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Toronto Cocktail Conference Recap

01-CamperLast week I attended the Toronto Cocktail Conference to give a talk on CocktailSafe topics.  It was the second year of the conference under the combined management of the Drake Hotel and Bartender Atlas

I've mentioned it on Twitter and elsewhere, but this small conference is doing a few things I really like, that are a bit different from other cocktail conferences:

  • All speakers must stick around to do mentoring sessions with conference attendees. Speakers weren't allowed to just pop in for talks and fly back out right away. This happens often at other conferences- you see a speaker but never get to speak with them. 
  • One price includes all. For $150 CDN attendees could attend any of the seminars over three days, subject to capacity. It also included activations, which were mostly cocktail tastings from larger brands upstairs at the Drake, and spirit tastings from smaller distilleries downstairs. There were also cocktail competitions and parties where drinks were available for sale. 
  • Great selection of speakers, both local and a few folks like myself flown in for it. 
  • Like other conferences mostly not in the cocktail space, they emailed out their Code of Conduct to attendees and speakers. 
  • Speakers weren't allowed to stream their own sessions or record them to post online later, in order to be respectful of people who bought tickets to be in the room. 
  • One night there was no programming at the conference hotel specifically to encourage attendees to go out and visit the local cocktail bars. 

My talk about CocktailSafe topics went great! I was scheduled as the first talk of the conference, without any other seminars happening at the same time. They even simulcast it to the upstairs area as the seminar room was at capacity. 

The feedback on the seminar was terrific, and I talked to more than a dozen people who attended it and wanted to say hello or talk more about certain topics it brought up, both in my mentoring sessions and just hanging out all week. 

A note from each seminar I attended:

  • Round Building, Revised: With new tools and techniques including big ice, ice stamps, slushie machines, and cocktails on tap, the order and methods used for building rounds of cocktails has changed significantly over the last even five years.
  • Cocktail Chemistry 101: If you want X liters of batched cocktail, you can't just add up the volumes of the component parts; much like how 1 liter of sugar plus 1 liter of water doesn't equal 2 liters of simple syrup when combined.
  • Bitter/Sweet - A Proudly Uncomfortable History of Rum and Drink in the Caribbean: One thing producers and marketers of rum can do to better acknowledge the role of enslaved people in the history of rum is to de-emphasize the "plantation owner as rum blending genius" narrative/messenging that many brands have used. 
  • Dealers Choice: The Art of No Menu: It's important to develop scripts to quickly find out what customers are seeking. Each bar will have "house favorites" that they'll tend to make when certain keywords like "herbaceous" or "floral" are used. The order takers should always decide on the drink, not hand off the descriptions to the bartenders assembling them as that leads to miscommunication. (This talk did nothing to change my belief about no-menu bars that no matter what you order, they make you a Boulevardier.)
  • Bartending Techniques 101: The guest is always right: Policies should be in place for conflict resolution/escalation at each bar, with the goal of these policies to support and empower the staff rather than to pass every conflict/request along to management, for example.
  • Kitchen Techniques Behind Bars: The Aviary's Micah Melton recommends for those people getting into more scientific/kitchen techniques starting with equipment - scale to measure by weight, whip cream siphons, then circulators and sealers. 

 I also had a great time running around to bars in town. I was able to visit:

  • Civil Liberties
  • Mulberry Bar
  • Pretty Ugly
  • Bar Raval
  • Alo bar
  • Bar Chef
  • Mother (still thinking about that Gibson)
  • Shameful Tiki Room

Thanks to the TOCC crew and the bars of Toronto for a great time had by me! A few pics from my drinking adventures are below. 





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No menu places do well for people who are naive to the world of cocktails. The better versed drinkers still end up with Bee's Knees and Gold Rushes when they say gin/whiskey and citrus and they roll their eyes at getting something less inspiring than at a place with a menu. The one exception is if a place hires a bunch of rock star bartenders who know the cocktail literature and get excited by recipes they find; once a place gets into a rut and begins to train their own to only think of the flowchart (the invisible menu), no menu seems to become stale and restrictive.

Camper English

YOU SAID THE QUIET PART OUT LOUD! I kinda agree; the "invisible menu." On one hand, in my experience the drinks are all delicious and balanced in no-menu bars. On the other hand, they're far-less adventurous than in bars with menus; often just rearranging the amari or adding lavender bitters.

The genever drink pictured in this post was actually the most unusual no-menu drink I've had maybe ever? It had genever and curry leaf. My request was "interesting or experimental, no meat." May have requested sour rather than stirred. (It was good I said the no meat part because they have a specialty cocktail with pho broth.)


My experience with weird requests was that the flowchart-trained ones would walk away to think, and then ignore you for a while. When they realized that you weren't going away, they brought someone else over to take your drink request.

As someone pointed out in a review, you can make the same requests at bars with no menus too. But at those bars you have the advantage of a menu.

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