Meet Matt Hassen, an Okanagan-based slash Vancouver-raised bartender who is currently Bar Manager at the Sage Pub in Osoyoos. With almost two decades banked in the industry, Matt is a veteran by every standard, with footprints stamped in many hot Vancouver locales, and an even hotter print stamped in Nicaragua, where he helped design a bar for a Surf Hotel. It is Matt’s vigor that will melt you to pieces though, and not just because he is an animal rescue advocate who frequently fosters furry little kiddos. Matt has eternally stamped himself into the lives of everyone in our hospitality family through his courageous battle with kidney failure, and a transplant that came from a colleague-friend who is now like family. Now recovering in the Okanagan where he is closer to family, Matt is in full life mode as he relishes in the industry that had his back, spreading positive vibes and love, and keeping himself in the game through cocktail competitions and travel. Catch him while you can, because his 2021 life plan has him Jeep-bound all the way to Chile!
Laura: Alright. Hi Matt! Tell me about what is going on in your world these days?
Matt: Hello! I’m currently running my friend’s bar in Osoyoos, The Sage Pub, while I recover from a kidney transplant I had back in 2017. I’m working with Stevely from Noteworthy Gin on cocktails for his gin as well as Mike Green from Tumbleweed Distillery to showcase what his products can do for cocktails. With my second chance at a full life I have been wasting no time in getting back to what I love: travel, cocktails, and hopefully one day being a bar back for one shift at Employees Only NY (a world-class speakeasy in New York).
L: You’ve worked in your fair share of locales in Vancouver, as well as up in the Okanagan, where you’re currently posted. What would you say are the main differences between the bar cultures in Vancouver vs. the Okanagan?
M: Vancouver has some of the best bartenders in the world and that community is so inviting to others who want to learn. The Okanagan has a much smaller bar scene but we are still a tight group of friends who help each other develop cocktails and push each other as much as we can. Although Vancouver has a more refined cocktail culture, I think we are lucky in the Okanagan because of our close relationships to local famers with access to the best fruits and vegetables, as well as some of the best wineries in Canada, right at our doorstep.
L: What was it that drew you into the hospitality industry? Tell us about how you got into bartending and how you got to where you are now?
M: For me it was turning 19 and going to my first bar and just seeing what bartenders do on an average night. While I was in university I was able to work at night and go to school during the day without overworking myself. I think with most of us we simply evolved into learning more about the spirits we were pouring, how different flavours combine with each other and being able to go to distilleries and learn the process of creating those spirits. While I was travelling I was meeting locals and discovering their food, their favourite drinks, their local alcohol and I wanted to be able to bring those ideas back behind the bar to recreate those places and moments for my guests. This industry is constantly changing and there is so much to learn about every aspect, which challenges you to be better.
L: Do you (or did you ever) have a mentor, or someone you can just lean into?
M: I get asked this question a lot and my answer is always the same: there are so many people who are driving this industry forward. You’ve got Lauren Mote who is constantly pushing our bartenders to be their best. Chris Enns, Kaitlyn Stewart, and Jeff Savage are people I am constantly following because of the boundaries they are pushing with their bar teams—literally world class bartenders in Vancouver. The one guy I do consider to be a mentor of sorts is James Holmes, the Chef at Salt & Brick in Kelowna. We have collaborated on unique food and drink combinations for the last three years and it’s always cool to see what he is doing. We push each other to bring new ideas forward and I am fortunate to have a friend-mentor like him.
L: You were recently one of the competing bartenders at DISH back in May! Tell us about the cocktail you created, and what is your process for inventing a new drink?
M: So much fun!! When I begin to design a new drink I start with the spirit and try to tell a good story from beginning to end. I draw what the cocktail should look like and build it from what is available and what kind of profile and experience I would like to guest to have.
The theme of the event was “America” and my spirit was Titos Vodka. The cocktail I created was called ‘The Five Points’ and it was based on a compass with the 5th point being in the center (the heart). With the vodka being from Texas, that gave me my southern compass point, and from there I moved up to the Northwest with the coffee empire that Starbucks created. I used a Vietnamese coffee that I cold-brewed for 27 hours and sweetened with a buckwheat honey from Kansas called Bee Harmony. I created honey water with cayenne and cinnamon because of the close relationship to Mexico. For a Latte feel, I ventured to the east and chose to dissect the Manhattan, using Amaro Lucano instead of vermouth and using achiote paste as the bitter. I mixed the amaro and achiote paste with egg whites and a bit of the honey water to get that creamy look and feel. The 5th point was the corn-based vodka because of how much hard work Bert Beveridge puts into his vodka.
I had a lot of people come back for more tastings because it was something they have never tasted before and loved the unique story and profile.
L: You had a pretty serious turn of events in your life a few years back when you were diagnosed with kidney failure. It’s a pretty wild story of courage and community, given that an old coworker donated his kidney, and the hospitality industry (your workplace, your community, the BC Hospitality Foundation) really stepped up to support you through it all. Would you be willing to elaborate on this experience for us?
M: Fortunate is the word I use to describe the entire adventure! I was the Bar Manager at Chill Winston when my diabetic and kidney team told me my kidney function had dropped to 26%. I moved to Osoyoos to be closer to my parents to help me through the process and it was okay for about a year before my function dropped 10 points to 13%. I was told my options were dialysis or transplant. It took me about a week to grasp the situation and I went on social media to let everyone know what has happening. Humbling is another word I use to describe what happened next, because about 14 people messaged me and said they were willing to go through the testing to see if they were a match. One of the bartenders I was working with, Josh Hackett, read my post and came up to me a couple days later and told me he was going to go through the process because that’s what you do…. He had known me for maybe two months and was willing to donate one of his organs to keep me alive.
I contacted the BCHF and they were quick to jump onboard and help me with a fundraiser my pub was going to throw. They matched dollar for dollar for the event and a ton of local businesses and wineries and friends from Vancouver donated prizes to the silent auction. Marcus Kraft from Titos got a hold of me and donated a case of vodka, which I used to design cocktails for the event. Osoyoos is such an amazing community when they get together to help someone in need. I can’t say thank you enough to everyone who helped out. The Owl Pub donated all the food for the event and we were able to raise enough money so that I could recover and still pay my bills and focus on getting healthy. It was truly awesome and I still thank people to this day for everything they did for me. The BCHF is amazing and what they do for people in our industry is truly remarkable.
L: Once you were able to return to work, did you find that working behind a bar had changed in any way? For example, was there a ‘before and after’ feeling or was it just like putting on an old pair of boots?
M: The only aspect I noticed that was different was my energy levels. I was so used to functioning on little-to-no energy for ten-hour shifts and then going home to sleep just to go back the next day and do it all over again. My diet was super restricted, also being a type 1 diabetic, so I wasn’t able to eat food that provided energy, but I always maintained the appearance of having energy because that is what our job requires of us. After the transplant it was a whole new experience!! Getting up early in the morning again, eating food I wasn’t allowed for nearly ten years, and pushing through long shifts. I noticed I was nervous for my first competition back but after a couple minutes it was gone and I was happy to be able to compete again.
L: What an experience. And you’re still kicking in the scene! In your opinion, what is the most underrated bar in the Okanagan? Any hidden gems in Vancouver that you hold close to your heart?
M: Most Underrated Bar – Jacks Pizza & Liquor. Everyone needs to go and check out their cocktail and spirit menu.
Hidden Gem – Guilt & Co. in Gastown. Best live music venue, coolest vibe and one of the best cocktail menus in the city.
L: What’s your guilty pleasure drink?
M: The White Russian!! The Big Lebowski has a real firm grip on my heart.
L: Yesss! Great answer. How about the most memorable drink you’ve ever had?
L: What drink makes you cringe (to drink or to make)?
M: Not really a cringe feeling but my bar is in the summer destination of Osoyoos and the amount of Jagerbombs and lemon-drop shots we make on a crazy night is remarkable.
L: Ohhhhh Jagerbombs, you slippery devils. Aside from avoiding too many of those, what keeps you sane and balanced outside of work?
M: My girlfriend, my animals, and my travel planning. Also Fernet.
L: Can we expect to see you at any other bartending competitions or fun events this year?
M: I’m going to try and make an appearance at as many as I can!
Dog or cat? Dog
Negroni or Boulevardier? Negroni
Most overhyped bar trend? Activated Charcoal – super dangerous
Most despised bar term? Mixologist
Most underutilized spirit? Fernet
First drink you ever had? Caesar
Pinot or Cabernet? Cabernet
Go-to hangover cure? Pho
High school prom song? Barbie Girl – Aqua
THC or CBD? CBD
Amazing. Thanks for sharing, Matt!