bitters. The absinthe wash is rinsed, then the good stuff is poured in, and a fresh orange rind tossed in for good measure. The result is tiny, and in Toronto, costs you an average of $15. Yours Truly devotes half their cocktail menu to the old stuff, and their La Louisiane is the closest thing to an authentic New Orleans sazerac I've tasted; unlike, and I hate to say it, the Drake Hotel's.
A small but growing group of Toronto bartenders are returning to the roots of mixology, either following the recipes to the letter, or adding their own complementary touches. Mixologist and proprietor of Lucid Cocktail and Kitchen Moses McIntee is a firm believer in learning your ABC's before you start messing around with fancier stuff; nearly all of the drinks on his extensive menu are classics with a twist, and he stresses that you should feel comfortable ordering the original.
Case in point, his Boulevard Sour — a truly delicious mix of a Boulevardier and a Bourbon Sour that somehow extracts the finest qualities from both. Keriwa Café's Amos Pudsley makes a mean old-fashioned--with smoked bacon whisky, black walnut and agnostura bitters, and rosemary garnish. Your dad's ol'-fashioned this ain't, but Pudsley maintains the flavor profiles of the original.
Think of it as the cocktail antidote to fast food. It's a movement grounded in finance, pop culture, and even culinary preferences — people want: more value for their buck, to channel the effortless cool of Mad Men, and to know that their food is being labored over. In my dream cocktail bar, the bartenders take their time, ensuring that proportions, flavors and innovations come together in harmony. I'm not opposed to a drink set on fire: I just hope that when the smoke lifts, my cocktail is damn good.
Writing by by Alexandra Grigorescu