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.

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Where To Get Good Cocktails in TO

Ok so I know if you were to google this you could probably find that there are already so many articles published on this topic. But I wanted to write a list that isn’t just about the cocktails, but the environment as well (cause it’s all about good vibes). I also wanted to feature bartenders in the city that are leading this industry in a positive and inclusive direction.

 

5. Annette Food Market (photo: @annettefoodmarket)

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Really cute place with seasonal cocktails created by bar manager Meghan Murray. If your friends aren’t in the mood for cocktails though they do have a great wine list which you can’t find in the LCBO!

 

4. Parts & Labour (photo: @partsnlabour)

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Offers both a range of classic cocktails and original creations. Chantelle Gambino creates very creative concoctions, and if you’re not in the mood for something with booze the bar staff can make some pretty impressive and delicious mocktails!

 

3. Bar Begonia (photo: @barbegonia)

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If you’re looking for something not so much on the west end, I’d definitely recommend Bar Begonia. Veronica Saye has an amazing and diverse cocktail list, which you’ll have no problem finding something you like. They also have a great team of bartenders, including Jess Milli who’s been winning a lot of cocktail competitions recently.

 

2. Cocktail Bar (photo: @theblackhoof)

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I love bars painted in white, and Cocktail Bar has a cute kind of cottage feel to it. Jen Agg has been in the cocktail scene since the beginning and has a phenomenal list of well-made, balanced cocktails. There’s a reason why her establishments have been around for so long.

 

1. Bar Raval (photo: @bar_raval)

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I love that Bar Raval’s list is constantly changing so even if you become a regular, there’s always something new for you to try. They also use local and fresh ingredients, co-owner Robin Goodfellow told me he grows a lot of their ingredients in his mom’s garden. I’d also definitely recommend trying out their other places like Pretty Ugly and El Rey.

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 […]”

“Right”

“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.

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Top 5 Instagrammable Cocktail Bars

Working in a restaurant, I’ve seen plenty of people take pictures of their drinks and food. Several servers and bartenders agree that a new common question being asked is “what dish looks best on Instagram?” or “which cocktail looks the best in photos?”. So I thought I’d share some places you can check out to get a sick photo (and also enjoy the cocktail you ordered).

 

5. Rush Lane

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During the day, Rush Lane gets a good amount of sunlight for you to take some cool pics! They also have some pretty great graffiti outside of their bar if you were thinking of a group shot with your friends.

 

4. Clocktower Bar

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If you’re looking for a spot that’s also close to a subway stop, Clocktower Bar is your best bet! It’s not even a 2 minute walk from Summerhill station. They’re also right beside Boxcar Social, which is one of the best Instagrammable cafés in the city.

 

3. Miss Thing’s

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Miss Thing’s will make you feel like it’s summer (even if it’s really cold). They have a good selection of cocktails that you can get inside fruit and painted flowers on their walls for a good background!

 

2. The Lockhart

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Even if you’re not a Harry Potter fan, you’ve gotta admit The Lockhart looks pretty cool. From their glassware to their shelf of Potions and Elixirs , you can always find something new to Instagram in there.

 

1. Bar Raval

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Bar Raval is one of the most gorgeous bars in the city, so you can always get a good shot of the decor. Along with their delicious cocktails and snacks, obviously.