Cocktologists & Competitions: An Interview with OG Bartender Aja Sax

I met up with Aja on a sunny day in Trinity Bellwoods. We grabbed some coffee from Sam James and figured it was so nice we might as well talk in the park. Literally everyone I told about my blog told me I had to interview Aja, so I was pretty excited. She’s been around since the cocktail culture started in Toronto, and has been called a bar star among people in the industry, but she prefers the word ‘cocktologist’ mainly because it’s hilarious. In case you were wondering, a bar star is someone who’s really popular in the scene and is really good at their job, they usually have at least a few articles written about them.


“How did this community form?”


“The first thing I remember was this tequila tasting at the Drake and that was in 2011. Jon Humphrey and the bar management team at the Drake collaborated with different agencies that were importing different tequilas that you couldn’t necessarily get at the LCBO, as well as tequila you could. It was the first time a lot of us met Eric Brass who owns Tromba. [He] had this brand new spirit that most of us had never heard of, and it was the first time that there was 30 or so bartenders in a room together like tasting spirits and talking about spirits, that I remember. There were competitions before that, but I wasn’t a part of them and that was back when it was just 5 people in the same competitions”


“You were talking about how it was the first time you met the guy from Tromba, were local and corporate brands always around when the cocktail culture became a huge thing?”


“I think that the brands were really smart in terms of getting involved. I think that it would have happened anyway. The competitions were a really great way to meet each other, like sometimes there were bartenders from bars you hadn’t been to yet that wanted to expose the cocktail culture of their particular establishment. Certainly cocktail competitions are a great showcase for, in terms of promoting your own business. I certainly used that format as a form of promotion when I was managing places and took it upon myself to be part of the promotion of the business. I think that the brands again were really smart and they paid attention and they realized their product could move this thing forward and make them loyal in our hearts. If you think of someone like Eric Brass for example, he’s actually a perfect example of someone that got in on the real ground level of when this was all starting to explode. I mean he is the face of that brand and showed up to the bars he wanted to sell it and like came and spent money and brought people and brought attention to the newer spots opening up. So he instilled a sense of loyalty on top of having a good product so that people kind of wanted to work with his product because they wanted to work with him. So I think that not so much the brands affected or changed the course of how it went down, I just think that quality brands that realized that their sales were dependent on people moving the product. [They] made themselves and their product available in a way that encouraged us to want to play around with their product. And you know if Eric dropped off a bottle of Tromba at your bar, you’re more likely to play around with the product, create a cocktail, put it on the list, move his spirit more into the foreground. So it was sort of a mutually beneficial situation. Now I think that branding has gotten a little extreme but I understand why and it’s still effective.”


“What do you mean that it’s gone extreme?”


“There are just a lot of competitions now. I remember the last couple I did, and it just sort of sounds silly but it got too competitive. It felt like rather than 10 of us getting together and doing our best and creating our own cocktail and rooting for each other and supporting each other, you know, there was this real sense that the stakes being higher than they needed to be or something. The kind of support changed. I remember my first competition like people were there helping, like if I forgot a tool they were like ‘here you can borrow this’ whereas there became this element of competition that maybe got in the way a bit of the camaraderie of it. From my perspective, but at the same time I think competitions are really healthy because it makes you want to be your best”


“At the beginning, and I guess now, do you consider it to be a boys’ club?”


“I’ve been asked that a few times over the years. I think that there are simply put more men doing it and that’s just a fact, at least in North America. I mean for the sake of argument let’s just discuss Toronto alone there are really talented women here. Women are becoming more prominent and showcasing that. At the time that I was competing, usually it was me and a bunch of guys, occasionally one or two women would be involved. With the exception of women-only competitions, we were certainly out numbered. And in terms of when a woman would win these competitions, it was definitely noticeable that they weren’t necessarily given the credit that they were due. Maybe sometimes you know they were told ‘oh you must have gotten help with that’ or something like that, that was insinuated. And I think that’s still happening to be honest from what I hear. I have to be very fair and say I’ve excluded myself from that arena for the last couple of years, a part from being a supporter from the sidelines but you know I think that there’s still a misconception of what women are capable of but it’s certainly not as bad as it used to be. It’s definitely improved.”


“So the people judging it are kind of…”


“I’d like to think it’s not the judges. I think it’s the spectators and even the competitors themselves that perpetuate that. I have a lot of very good friends that judge competitions regularly and I think that the majority of them aren’t allowing any gender bias to come into their consideration. However, the results are often when you see those gender divides. When a woman wins, you’ll see the guys reacting in the room as though they’d all been robbed as opposed to someone doing better than them.”


It’s interesting to see how liquor companies’ affect on cocktail culture has made it more competitive, and how sexism has played into it. Not that sexism wasn’t always present, it was. But I think that when the community shifted their values to something more aligned with corporate capitalism, it gave more room for sexism. In capitalism there’s always a winner and a loser. So can true equality even be achieved within it?



The photo of Aja was taken from her Facebook.

“I like that it’s a boys’ club because I hate working with women”: Internalized Misogyny in the Kitchen

I recently interviewed a chef who, although agreed to discussing gender inequalities in the kitchen, ended up being a complete misogynist. I was disappointed at first, especially at myself for naively thinking because she’s a female chef she would be feminist. But then I realized that I could use it as an opportunity to discuss how some female chefs contribute to their own oppression.

Erin McKelle explains internalized misogyny really well: “Internalized misogyny as the involuntary internalization by women of the sexist messages that are present in their societies and culture. Basically, that means that we hold misogynistic ideas ourselves, even though we are women. It’s involuntary because the sexism that is present in our culture is taught to us through socialization (the process of learning culture through social interaction), a process we don’t have much say in. It’s through observing, learning, and understanding society that you come to hold common attitudes and beliefs, including misogynistic ones”.

Here are some examples of internalized misogyny that I’ve encountered among chefs:

  1. Victim Blaming

There’s a lot of harassment and assault that happens in a kitchen. Every time a woman is brave enough to share her experience of abuse, there are always other women saying that they would have never let that happen to them. For instance, the chef I interviewed said, “I know there’s a lot of people who say there’s a lot of discrimination but it depends on how you carry yourself”. This basically means if you carry yourself in the right way, you won’t be harassed and/or assaulted. But if you don’t, it’s your fault for being harassed and/or assaulted. This is pretty much why most women won’t come forward and report abuse. By engaging in victim-blaming attitudes, society allows the abuser to perpetrate relationship abuse or sexual assault while avoiding accountability for those actions.


  1. Tearing Down Other Women

The quote in my title is actually from the chef I interviewed. She explained that she hates working with women because they’re all jealous and competitive with other women working in the kitchen. This stems from society’s idea that women should be competing for the man’s attention as an ultimate goal. So I definitely don’t find it surprising that she’s had this experience with other women. At the same time, generalizing your experience to all women and saying you prefer working with men is misogynist. It’s also harmful since it stereotypes women as ‘bitchy’ and difficult to work with, whereas men are cool and fun to work with. How come when a man does something awful, they’re seen as a shitty individual, but when a women does something awful the entire gender is blamed? Your experience with a few women shouldn’t be associated with an entire gender. Also, if you can proudly say that you hate working with women, the chance of you being competitive with other women is pretty high.


  1. Saying You’re ‘One of the Boys’

This goes into the point above. Some chefs have said that they fit into the kitchen because they’re like ‘one of the boys’. This idea is very damaging not only because it stereotypes women as all the same, it also implies that being a woman is a negative thing. This is called the “special snowflake” complex, which is when a woman separates herself from other women by buying into sexist stereotypes. It’s the same thing as saying you’re ‘not like other girls’. By saying that, you’re implying that women are inferior. It’s so weird to me when female chefs say this since cooking is stereotyped as a feminine thing? Like haven’t you ever heard those dumb ‘women should be in the kitchen’ jokes? Oh right, because once you turn it into a business it suddenly becomes a macho man career… ?


  1. Ignoring Your Gender

I’ve heard quite a few female chefs saying they hate being labeled as a female chef. They’re reasoning behind it is that they just want to be seen as a chef and erase gender from the picture, “it doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman it’s the food that should speak for itself”. This in theory sounds nice, and I do agree. But it’s missing the point.You’re ignoring the fact that the kitchen is a male-dominated space. So when a woman does break the glass ceiling, it’s a big deal. Not acknowledging your gender is also not acknowledging the discrimination and oppression women have had to face to get to where they are now in their careers. When too many people make the assertion that racism and sexism and all those issues no longer exist, through the argument of “not seeing X,” then it may cause some people to actually believe that, but it does nothing to solve the discriminations plaguing real people who suffer them. Worse, it hinders progress, as it asserts that no progress need be made anymore.


I’m sure there are plenty more examples, but the main point is that women contribute to misogyny almost as much as men. Another important note that’s often overlooked is that everyday people contribute to sexism. Although you may think they’re just harmless jokes or comments, they build up and become apart of how we think. And it’s not our fault, society taught us to think this way. Like the chef I interviewed was actually very kind to me, and I’d like to think she has no idea that her thoughts and actions cause violence towards women. It takes awareness, time, and effort to unlearn all the things you originally thought were truths. These people just need healing, but in order to do that we need to spread awareness and call people out people for their misogynist behaviour.

An Interview with Mel Payne

I meet up with Mel on a sunny day in a hip coffee shop near her house. She’s coming from the grocery store, and plans on baking after our interview. She talks about how she’s gone corporate and doesn’t really bartend anymore, but I assure her that her voice is still just as important. We talk about how the cocktail bartenders in the city have really become a supportive community to one another. I ask how she keeps in touch with people in the community. 

“I think that most of the time you just kind of go out and you know you’re going to run into someone. Yeah, like I don’t really ever make plans with people. It’s very much like ‘I’m just going to go sit at the bar, like Civil Liberties, and if I sit there for long enough I will run into at least 10 people I know, and you will just go from there. People will come in and be like ‘yeah we just stopped in for a quick one, we’re on our way to Shameful [Tiki Room] to see Alana’. You just go to the next one, like ‘hey we haven’t been to Montauk in a while let’s see if Mike’s working tonight.’ That’s just kind of it.”

It makes total sense you’d run into 10 people in one night. Part of being a cocktail bartender is going to other bars on your day off and supporting other bartenders in your community. Another great way to see a bunch of bartenders in one place is going to (and/or competing in) a cocktail competition. I asked Mel if women often compete.

“No, it tends to be more males, but that being said like the females who are competing in these competitions are incredible. You got like Veronica Saye, you got Evelyn Chick, these are people who compete internationally, which is really cool to be coming from here. But I think that historically it was males who have always sort of been like bartenders and cocktail makers. I think there’s been kind of a shift though. I think a lot women are opening cocktail bars and being really successful and they’re getting a lot more recognition, and yeah, they’re competing at these international levels and like killing it. Yeah like not as many women for sure as men but you know I think it’s changing for sure.”

Although you can definitely see change happening, I was still curious about the everyday difficulties women face in this industry. So I asked what the hiring process is like, as well as moving up in this industry. Because there are definitely people in this industry, especially people in positions of power and authority, who are making women’s lives more difficult than they should be.

“I think that people [don’t] want to think like that. They want to think that they don’t think like that, but if you look – like if I looked back at where I’ve worked and where I’ve bartended, and I hear like the language being used amongst management when it comes to like hiring [or] promoting, they just don’t have the confidence in women that they should, you know? They’re more likely to give the promotion to a guy than they are with a woman even if they are objectively equally as qualified. There’s just something, and they won’t acknowledge that that’s a thing they’ve actually done, like they’re not conscious of it. They think they’re being reasonable and fair but they’re not.”

“What do they usually say that stops them from moving up?”

“It could be anything. It would never be about like their gender specifically right, but it would be like something that’s sort of vaguely referenced … ‘well they’re just not strong enough to like do this’ or you know? But I think you just sort of hear the conversation and you’re just ‘there’s something that doesn’t sit right with me about this but like ok’. I think they’re more willing to give the opportunity to guys than they are to women. Not everywhere is like that but it’s definitely been the case in a lot of places that I’ve worked, and I think that you’re taken more seriously as a guy as a bartender, right? People just have this construct in their minds, like that is what a bartender looks like”

“Would you say the cocktail scene is still a boys’ club?”

“A little bit, yeah. I think it still is and maybe that’s just my perception but I would say that yeah, it very much still feels like that you know like they’re letting women in they’re showing them up and there are a lot of people who are very liberal about supporting women bartenders like men and like ‘these women are really impressive, we should all be paying attention to how fantastic they are’. There are a lot of them like that and there’s a lot who just you know, sometimes your lack of saying something, anything, is more powerful […]”


“I don’t know if that’s ever going to totally go away, right? I feel like a lot of people are always going to have a bit of that old school mentality about it. But I think I mean it’s definitely changed, but I don’t think we’re where we should be yet” (19:12)

“For sure. Like what would you say some examples are for where we’re not at?”

“Like how many female, how many of the city’s like prominent cocktail bars are owned by women or their head bartenders are women or their bar managers are women? You know? It’s definitely disproportionate. And there are a lot of reasons for that, but I think it’s just that it takes– I think you just have to try a lot harder to get to those positions as a woman than you do as a man. It takes a lot more work to break those barriers.” She goes on to say that this isn’t just a problem in cocktail bars, but in every establishment she’s worked in she’s never had a female bar manager.

I actually had to think about it too and I don’t think I’ve ever worked at a place with a female bar manager either. It’s really frustrating too because you can call someone out on their misogyny and they’ll still deny it, either because they don’t want to be seen as a bad person or they just genuinely don’t want to see things differently. And there are definitely people who will listen to you and be like ‘you know what, you’re right’ and change their behavior. But Mel is right, women do just have to work way harder than men to get into this industry.


Paper Planes & Perverts: An Interview with Kate Boles

I met up with Kate on a quiet Sunday in the Financial District. We were both pretty tired from working the night before, so I get some caffeinated tea to wake me up a bit more and start asking her about how she got into bartending.

At 20, Kate realized that a 9-5 job wasn’t for her and quickly landed a job as a bartender in a rough, blue collar type bar in Steveston (a fisherman town in BC where she’s originally from). It was a very rough clientele, so she developed a thick skin soon after working there.

“There was a guy named Terry who was a laborer, who did very well for himself. He was part of a group of men that would come in from 3pm – 6pm and they were like 40 something year old married men that were very vulgar and rough. As you pass their tests of the few months of you serving them they would relax a bit and treat you a little bit better. Terry though was actually quite perverted, inappropriate with the young female serving staff. One day he brought a porn magazine and was reading it at the bar, and showed me an article that said “tattooed women are better in bed,” and I took the magazine away and walked to the back of the kitchen and gave it to the chef who immediately said this is inappropriate. Terry ended up screaming at me yelling to give it back and I said ‘you know you can’t bring stuff like that in here’. He then stormed into the kitchen, and I followed him and said ‘you can’t go in there’. A verbal fight kind of ensued and he started saying things like ‘you manipulate all the men, I know your tricks, I know your games’. And it just, he and I just had a lot of tension because I really didn’t like him. Anyways, the owner of the restaurant heard about it and banned him. He ended up coming to Superbowl months later and apologized to the owner and brought me flowers. I wasn’t ok with that. I still didn’t want him in here so I told the owner that as long as I worked at the bar I didn’t want him here. But as soon as I left, he was back.”

Most situations aren’t as extreme as Terry’s, but it’s pretty normal for a bartender to deal with an inappropriate comment or getting hit on at least twice a day. We start discussing how to react when there’s an inappropriate comment a guest is making.

“It’s trying to find a balance between having a thick skin, having moral boundaries, having self-worth, it’s exhausting you know? The balance between being fun and doing your job properly. A bartender is supposed to provide not only good service but good energy.”

“Do you find that you’re constantly thinking of that when you’re working?”


“What’s that process like? Could you give me an example of an interaction?”

“There’s scales, like scale systems that I play in my head. So usually I give every person, like clientele whether they’re old or new, I give them a scale system in my head. Everyone for the most part starts off like a baby being born, like everyone is at 0, which is neutral. And then I kind of make tick marks in my brain, whether they do inappropriate things or how they might just word something or look at me. Sometimes you know you can get really creepy eyes from someone, they may be very simple in their request for a drink and may not say much to you but you might get the most creepy kind of like makes your skin crawl vibe from this person. So at that point you know that you still have to serve this person, so then you start to put up [walls]. Over the years I’ve learned to have certain protective coping skills. Certain body language I’ll do.”

“Like what?”

“I’ll usually be like quick and fast in how I might put the drink in front of them. I’ll definitely avoid standing in that vicinity of the bar whereas if I’m enjoying somebody’s company and I feel a good vibe from a certain couple of seats I might linger there more while multi tasking or doing something else. But if someone said something that made me feel uncomfortable, I might avoid that area unless I absolutely have to for service.”

It’s not all creepy men though. Being a female cocktail bartender, you can get some sexist comments every now and then. It can just be little things like ‘you’re good for a girl’! Kate recalls one time where a guest was joking about how she made a paper plane, which is a cocktail that is shaken double strained in a coupe. She says, “there’s a perfect timing and balance to how that cocktail is chilled and diluted and that has to do with the kind of shake you have and how hard and efficient you can shake as well as how you can properly move the ice in the tin. So there will often be jokes that like ‘well yours is good but he can make a better one because he’s stronger’.” Yeah, because shaking a cocktail obviously takes the strength of an Olympian medalist…

It doesn’t matter where you go, sexism is alive and well everywhere. But if you’ve been keeping up with the American election you probably already knew that.

You can find Kate shaking paper planes and probably talking about something really personal about her life at Drake One Fifty.


Photo by Warren May @_wmay @warrenmay