Behind the smile

The hospitality industry isn’t always great for mental health. Now we’re doing something about it

Bartender Alex Black is one of the founding directors of Mind the Bar, which works to destigmatize mental illness. Jonathan Norton photo

The conversation surrounding mental health in the hospitality industry is finally gaining momentum. Published studies are showing that hospitality employees are put under extremely high stress compared to most other industries. Statistics Canada shows we top all other industries when it comes to alcohol and illicit drug abuse. To quote celebrity chef Cat Cora: “We are dealing with an epidemic of mental illness in our industry.”

Community leaders around the globe are stepping forward to voice their concerns, and some have publicly acknowledged their own demons. We’ve seen icons like Anthony Bourdain and Sasha Petraske succumb to the perils of mental illness, while others, like chefs Sean Brock and David McMillan, have begun to promote a sober lifestyle.

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Say hi to rye

The Alchemist tasting panel samples Canadian and American rye spirits

The lineup included both American and Canadian whiskies, as well as unaged rye spirit. Dan Toulgoet photo

Our bartender tasting panel is never short of opinions, but no other spirit has ignited passion the way rye whisky did. Maybe because it’s our national spirit (sort of). Or maybe it’s just because bold flavours inspire bold statements.

Seven of Vancouver’s top bartenders gathered on a rainy afternoon at Homer Street Café for the tasting panel: Alex Black, bartender and mental health advocate; J-S Dupuis, beverage director of Wentworth Hospitality; Robyn Gray of the Rosewood Hotel Georgia; Katie Ingram, bar manager at Elisa Steakhouse; Grant Sceney, Fairmont Pacific Rim; and, from Homer Street Café, Rob Scope and David Wolowidnyk.

They loved the sweet spice and rich, bold flavour of the rye. But they differed on whether Canadian or American is better, and whether it has to be 100 per cent rye or can be a blend of grains. And they admitted that as much as they love rye, it’s a hard sell to consumers, many of whom are unfamiliar with it and prefer the simple sweetness of bourbon.

The panel tasted 12 rye-based spirits. Here’s what they had to say.

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Hey, Bartender

Thoughts from behind the wood: Why bartending should be social, not social media

Jonathan Norton/Wildebeest photo

Bartenders are not in the business of making drinks. We are in the business of servicing the needs of human beings. Full stop.

It’s been said that we trained bartenders in the art of mixology and along the way we lost the art of bartending. But in the debate of bartender vs. mixologist, the end goal of both was essentially the same: Be better, be more knowledgeable, provide better experiences, work in better places. I believe both sides would agree that it is unbecoming of a barkeep to seek prestige by any other means than hard work and education.

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Amour for amaro

The Alchemist’s tasting panel revels in the complexities of made-in-B.C. amaros, vermouths and aperitifs

The lineup (l to r): Long Table Distillery’s Linnaeus Amaro No. 1, de Vine’s Moderna Vermouth, The Woods Spirit Co’s Pacific Northwest Amaro, Goodrich and Williams’ Bitterhouse Rubato, Bitterhouse DaMan and Bitterhouse LaDame aperitifs, Legend Distilling’s Naramaro amaro, Odd Society’s Mia Amata amaro and Bittersweet Vermouth. Dan Toulgoet photo

Consider them the supporting actors of the cocktail world: complex, helpful and a little bitter. Vermouths, aperitifs and amaros are typically fortified wines—though some are sweet enough to be considered liqueurs—flavoured with botanicals such as citrus peel, spices, roots and herbs. They typically have a somewhat bitter profile, hence the name “amaro,” which means bitter in Italian.

It takes a sophisticated palate to appreciate a good bitter drink, so not too surprisingly, Vancouver bartenders were eager to sample the best of B.C. amaros. We sat down with Alex Black of Tableau Bar Bistro, Amber Bruce of The Keefer Bar, cocktail consultant Sabrine Dhaliwal, Robyn Gray of the Rosewood Hotel Georgia and The Botanist’s Jeff Savage to get at the bitter truth.

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