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.