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.