When I started on the bar at Chinched it was a pretty big change from what I was used to. We had 3 bottles that fell (loosely) under the flavored alcohol category: Triple Sec, Disaronno and Baileys. I had asked for more to work with but my boss flat out refused, we would not buy any Sour Puss, flavored brandy or any candied alcoholic products. Nothing that uses neon coloring and nothing named after a fruit that doesn’t exist. At the time I was pretty disappointed, up until that point in my bartending experience those were the only things I’d ever used.
Before Chinched I started off in a big franchise box restaurant. From there I moved on to George Street (most bars per sq. foot in North America, if you aren’t familiar Google is your friend). There I worked at a number of night clubs, a pub, a live music venue and a musical theater venue that was being converted into an event space. From there I did a brief stint at a fine dining restaurant before falling into a job at Chinched Bistro. Throughout this time in my life I thought I was a fairly capable bartender, so much so that prior to Chinched I had leveraged my bar experience to get the head bar position at a restaurant that would go on to be recognized as one of (if not the) best restaurants in Canada. While there I was charged with writing the cocktail list and it wasn’t until I had long since departed that position that I realize how over my head I was.
I pulled on what I knew. Flashy, sweet, easy libations. I mixed the finest flavored spirits I could get my hands on for what I can only call “an upscale twist on night club cocktails.” There was no sour apple martini, but there was an apple cider martini, no jolly rancher, but there was one called ‘Juiced’ with 3 different flavors of absolute vodka, orange juice and a splash of cranberry. The creation I was most proud of was the espresso martini with real daily brewed chilled espresso. Although that’s as far as I got from something you’d expect in a dimly lit room with booming bass so loud you can’t hear the person 1 foot away from you.
I had no appreciation or knowledge of classic cocktails and no concept of what went on outside of the club.
And then I ended up at Chinched, the land of locally inspired flavors and narrow minded employers. Or so I thought.
With no flavored spirits to play with, the beverage program at Chinched revolved around local berry purées; Partridgeberry, Blueberry and Bake Apple (cloud berry for those not from Newfoundland) and the cocktails were fairly basic. Partridgeberry went in a cosmo in place of the cranberry juice, Blueberry went in a Margarita and the Bake Apple went in a Whiskey and Ginger.
As simple as they sound, they were great cocktails and they were very popular. I can’t remember exactly, but I believe the cocktail list at the time had the 3 cocktails above, a few classics and a line about “traditional cocktails” and then a listing of our beers, aperitifs and that was that.
I can’t remember how I got onto it, but after working with that cocktail list for some time I wanted to try and convince my boss to let me put some more spirits on the shelf so we could expand the cocktail list. Cassis was the spirit I was going to attach my hopes to. I had an idea for a few cocktails we could make with our existing inventory if we just added cassis. I planned my argument, sat down with my boss and made my pitch.
“We’re not going to carry any bullshit commercial spirits, it’s just the way it’s going to be… We could try to make it ourselves though.”
Make it? What did that even mean? Until that moment the thought had never even come close to entering my mind. Spirits weren’t something you made, they were something you bought. You were limited by the selection at the local Liquor Store and that was pretty much it.
Why not just make it. What a concept.
So I hopped on Google, found a couple recipes, picked the one I thought would work and got to it. Long story short; Cassis is a long term maceration of black currants on brandy with sugar added at the end. From start to finish the process takes about 2 months, so we threw some berries and booze in a (thoroughly cleaned) salt beef bucket and walked away. Two months later we popped open the beef bucket and my mind was blown.
It was sweet, almost syrup like in texture and the flavor was incredibly rich and true to the dark currants. It was significantly better than any store bought Cassis I had ever tried before. Nowhere was that nameless chemical quality a lot of cheap flavored spirits are cursed with. This actually tasted like fruit it was supposed to taste like.
I had an opening, this was my in! If we weren’t going to buy flavored spirits I was going to make them. My boss who I had very incorrectly labelled as ‘narrow minded’ gave me carte blanche. If I could think of it I could try to make it. Best of all, they were going to foot the bill for my alcoholic experiments. Some were a huge success and some were failures, from fruity to savory and a couple that were just plain weird.
Two years or so later we now serve 10 different infused spirits with 95% of our cocktail list featuring at least one of them. It’s been an awesome journey to go from knowing next to nothing about cocktails to having a deep appreciation and understanding of mix drinks. After working in a restaurant known for inventiveness in the kitchen, I felt that it was equally important that we were creative in the bar and I think we’ve finally reached that point.
Over the next few weeks I’ll be posting on a few of the spirits we’ve made and the cocktails made using them to give everyone a better idea of what exactly it is we do in the bar at Chinched!