Raising the bar on cocktail culture

Celebrity bartender Charlotte Voisey, who introduces Hey Bartender at TIFF Bell Lightbox on Wednesday, says there’s more to being a barkeep than slicing fruit.

If you think being a bartender is a just matter of slicing fruit, polishing glasses and mixing drinks, think again.

There’s a lot of work involved before a bar opens every night and the most important is psychological.

So says Charlotte Voisey, a celebrity bartender who will introduce a screening Wednesday of the documentary Hey Bartender at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

The film by Douglas Tirola examines the renaissance of craft cocktail culture in the U.S.

Pop culture barkeeps

From the mob-run speakeasies of the early 1930s to a 1980s bar where everyone knows your name, bartenders have long been a fixture in both film and television. Some of Toronto’s top drinksmiths serve up their favourites:


Armin Shimerman in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993-99)
“Bartenders, like cabbies, don’t just know how to make drinks, they know where to find things and how to get things done: Quark in a nut.”
• Christine Sismondo, journalist, author of America Walks Into a Bar

Voiced by Hank Azaria in The Simpsons (1989 to present)
“I’d say one needs the surliness to stay sane. I know I do; it keeps something for yourself, as bartending as a career can often translate to giving quite a bit.”
• Mike Webster, bar manager, Bar Isabel

W. Earl Brown in Deadwood (2004-06)
“I love how he owns his space; he’s in full control of what goes on at the bar.”
• John Bunner, bar manager, Yours Truly

Matt Clark in Back to the Future Part III (1990)
“Chester always made me laugh, especially when he makes the wake-up juice for Doc Brown. Random, I know, but it has sentimental value for me.”
• Jenner Cormier, Diageo World Class ambassador

Joe Turkel in The Shining (1980)
“In dress and demeanour, he’s the prototypical old school hotel barman. He obviously takes pride in his work and the corruption he enables; most bartenders are stylish and a little bit evil. Poor Lloyd doesn’t know the difference between bourbon and Tennessee whiskey, though.”
•Sarah Parniak, journalist, bartender at People’s Eatery


Looking back at the golden age of the cocktail, when a bartender was the royalty of the working class, a person of trust, Tirola’s documentary is more than a history lesson. The film features fancy drinks — Dale DeGroff, the famed creator of the cosmopolitan, dazzles the camera while shaking up a whiskey smash — but it also focuses on the work of being a bartender.

“It’s important to look beyond the theatrics,” says Voisey, a U.K. native who founded London’s Apartment 195 in 2002, speaking on the phone from New York. Before they open, bartenders need to slice fruit, press juice and polish glassware, but “you need that quiet time to . . . get yourself in the proper mindset so you can deal with people and help them have a good night.”

Aja Sax, guest services manager at the Beverley Hotel on Queen St. W., says the most important thing a bartender can do is check their issues at the door.

“We’re in sales, so if you’re distracted by something in your personal life you’re not going to give your guest the full attention they deserve,” she says. “People are curious about what goes into cocktails nowadays; they care about specific spirits. But they’ve sometimes had a rough day. You need to entertain them.”

With its late-night hours and early mornings, the job also entails many sacrifices. Unless you’re involved with someone in the industry who works similar hours, relationships are tough, and forget about seeing your mom on Mother’s Day. “It’s the busiest brunch of the year,” she adds.

“You have a vampire lifestyle,” says Sax, who over the last 14 years has mixed drinks at the Rivoli, the Drake Hotel and, most recently, the Huntsman Tavern. Although her new role no longer involves tending bar, she already misses it.

“I’m launching an industry night in June and I’ll be behind the wood so that bartenders can come in and relax on their nights off.”

Some bartenders set their eyes on corporate roles as brand ambassadors.

Jenner Cormier’s life changed forever when he became Canada’s finalist for Diageo’s World Class competition last June. Since then, he has represented Diageo’s Reserve brand at events all over Canada, trained with top bartenders like Tony Abou-Ganim in Las Vegas and travelled to distilleries all over the world.

“Life has not been the same since I won,” he says. But the Halifax native, a perennial host, does miss working at his own bar and slinging cocktails for nine hours. “I think it’s the creative aspect and the interactions with people across the bar that I miss the most.”

Voisey, who is featured in the film and looks forward to visiting Toronto’s cocktail scene for the first time, hopes that documentaries like Hey Bartender will further the recognition of cocktails as a culinary art. Grand restaurants sometimes feature lacklustre cocktails and restaurant reviews rarely go in-depth on the cocktail menu.

“The gastronomy movement has really helped cocktails,” she adds. “There are celebrity chefs all over television, but we’re about 15 years behind them.”

Hey Bartender screens at TIFF Bell Lightbox at 6:30 p.m. on May 28 as part of the Food on Film series hosted by Matt Galloway. Voisey will introduce the film and lead a post-screening Q&A. See tiff.net For tickets and info.

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