Get to know a Bartender: Moses McIntee, Museum Tavern
When pondering the names of reigning bartenders in Toronto, Moses McIntee easily comes to mind: the man has helmed so many bars that he ought to be an institution. Considering the part he played in the Spoke Club, Nota Bene, the Ritz, Lucid, and now Museum Tavern, it'd be difficult to not have sipped a concoction of his--or one influenced by his famously meticulous approach.
McIntee is a man of many contradictions. Despite his profession, he's an introvert, and only a raconteur when coaxed. He's spent two years on perfecting ice, yet compares some wines to cat pee. His role behind the bar resembles a scientist's in a lab, but don't you dare call him a mixologist: "it's like calling a garbage man a sanitary engineer."
He opens up about his childhood on a northern Ontario farm, the steak knife he used to keep behind the bar, and his continuing pursuit for the perfect cocktail.
You have quite the reputation within Toronto. How long have you been bartending?
This is my seventh year.
Did you start in Toronto?
No. I started in a place called the Savoy Pub in Vancouver, which is right in the middle of the war zone that is Main and Hastings--one of the most dangerous neighbourhoods in Canada, pretty much. From there I went to a place called CinCin on Robson Street, which is a pretty notorious place as well. Then, back to Toronto.
Did you grow up in Toronto?
No. I grew up in northern Ontario, on a farm with no electricity--outback style. After high school, I joined the military. After that I went to Brock University, then went off to Vancouver to start bartending.
What inspired you to get into this line of work?
I started off bartending as just a way of spending the year in Vancouver; from being a barista to doing something a little more profitable. I was always interested in being the "hey, bartender!" character, but really had no idea what that meant. Working at CinCin was an opportunity to see things done at the highest level, and it made me realise bartending was a trade you could do for the rest of your life--rather than it being done with something else, like a musician-slash-bartender.
But it's easy to see how bartending falls into that stereotype--the flexibility of the hours, for example.
Well, it depends on who you work for. [laughs]
Tell me a little about your first job.
My first job at the Savoy--I was usually the only white person in an all-native place. It's in an area of Vancouver with the highest HIV rate in the country--in the western world, actually. It's got the lowest education rate, and the highest rate of hepatitis. It's just really terrible; notorious the world over as Canada's black eye.
So I worked right in the middle of it all: $2 pints, $2.25 highballs, that sort of thing. I once cut myself there, then took one look at the rusty First-Aid kit--and decided to forget about healing myself. It was the kind of place where, in my first week, there was a man stabbed right in front of me. When I went over to help, the guy told me to take him to the nearest bus stop instead of the hospital. I had a steak knife in every orifice of the bar at the Savoy. There've been bar fights; times where people would jump over the bar. That's the kind of place it was, and the kind of place where I began bartending.
Well, good thing you were in the military.
It's definitely served me well a couple times.
After about eight months there, I applied to [CinCin] with no idea about cocktails, etiquette, or anything. At the Savoy we had one beer--people would come and ask for a pint, and you knew what they were referring to. At this new place, I saw for the first time how bartending could be a career. It's not just about managing drunks in a room. You've got the job of both chef and maître d'.
It's an art.
Exactly--through the best ingredients in the world.
Cocktails are practically culinary at this point.
Having grown up on a farm, the aspects that make up a dish--or a drink--have always mattered to me. My parents' dream was to sell their belongings and live up in northern Ontario on a farm, without electricity. I grew up with the best ingredients, as a result: un-pasteurized milk, eggs laid from our own chickens. But in reality, I had no idea what to do with those ingredients, until I worked at places like CinCin and Nota Bene. I realised how much people would pay for the kind of food that I'd taken for granted.
How did you graduate from the two-dollar pint to the twenty-dollar cocktail?
To be blunt, I got my ass kicked for eight months. A gentleman named Colin Turner--my first mentor, who's still the head bartender there--made me wash the floors of the bar, hand him his tools, hand him the ingredients. I was essentially his little helper. This is a guy who would grab you by the scruff of your neck and drag you back to your station.
When I came back to Toronto I helped open the new reincarnation of the Spoke Club, then I opened Nota Bene. I worked there for about a year, mostly service bar--which helped a lot with speed and accuracy. From there I went to open Ame with the Rubino brothers, then got tapped to do the Ritz Carlton hotel when they opened.
It's been kind of a rags-to-riches story--well, according to NOW Magazine, anyway. This guy was like, "I've got a story to sell: guy who worked on Hastings Street goes on to work at the Ritz!" I was incredibly lucky to land that job at CinCin, which gave me enough cred to work at various places when I moved back to Ontario.
So--pardon my language--you literally went from being someone's bitch to opening your own restaurant.
It was about two, two and a half years after I started bartending that I moved back to Toronto. I worked at Spoke Club for six months, and did a lot of consulting and catering on the side; then the Ritz. There somebody gave me a lot of money to open my own place--Lucid.
I knew you from Lucid; that was the last place you were at. Do you mind telling me what happened?
Basically I had a contract there. And the provider decided to break my contract. Both myself and the team--front and back--decided to leave. The rest I can't talk about due to continuing litigation, but basically they'd violated my contract and I didn't want to go in the direction they wanted.
It's kind of a cursed spot--you've got so many restaurants at that exact space that didn't quite pan out. Are you and the rest of the team now here at Museum Tavern?
Yeah, some of them are. I'm very proud of what we did at the time--it's a subject for a different sort of interview, I don't want to taint the Museum Tavern with that--but while we were there, everything was made in-house. There was no freezer, except for the ice cubes; we took an artisanal approach to everything we did. I'm very proud of that chapter.
Speaking of artisanal--that's you to a T. It defines you and your work as a bartender. How did you come about with that?
To be honest, I've always wanted to be a cook. If somebody was to come up to me and offer me a job behind the stove, I would take it. I tell most people that I'm a much better cook than I am a bartender. When I was in university at Brock, I lived with a gentleman named Andrew Loft--the chef de cuisine at Paese--and when I met him, I was eating out of cans like any university student. He used to take the piss out of me for the things I ate. Like I said, growing up I had no idea how special it was to eat fresh. I just thought we were poor; I mean, we had to milk a cow. And this guy completely turns me onto what you can do and again, how much people will pay for this kind of stuff. I'd wanted to be a cook ever since I met him.
We moved to Vancouver together. I would get jobs bartending, but I'd beg to work in the kitchen--and they wouldn't let me. They thought that because of the pay cut as a cook, I'd never last.
It's not uncommon to see bartenders who used to be cooks, or chefs. I'm honestly just a wannabe cook. I love food first and foremost. I love alcohol, and I'm lucky to know a lot about it and be able to combine that knowledge of food into this. But in the end, I'd much rather be in the back room and not talk to anyone at all.
You're different. Most bartenders I've spoken to are in love with the intoxicating quality of alcohol--the way it contributes to a night, the way it makes you feel. It's the entire experience for them, rather than the epicurean possibilities of the drink itself.
It's a common thing in our industry--especially for younger people--to think that being a bartender is to be "the master of ceremonies." To hold court at a bar. To tell the funniest jokes. And I absolutely disagree with that. I'm obsessed with bartending because I'm obsessed with flavour, presentation, and that silent interaction between your product and the guest. To see somebody marvel at your work and enjoy its taste is wonderful--but that's where it stops for me. That's just me, but the social stuff is superfluous. The stereotype of bartender as newsman or psychologist has cheapened the industry somewhat. For me, it's about the conceptualization of a dish or a drink. That's why I come to work.
Are there any chefs or bartenders who inspire you?
My friend Andrew Loft at Paese, like I said: he's an inspiration. And not to sound hoity-toity, but I think Mother Nature is what inspires me. I look around the world in a different--perhaps older--way, but I'm obsessed with what's right there; what's in front of our faces.
When we're working on a molecular level, it's almost like we're playing Mother Nature ourselves--to be able to know what to do with these ingredients because they're showing you what they can do. I love going to supermarkets around town and smelling weird things. At my first head bartending job, I bought a durian fruit, and made durian liquor. That stunk up the entire place, but that's the kind of thing I love--to be able to take things and make something new and hopefully cool out of them.
What's one experiment that's gone the most awry?
Hmm. There's been a few things that have cost a bit of money--not my money, thank goodness. This isn't the worst, but perhaps the most interesting time: there was a freezer in my house just full of different kinds of ice. I was obsessed with different ways of making and shaping. My girlfriend would kill me because there just wasn't enough space to put anything in our freezer. And that was a two-year experiment.
But it's just water!
I know. It got to a pretty scientific point. But think of an old fashioned--it's all about controlling the dilution of water. There are four elements in that drink: bourbon, sugar, bitters, and the water that comes from ice. But there are a million ways of doing just that one drink: different bourbons, different sugars, different bitters, and different ways of ice--it can take a lifetime to figure out the perfect way of doing it.
The highest level of anything in the world--whether it is being a sommelier, a whiskey nerd, or a chef--you take whatever it is that you do, and make it a trade. You make it a scientific experiment. You consider the history. You consider all the possible options.
What was it that you studied at Brock?
So you're used to constant re-examination of things.
Exactly. I know enough to know that I know nothing.
You mentioned writing your own menus. Can you tell me a little bit about that process?
At first I'd think about what I liked to drink; what I thought was cool. Over the years, working at some places, I've realised that it's about the people. As the crafter of a menu, it's important to realise that it's not about you--otherwise, all chefs would be serving up foie gras. In Toronto, always put in a few drinks with vodka. Anything made with that--in this city, anyway--would be the best-selling item. If I'm wrong, then these five years here have taught me nothing.
Using things that are common to the people are important. If you're doing something crazy, make it sound normal--for example, if you want to do it a crazy drink with gin, try it with vodka first. That way, people will try it. That's the key to carving a menu in Toronto: keep it approachable, and let people come to you. And don't try to be a master mixologist.
About that word...
I don't like the word mixologist. It's like calling a garbage man a sanitary engineer. The reality is that some people are bartenders, and some people tend bar. A good bartender's about knowing spirits, wines, to shake or stir; and it's about not being a snob. A drink should be made for the person paying for it. Full stop.
When I started bartending, all I wanted was for somebody to say, "hey bartender! Come down here!" I think that's exciting. That word--bartender--means a lot to me. I'm lucky to be good at what I do and be in the position I'm in, but if somebody was to ask me what I did for a living I'm going to say bartender. Not bar manager, or anything else.
It's not about ego. That's dangerous--especially considering the city we live in and the way the trade is evolving. When I first started at Nota Bene, I got one article written about me, and I was so chuffed. But if we use this kind of attention to feed our own egos--as opposed to others' appetites--we're just going to look like idiots. I served in the military. My sister was the first woman to lead combat troops overseas in Canada. That was saving lives. Now? I'm just making drinks.
What are you looking for in creating the perfect cocktail?
With a very fine wine or whiskey, you take a sip and you're transported on this little flavour journey. People will pay so much for that. Daughters' inheritances are spent on wines that taste different with every breath you take. And it just lasts five minutes. You can sip it, and think of springtime, or cigar boxes, or a childhood memory in a sandbox. That's what I'm after.
I think that's why our industry is so accessible. When I was at CinCin, I was learning how to taste wines, and I would think: this smells like my hockey bag. Or socks. Or my girlfriend's perfume in high school. There have been sauvignon blancs that smell like cat pee. In the end, it doesn't matter what you say--it's about your personal association with the taste. If I was in a business where we were all bulletproof-vested by Michelin stars and nobody could get in, I would never last.
What are your favourite places in Toronto?
One of my favourite places to drink is the Queen and Beaver. It's not for cocktails--well, they make great ones, but I only drink beer and whiskey when I'm out. I had an experience with another bartender many years ago who accused me for being there to steal their ideas.
For me, it's more about service and personal attention. I like to go where people know me, and are kind to me. Cold Tea is great. The Ritz is very good. And there are a few other places that I don't want to ruin, so. I'm not a BarChef guy. It's got to be about the guest without any pretension. Other than that, no comment.
I like going to places where I have personal relationships. When I go out drinking, I don't want to be a part of the crowd.
What's been your favourite experience at a bar?
There was my sister's boyfriend. He was older and drank a lot; I was 12. I'd take his bottles and fill them up with water and food colouring and have my own little bar. My very first one. [laughs]
And my 19th birthday. You know when it's your birthday at midnight, and you go out? So I was out at Kelsey's in Mississauga. The bartender there learned my name, and we got drunk there. I woke up the next day just remembering how cool it was that the guy learned my name. I went back, and as I was asking the hostess where if we could sit in the bar area, I heard somebody shout across the room: "Moses!" Having that cool bartender dude know my name was so cool. That's when I thought, bartending is the coolest job.
RAPID FIRE QUESTIONS
Straight up or on the rocks? On the rocks.
Gin or vodka? Gin.
Sweet or dry? Dry.
With a twist or olives? Twist.
Lemon or lime? Lime.
Tonic or soda? Tonic.
Beards or mustaches? Neither. But if I had to choose, beard.
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Photos by Jesse Milns