The Toronto Cocktail Conference is coming to The Drake and with it, a world of knowledge
Words by Vidal Wu | Photo by Sophie Margolian
Like most things in life, you kinda just fall into it. At least that’s how Josh Lindley and Jessica Blaine Smith, co-founders of Bartender Atlas, fell into running the Toronto Cocktail Conference, which takes over The Drake Hotel from August 13 to 15. “There was a thing called Bar Institute that took place at The Drake Hotel run by an American company called Lush Life which had some border issues so they ended up not being able to come,” Jessica explains. “So they called us the week before the conference saying, ‘We can’t make it, can you run the show for us?’”
With sponsors and programming in jeopardy, the partners were unexpectedly stuck with a programming portfolio and a suite of industry professionals flying in from around the world expecting a conference. Josh, who pours delicious things at Chantecler and was a brand ambassador for Hendrick’s Gin after working at Campagnolo and Bar Isabel, had no such experience, as did Jessica, a photographer who has worked with CBC, Ryerson and Tangerine. They reached out to The Drake Hotel, where Josh had previously worked for five years—“I was here on Jon [Humphrey]’s first day when he came in to see if he could be a manager and I used to be Gord [Hannah]’s barback on the Sky Yard”—and with their support organized a successful conference with seminars, tastings and competitions in record time.
This year, Jessica and Josh are again teaming up with Gord Hannah and Jon Humphrey, The Drake’s head bartender and corporate beverage manager, for this year’s edition of the Toronto Cocktail Conference, consisting of seminars, workshops, panels, tastings, competitions and happy hours on all three floors of The Drake Hotel. With eighteen seminars spread over three days, the conference is focused on education for all skill sets, from budding enthusiasts to seasoned pros. The seminars, many of which have a social justice component to them, are led by local, national and international experts on subjects beyond what goes into a glass.
Seminars have an overt social justice slant, often touching on subjects that affect racialized and queer people in the industry. “Gatekeepers: The Necessity of Bartenders as Change Agents” facilitated by Chicago-based food and beverage activist Ashtin Berry, is a seminar and three-hour workshop discussing how bartenders can facilitate inclusive spaces for both patrons and workers, with actionable skill-building on bystander awareness and communication patterns.
Another, “Community: What It Means, Why We Want It and How to Have It” run by Tess Sawyer from Mahjong Bar, brings together Shane Beehan from Halifax, Kevin Demers from Montreal and Shawn Soole from Victoria for a discussion on visioning community both locally and internationally. “Is My Job Killing Me?” led by Jordan Stacey and Michael Fortier takes a hard look at industry lifestyle and consider the physical and mental well-being of bartenders and service staff.
Of course, there’s plenty of cocktail-centric discussion to go around, from making bitters and using apertivos to spirit distillation (facilitated by Dr. Don Livermoore, a master blender with a Ph. D in wood) and the history of rum in the North Atlantic. Sandy De Almeida, resident Drake bartender who “as far as Toronto concerned, is part of the reason why any of us know how to do anything,” Josh says, is running Cocktail 101, a great class for beginners and pros alike. Luxury brand mixologist Elayne Duff (who launched Ciroc with Diddy) and beer consultant Mirella Amato offer a seminar on the perfectly poured beer cocktail.
The seminars go even further than social issues and cocktail culture to address industry life itself. Seminars on pop-ups, managing money and running a business are also top-of-mind programming-wise. “Keeping your Sh*t Together: The Married Overseas Bartender Edition” takes a different approach to work-life balance, addressing the international component of being a bartender, as does “The Travel Menu: How a Culture of Curiosity Can Affect Both Cocktails & Community.” There’s a palpable sense that as important as skill-building and business management are, there’s an entire bartending culture—mental health, social justice, work-life balance—that often goes unaddressed.
Pulling together an event of this scale, while an immense task, is not unlike what Bartender Atlas already does. Launched two years ago, the online resource brings togethers industry professionals from around the world to share their knowledge on cocktails and local communities. “We have bartenders that pull pints in small towns and bartenders working at some of the best cocktail bars in the world,” Jess enthusiastically tells me. Realizing that leveraging the knowledge of the person behind the bar is crucial to experiencing a new place, Bartender Atlas fills in some of the gaps in what is already a tight-knit bartender community.
That community will also be met with a host of other activities. Brand-led tastings will occur periodically throughout the building, in addition to competitions, activations and an Anthony Bourdain tribute dedicated to self-care and loving yourself.
For Jess and Josh, bringing together industry thought-leaders at The Drake seemed like a natural choice. “We can have three seminars going at once which really makes it the ideal location, whether it be in the Underground, the Lounge or the Sky Yard. It’s really cool to offer a space that’s both big enough and small enough.”