You don’t have to read this blog in chronological order, but it helps to read my Sober October rules for context.
Civil Liberties is one of my favourite bars in Toronto. I tell everyone this, and it’s because I can nerd out there as a bartender. Every time I’ve been at Civil Liberties it was for an industry-related event. I’ve done a booze trivia night, competed in the Black Cow vodka cocktail competition (I didn’t win), and most recently I attended a Toronto Cocktail Week seminar. This place is very much a ‘bartender’s bar.’
Toronto Cocktail Week is a week-long event for everyone who’s nerdy about cocktails, spirits, and hospitality. The events, seminars, and parties all rope in industry professionals to help elevate the cocktail scene in Toronto. This celebration/convention of cocktail culture took place during the same week my new employer opened their restaurant. Between additional training, setting up the venue, the soft open and other bartender things my schedule didn’t have much room. In the end I managed to grab a ticket to the Conscious Distilling Practices: From Farm to Bottle seminar at Civil Liberties. This was one of the last events of the week, before celebratory parties ensued of course, so the room wasn’t too crowded.
The Farm to Bottle seminar was part information session, and part tasting. Here we had a panel of experts assembled to speak about spirits, and the methods behind them that keep these products ethical. The fantastic panelist included:
Jon Smolensky – Corporate Liaison – Canadian Professional Bartenders Association (Moderator)
Julio Mestre – Co-founder – Los Siete Misterios
Eduardo Mestre – Co-founder – Los Siete Misterios
Donnie Wheeler – Corby – Brand Ambassador (Havana Club)
Danielle Yoon – Corby – Brand Ambassador (Absolut Vodka)
Robin Wynne – Bar Manager – Miss Thing’s
It’s important to define what ‘ethical’ means in the distilling and spirits industry. This can include everything from environmental impact, to socio-economic implications, and marketing practices. I think it’s good, as both consumers and hospitality professionals, to be aware of what exactly gets poured into our glass.
The seminar took place in the early afternoon on the last day of TCW. The room felt pretty relaxed, as one would expect from an event at Civil Liberties. The speakers all greeted us with warmth. Smolensky walked us through the agenda for the seminar, explaining the format of panel and tasting. Smolensky lead the seminar, and provided each attendee with a pen and paper. We were encouraged to write down any questions to save for the Q&A at the end. Danielle Yoon provided everyone with a welcome cocktail. The libation boasted a beautiful fuchsia colour with cold hibiscus tea, ginger, wildflower honey, cloves, and vodka. Danielle used hibiscus tea as a sub in for citrus to balance out the cocktail. Turns out this tasty flower has a high ascorbic acid content, and this in place of lemons or limes can greatly reduce a venue’s organic waste. A refreshing and tart spiked iced tea to start us off. Each person also got an Absolut-branded, collapsible silicone straw. This whole presentation is signature Danielle, as she’s all about reducing waste in the hospitality industry.
Suffice it to say, I didn’t finish any of my samples for this tasting . It’s a shame to waste such beautiful spirits, and normally I’m not one to shy away from anything served neat. I felt the affects of the alcohol rather quick. Meanwhile, bartenders around me were topping up their glasses.
The first spirit in the tasting was Altos Tequila Blanco from Olmeca. This spirit is under the Corby’s brand. Altos is the new authentic tequila made specifically for cocktails. It’s palatable, has a good price point, and works perfectly in all those staple tequila cocktails. This spirit presents strongly as the first example of ethical distilling practices. Donnie Wheeler talked at length about the company’s sustainable practices. This includes paying the jimadors by hour and not by weight of pinas harvested, and recycling 98% of their solid waste. This waste from tequila production is composted and repurposed to grow the next generation of agave. A lot of this information is available online, and Altos also founded The Tahona Society. If you’re not familiar with The Tahona Society, it’s all about sustainability in the hospitality industry with a focus on bars. Unfortunately, the 2018 competition is closed for us Toronto locals, but wait up for news on finalists. Whatever projects come out of The Tahona Society will definitely peak my interest.
Tasting number two gave us the well-known Siete Misterios Mezcal. This part of the discussion the panelists talked a lot about mezcal is rather new on the market. Of course mezcal itself has existed for so many years, but only more recently been commercially available. How do consumers know the difference between different mezcals on the shelf? How do drinkers look at the label and decide which bottle is make ethically, and with quality instead of quantity? Siete Misterios brightly contrasts the Altos with more vegetal notes, and a pleasant smoke on the nose. The people behind Siete Misterios, Julio and Eduardo Mestre, talked about how they communicate authenticity on the spirit’s label. The label has details on the type of agave used, the region, batch number, the type of distilling method used in production (copper pot/clay stills), and the distillers signature. This is information that’s not required on all bottles of mezcal for export, but Siete Misterios does this as a way to ensure consumers they’re getting their money’s worth. Siete Misterios makes several different varieties of mezcal depending on the type of agave used and includes the Espadin, Barril, and the Doba-yej. The product is currently on back order on the LCBO, but hopefully will be back on the shelves soon.
The final tasting was conducted by the only person on the panel who didn’t outright represent a brand. Robin Wynne talked at length about Flor de Caña Rum. Wynn is the bar manager at Miss Thing’s, and the rum expert. For the tasting Wynn brought a bottle of Flor de Caña 12 Year Rum from the brand’s Ultra Premium collection. Flor de Caña is a controversial spirit brand, and it’s interesting to hear how the sensationalized headlines in recent years tie into the themes of the seminar. Without getting too bogged down in the details, Flor de Caña is one of the more transparent rum brands on the market. The company is based out of Niguara, and the distillery sits at the base of a volcano. The company grows their own sugar cane on a single estate, and the products are U.S. Fair Trade Certified. The estate also has their own private hospital that provides free healthcare to their employees and those living in the community. The more you know right?
It’s interesting to know what’s important for ethical distilling practices. Both bartenders and regular consumers alike are becoming more conscious in recent years. More of us want to know how the spirit is made, how these companies impact the environment and the surrounding communities, and what exactly goes into the bottle. It’s likely in the near future that all alcoholic products will have to list the ingredients and include a nutrition table on their bottles. If/when that happens the information available to consumers will change their purchasing decisions. It’s likely that the brands and distilleries already working towards transparency and ethical practices will be ahead if the game.