Another round at Cocktail Bar

This Toronto institution enters an exciting new chapter with bar manager Juliana Wolkowski

Juliana Wolkowski is bringing visionary leadership to Toronto fan favourite Cocktail Bar. Erin Leydon photo

In the heart of Toronto’s vibrant cocktail scene, where new bars are constantly coming up with all sorts of innovative ways to bring entertaining, theatrical serves to life, there’s one place that stands out as a true, classic gem: Cocktail Bar.

A cherished part of the city’s nightlife for the last 12 years, this beautiful retro nook on Dundas Street West was originally a spinoff from the famed Black Hoof restaurant. Since April, it has been under the new and visionary leadership of bar manager Juliana Wolkowski, who previously worked at Bar Raval and Dreyfus Restaurant, and continues to make this one of Toronto’s top cocktail destinations.

I asked Wolkowski what it was like taking the helm of a space that is so dear to so many of us in the cocktail community.

“It was already one of my favourite places to drink in the city,” she says. “I mean, it was where I met my husband! So it was so easy for me to love this space.”

She adds: “When you arrive at Cocktail Bar for the first time, or the first time this week, you immediately feel at ease. The space itself feels lived in, but elegant. Cozy and intimate, and after 12 years somehow doesn’t feel dated, which is a feat.”

I mean, the space speaks for itself. As you step inside, the first thing that strikes you is the intimate and welcoming ambience—just try not to fall in love with literally anything there. White walls adorned with vintage fixtures create an inviting contrast to the bustling city life just beyond the doors. The focal point of the space is the beautiful wood bar and, behind it, an extensive back bar where perfect French-door cabinets reveal a meticulously organized treasure trove of spirits and unique house tinctures and concoctions.

The snug salon vibe coupled with the warmly welcoming bar team is exactly what anyone needs for a carefully crafted creation for any moment. Now Wolkowski is making it even better with a truly ambitious cocktail program.

“We have streamlined so many things over the past few months, adding in housemade liqueurs, keg-carbonated cocktails and figuring out how to cut clear ice in a 30-seat cocktail bar— to name a few,” she says.

In Toronto, we are used to seeing the same faces behind bars; it’s not so much about where we are going as it is “Who are you going to visit tonight?” Cocktail Bar has bred some of our city’s greatest bar legends, but in the last year or so, some new faces have emerged and it’s truly a lovely sight to see them thrive under Wolkowski’s guidance.

The hospitality industry, she notes, has lost a lot of talent over the past few years, but now she sees “swaths” of eager new people taking their place. “Dang, I am very excited to see people back in these spaces, taking ownership, finding their footing and creating cool shit,” she says.

The Gold Lion is a “flavour bomb” of scotch, licorice, cachaça, sesame, passionfruit, lime and matcha. Juliana Wolkowski photo

Now, let’s talk about the pièce de resistance—the cocktail menu. Cocktail Bar has always, through the last 12 years been one of the very few places in the city I can step in and order a flawlessly executed gin Martini—or discover something to tantalize my adventurous soul in search of something particular that night. Now guests like myself who have enjoyed “Hoof classics” like the Absinthe Whip and Hoof Manhattan (and will be forever loyal to them) will be thrilled to have Wolkowski and her new team “coerce them into enjoying some of the more esoteric beverages on offer.”

She’s keeping her newest winter offerings close to her chest, but the Gold Lion is a complete flavour bomb created by their company beverage director, David Greig. It is made with scotch, licorice, cachaça, sesame, passionfruit, lime and matcha, an earthy-meets-tropical scotch sour-inspired drink that seems to tickle the fancy of those who are into some serious universal flavours “It’s not for everyone, but it is absolutely for me,” says Wolkowski.

In a city as dynamic as Toronto, where the cocktail scene is constantly evolving, Cocktail Bar remains a steadfast beacon of quality and innovation. So, whether you find yourself in need of a pre-dinner libation, a nightcap, a romantic date night or a place to gather with friends, Cocktail Bar is the epitome of what you didn’t know you need. It’s a place where moments are created, where stories unfold, and where every sip is a celebration of the passion behind the classics, and the new.

—by Evelyn Chick

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