New podcast explores the secret world of “bartender handshake” drinks through a Canadian lens

Photo courtesy of The Blackbird podcast.

If you’ve ever seen, or taken part in, a round of welcome shots offered to insiders at a mixology-forward bar, you’re already familiar with the bartender handshake.

The cocktail renaissance of the last 20-some years spurred the tradition of bartenders pouring a little something (often something unknown or slightly unpalatable to the general drinking public) for visiting colleagues. To enter a bar and receive a so-called bartender handshake drink is like being part of a secret society. Global trends started this way, as uber-local greetings: San Francisco bartenders were pouring handshake shots of Fernet-Branca 20 years ago, and Chicago has cornered the market on ultra-bitter Malort. There’s even a world-ranked bar in Mexico city called (wait for it…) Handshake, which has a menu of little welcome snack-tails.

Now, some Canadian cocktail experts have pulled back the curtain on Toronto’s own secret handshake drink, one that’s chalked obscurely on many a bar’s daily specials, but is seldom a formal menu offering. Josh Lindley, co-founder with Jessica Blaine Smith of the Toronto Cocktail Conference and the global directory Bartender Atlas (and a bartender himself), followed his curiosity for two years through dozens of bars asking about The Blackbird, a unique GTA combo consumed as a handshake shot or over ice. (And no, we’re not going to ruin the reveal of where, when or what creates it: you’ll have to listen to the podcast.)

The eponymous documentary podcast is a deep-dive into bar culture, urban mythology and one big, decade-long game of hospitality-industry telephone. In The Blackbird’s five episodes, Lindley navigates how a signature drink morphs and evolves in the hands of its creators and drinkers over the years before becoming ingrained as a local tradition. (And yes, he pins down its creator and location of creation.)

“Part of doing the interviews was discovering what brands and liquors were important several years ago, with the ages and careers of the people I was talking to reflecting different tastes and different times,” says Lindley. “Watching that life cycle happen was fascinating.” Lindley recalls Jagermeister, Jack Daniels and Jameson handshake shots charting his own bartending come-up, and says that these days, “If you order Chartreuse on the rocks, the bartender knows you know what you’re doing.”

In the first episode, Lindley interviews Toronto-based cocktail historian Christine Sismondo. When we caught up with them recently, Lindley and Sismondo recalled other handshakes of their global travels, from shots of pasita (raisin liqueur) with a chunk of queso fresco in Puebla, Mexico to gummy-worm garnished sour apple Martinis in Halifax (landmark mixology from bartender Dave Mitten, now Corby’s Canadian spirits brand ambassador) and, of course, the Victoria-born, rapidly spreading tradition of The Shaft.

Now a journalist and once a bartender, Sismondo says that handshake drinks create and celebrate community in a local scene. “When you’re bartending and serving, a camaraderie comes out of the fact that it’s such a stressful job,” she says. “There’s a kind of tightness between bar people, even if you’ve never worked together, even if you’re not from the same neighbourhood.” When a so-called civilian or bar regular is lucky enough to elbow in on a round of handshakes, “they get to be part of that scene, and can share some of that bond.”

Accordingly, Lindley tells the story of The Blackbird lovingly, and with an inclusive spirit, not an industry-exclusive one. “People go to bars not to drink, but to socialize. Celebrating something that is so specifically local and has a great story behind it gives you something to hook into.” In the final episode, Lindley encourages bar customers to head out drinking with an eye to the unique culture and ambiance that make local bars special. As Sismondo says, “Josh doing a deep-dive into a drink that’s kind of obscure and very local is a real testament to a moment in time when Toronto was transforming its bar scene. Without The Blackbird [podcast], that would have been lost.”

Find The Blackbird on Spotify, Apple Podcasts and Simplecast.

—by Charlene Rooke

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