Toronto Cocktails

The Great Toronto Cocktail Challenge: The Winners

I've spent most of my adult life working in bars and restaurants of some kind. At times they were classy joints and at others they were much less than that. Over that period of time, though, I feel like I've received a pretty decent education in bartending and general cocktail creation.

I thought that, at least, until this challenge came along. My experience making vodka martinis for retired folk pales in comparison to the level of skill and creativity required these days to tend bar in an establishment worth its liquor license. Not only does today's top shelf bartender need to have a solid knowledge of the classics, but also a catalogue of near extinct gems (think Sazarac, Corpse Reviver #2 or a French 75) as well as a few originals up their sleeve.

In fact, today's bartender needs to do so much more than simply "tend bar."

That's what this challenge celebrates. I mean, it has been fun to check out the drinks, but it's the men and women behind the bar that have - ahem - raised the bar. And after spending the past two weeks drinking cocktails, I can say what's most remarkable is just how strong this list is: there are very few duds here but when they're good, they're really good.

So good in fact, that narrowing down the list into some kind of top five has been damn near impossible. So instead, I'll highlight a few favourites in no particular order:

The Bramblish
This gets another view because of its lightness and refreshment. As I said in the original review, this drink screams patio season. The mellow smoothness of Hendricks combined with cucumber and rosewater is the kind of drink you could spend an afternoon with.

Petey's Mescal Muddle
Just a brilliant combination of flavours that touch every part of the palate. A spicy cocktail (and I mean hot) with the added depth of a Laphroaig wash, it's no wonder this one has been a favourite and the Toronto Temperance Society.

The Penicillin
A cocktail that also employs a splash of Laphroaig, but instead of pairing that smokiness with jalapeno and tequila, this one combines it with ginger and lemon, to equally stunning results.

The Manhattan
The Black Hoof's Manhattan is like that book you've read a million times, or that record album that can never seem to play itself out. I can't imagine ever getting sick of this cocktail - it's subtle, complex and absolutely delicious.

I could have easily included The Elixir at Goodnight, the Sazerac from Parts & Labour and The Bloody Hound at Boehmer as well, but the list wasn't that long to begin with.

Ultimately, a great cocktail comes down to a few things: ingredients, preparation and presentation. Each of the above places got all three of those categories damn near perfect.

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