Get to know a bartender: Elliott Mealia, 1602 Dundas West
The bar at 1602 Dundas West has been open for almost exactly a full year now, and yet still doesn't have a fixed name. Manager and bartender Elliott Mealia chalks up a new name on a board by the window pretty much every day. When we popped in to speak with Elliott, he'd named it "Under The Westway" after the latest Blur single that was currently playing over the soundsystem.
Visiting off hours to talk with Elliott about his extensive experience in bartending, the bar almost emulates a scene from Deadwood with its vintage window frames, exposed wood floor, and shelves full of bourbon and whiskey. However, during peak hours, it has fast become a haven for DJ nights and parties far from the beaten track of Ossington.
Have you always lived in Toronto?
I'm originally from Calgary. I've been in Toronto just over 9 years.
What brought you to Toronto?
I just wanted a change of scenery, and it was between Toronto and Vancouver. Vancouver I just didn't like as much so I came here.
How did you get started in bartending?
I started when I was a teenager at a small neighbourhood pub in Calgary, in the community that I lived in, so I would work during the days bussing and barbacking. It started as just a way to pay for school. Later, I got a job working at a pub downtown in Calgary. I started in a barback position and got taken under the wing of this older barman--I forget his name--a really tall, skinny, biker-looking guy, and from there I got a job bussing at a nightclub. I worked my way up barbacking and then bartending from there.
I'm guessing the nightclub was a high volume kind of place?
Absolutely. It was an 800-people capacity nightclub. We would take anywhere between $3,000--$6,000 on each bar, depending what bar you were on. It was really packed and you learn to bartend very quickly. I was bartending two days a week, and I had graduated from my first degree in aviation. I was looking to become a pilot, eventually realized that flying didn't really pay very well, and so I started bartending more to pay for the bills--flying is a really expensive thing do as an education and as a hobby.
Then I got a fine art degree, still bartending during the whole time. Just like in Toronto, it's quite common for someone to work two days in one place and two days in another place. I worked at this one bar straight for about six years, but probably went through about 10 different nightclubs in the city.
At what point did you decide to make bartending a full-time thing?
I think it just slowly transitioned into that. Once I finished my fine art degree... well, it's a fine art degree. Hence bartending! I got more and more interested in becoming better at it, but I didn't really get into the craft side of bartending until I came to Toronto. There seems to be more of an appreciation for cocktail craft in Toronto than I found in Calgary at the time. I was working at a really high-volume pub in Calgary and I was lucky to even get that job--by happenstance I managed to get picked up and moved straight into bartending there, which is also really rare, and it became more and more of a full-time thing because I really enjoyed it.
Was it the Ship & Anchor?
Yeah! It was probably one of the best bartending jobs I've ever had, hands down. The owners treat their staff amazingly and the staff are all great. If you were to get off of a plane at the airport and ask the cab driver "Where do I go on a Monday night that's gonna be busy?" they'll tell you the Ship, guaranteed.
For one staff trip, they took the entire staff--about 50 people--to Gabriola, a small island off Vancouver Island for a few days to go sea-kayaking, eat salmon, and drink at an open bar at night. It was awesome. Bear in mind we had trained a whole 'ghost staff' two weeks prior to cover for us. The bar was still open! It's how a lot of people got into working at the Ship, working the ghost shift.
It sounds like a good grounding in bartending. So, you worked at the Gladstone for a while when you came to Toronto, is that right?
I was the Assistant Food & Beverage Manager for about two years. It was one of those positions where you take on more than the job description suggests. Very high volume, much like The Drake, but the Gladstone is more art-based and more grounded in the gay and lesbian scene in the city--it was cool to be involved in that community. My responsibilities included running three separate bars--the café, the Melody Bar and the Ballroom. I guess four, technically, as we also had the second floor.
I met a lot of really good people there. The main reason for taking that job was to get higher-end management experience, and I definitely gained some of that, but more importantly I made a lot of connections and met some great people. Some of the staff work for me now.
Was that your first job in Toronto?
Actually, no. My first job was working at a place called the Duke Of Devon under the TD towers downtown. I worked there for about a year. After that I was trying to get into the art scene in Toronto so I started working at a gallery, but then realized that I wasn't making enough money so I went back to bartending. I had just started at the Village Idiot Pub when I was offered a management position at the Gladstone Hotel. I've worked at Squirrely's and the Rhino as well.
How did you get involved in 1602?
A friend of mine, Jason--who's the owner here--was a regular at the Rhino when I worked there. He knew my experience and my background, and we had a lot of mutual friends. When he started this place he approached me to help him advise him on certain things like where to put the bar, how to lay things out, and just basic bar stuff.
Then he started probing as to whether I'd be willing to do it with him. Initially, we had two different visions of what we wanted and over time both of our visions changed and eventually the timing worked out. The liquor license came through about 10 days before Nuit Blanche last year and I said "Okay, let's do it, let's open," but I had Nuit Blanche coming up so it had to be after that. We eventually opened on 21st October, which is my birthday, so we figured that was a good way to launch the bar and guarantee a busy first night.
It's good to see that you're finding some time to use that fine art degree!
[Laughs] Yeah. A lot of what I've been doing lately is more installation/performance work with an air of humour to it. In 2001, myself and my friend Kurt Firla had an exhibit called "Ride The Rocket," where we turned a streetcar into a virtual theme park ride. We had this 4.5-minute, crazy journey where you crash into Lake Ontario, go up into space, go on a roller-coaster on the moon, get attacked by a giant racoon that eats the streetcar but the streetcar is stationary. I swore I wouldn't do it again because last year nearly killed me.
You guys have a great selection of whiskey at 1602.
We have over 50 types of bourbon, just under 10 bottles of Irish, and 50 types of scotch, so I think we probably have one of the best selections in the city right now. Jason's the bourbon guy. When he goes to the LCBO, I always say "Don't come back with anything else!"
Do you prefer making old cocktails rather than just cranking out vodka sodas?
Well, this is the tricky thing. While I have a great appreciation for a well-made cocktail, they can sometimes take a while to make. It's okay to wait 15 minutes for food, but people don't want to wait 15 minutes for a drink. I think we've struck the right balance between drinks--like a Manhattan or a good sour, that are quality but don't take too long to make--and regular shots of scotch or bourbon, and beer.
I don't have a problem with making 10 Manhattans for people, but as a business we make more money off a vodka/soda or a straight-up shot. We're a place where you can get a $4.50 tall can of PBR and an old bourbon at an accessible price, between the 7 and 9 dollar range, and occasionally you might have a $20 bourbon for when you've got a bit more money in your pocket.
What's the crowd like at 1602? Do you get much of a cocktail crowd?
This is gonna sound snobby but we've trimmed our crowd, making the people we like comfortable, but also making it clear that it's not a "Whoa, Jäger" kinda bar. We want it to be more for locals and also people with an appreciation for bourbon, rather than people from the 905 who wanna go crazy. Nothing against the 905 but sometimes that crowd comes downtown, and feel anonymous and free to get a bit crazy, doing jager bombs (we do not serve Red Bull), and broken-down golf-cart shots (which we do not make).
How do you feel about the craft bartender craze that seems to be happening right now?
I think that unless you're a high-end craft bartender entering competitions and traveling the world, it's not always taken seriously. There was always this attitude of "What are you gonna do next?" You can't just keep bartending for your whole life!" I think that attitude has changed a bit, and people respect the profession of bartending a bit more than they did. I even get younger guys now coming to the bar and saying "I don't know much about bourbon, can you recommend something?"
It used to be that everyone thought they knew everything, and would tell you how to make a drink. People are starting to make craft cocktails like you would've gotten in the '20s, '30s and '40s, and you've got people like Dave Mitton, Mike Webster, Robin Goodfellow, and Sandy de Almeida--who in my opinion is the best bartender in the city hands down. These are really the craft bartending-style of people. I definitely don't fall under that category.
How would you define your bartending style?
My whole approach is a little different. There are lot of people who call themselves bartenders that are really good at that craft bartending style, but may not be the strongest when you start to get large crowds and being able to control a bar. All the guys I've mentioned just now I'm sure could, because they've been doing it for years. I'm more the barman style of bartending, I guess. I do like to pay attention to making a good drink, but it's not always my main focus to constantly be cranking out awesome cocktails. Sometimes it's cranking out 30 vodka sodas in 10 minutes. When it comes down to it, people wanna have a drink and have a good time.
What do you like most about bartending?
It's fun! This whole business forces you to be a social guy, and if I go out I might as well be making money. Especially with doing this place, it's sort of like I've got the best of all worlds. I get to control the environment, so it's an environment I know I can make fun for everyone.
What's your favourite drink when you get a night off and get to go to somebody else's bar?
Manhattans, for sure. Everybody makes it differently. I do like mine a certain way but it's cool to try the different spins on it. The Harbord Room makes it a certain way, The Drake makes it a certain way, depending on which bartender makes it. I'll change mine all the time just to try something different.
How do you make yours? Perfect? Sweet? Orange Bitters?
I like mine sweet, but I use walnut bitters. I generally use a rail-style bourbon, so Jim Beam or something like that, with half sweet vermouth and half Amaro Montenegro--then some walnut bitters, and a bit of sour cherry juice to balance it out. That's the secret to my Manhattan! I like it and other people seem to like it, too.
RAPID FIRE QUESTIONS
Gin or vodka martini? Gin
Twist or olive? Twist
Lemon or Lime? Lime... it depends on the drink. Maybe orange!
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Writing by Vincent Pollard. Photos by Jesse Milns