Best Bars in… Toronto20th September, 2013 by admin
Prohibition still hangs heavy over Canada’s largest city, but a raft of innovative mixologists are moving things forward, BarChick discovers in the first of a new series.
In most cities ‘Prohibition’ has become a fashionable byword to conjure a world of strong cocktails and speakeasy-style bars. But in Toronto the hangover from those days is still hitting hard. BarChick was shocked to discover you cannot buy a six-pack on a sunny day from the corner shop, or drink Bloody Caesars from sunrise to sundown.
Since 1927 the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) has arbitrated the sale of all alcohol in the state. You can buy booze from either an LCBO store – with prohibitive opening hours – or a licenced venue.
This recurs as a campaign issue every election and yet the Canadian conservative streak reigns supreme. Parts of west Toronto didn’t even permit liquor sales until 2000. But what does this archaic monopoly of alcohol distribution mean for the city’s bar culture? Apparently, a more urgent impetus towards innovation.
People are calling 2013 the year of the cocktail in Toronto with more serious bars in the city than ever before and a thriving army of bartenders competing internationally. A few years ago this was a different story. Cocktails were sweet, sticky things better suited to the palate of a child than a serious drinker.
But as the mixology trend swept the world, TO bartenders were soon learning from their New York neighbours, bringing back tales of tamarind bitters, 18th century recipes and dehydrated cocktail dust.
As Cold Tea bartender Sarah Parniak explains: “We’re an ambitious city with a large population of young people in the downtown core, and it’s natural for us to aspire to the thriving cocktail cultures we’ve witnessed in places like London, New York and San Fran.”
In response to this citywide thirst, so many bars opened up in the hipster headquarters of Ossington and Dundas that the city council imposed a year-long moratorium on licensing new venues in 2009. Now the up-and-coming Queen Street West village of Parkdale – home to the latest bar hotspot Pharmacy, as well as hipper-than-thou hotel The Drake – has suffered the same fate. The number of restaurants there tripled in 2012.
But it’s not just the city’s desire for cooler drinking quarters that has changed. Their tastes are growing up too. Whereas before the best you could hope for was a Cosmopolitan or a French Martini, there has now been a shift to real spirits since the opening of venues like BarChef and Black Hoof in 2008.
Take whisky for example. Once merely an adjunct to beer, people are now savouring the taste, experimenting with it in cocktails and talking about ‘small-batch’. Bourbon sales have nearly doubled in the past five years from $5.4m (£3.5m) to $9.4m. Until 2006, the LCBO only carried six Bourbons, limiting the creativity of bar managers across the state. In response to demand, they now carry 34 with lesser-known brands like Basil Hayden’s and Booker’s. It’s the hipster drink of choice.
Grand Electric, the hotspot of 2012 with the queues to prove it, has a simple sell: tacos and Bourbon. It has a list boasting more than 40, which, in a small junk shop-style taqueria with hip hop blasting, is something of an anomaly.
Catering to a curious drinking public, bartenders have room for experimentation. We couldn’t escape on-the-spot cedar infusing – making half the bars in TO smell like saunas. The most notable is the infamous $45 Vanilla Hickory Smoked Manhattan at BarChef, which comes atop an antique smoking bell jar. At Salt, bar manager Nick Kennedy has introduced the Charred Cedar Manhattan – they plane pinewood to smoke the glasses in front of you.
Having caught up with the Bourbon trend, Toronto is moving on to mezcal, despite Ontario’s stores only stocking three brands. With the issue of privatisation on the political agenda again this year, and change occurring at breakneck speed, perhaps Ontario is finally ready to put the days of temperance behind it.
Flick through the next few pages to discover the best bars in Toronto, and get the low-down in the city from one of its resident bartenders.