by Kristina Santone

Jen Agg in action. Photo: Jo Dickins

Sitting in the music room of U of T’s Hart House brings back memories from my university days, but this time I have five cocktails sitting in front of me (on second thought, maybe it’s not such a dissimilar situation). At this year’s Terroir, Toronto restaurant owners and renowned barkeeps Dave Mitton and Jen Agg are embracing the renaissance of cocktail culture in a workshop on bitters.

The session was hosted by Dick Snyder of City Bites magazine and featured Jen and Dave, who were more than willing to share their passion for one of the oldest manmade concoctions. Bitters date back to the early 1800s and were originally intended as a cure-all. The blends are infused with concentrated herbs, spices and even plants. They give a good stiff drink some balance and it is often argued by connoisseurs that a classic cocktail couldn’t be ‘classic’ if it didn’t have bitters added to it.

We are currently living in a time where many people are becoming more and more interested in what is going into their food and where it’s coming from, so it seems only natural that we are starting to care about what’s going into our drinks as well. As a result, bar and restaurant owners are becoming a big part of the local and sustainable food movements and it’s no different when it comes to ingredients for their cocktails.

Prime examples of this growing trend are Dave and Jen who both distill their own bitters and make their own cocktail ingredients.

Jen Agg is co-owner of The Black Hoof and has a definite exuberance for the drinks she makes. A believer that vodka isn’t a drink and that maraschino cherries are for teenage girls trying to prove something, she demonstrates brilliance in her craft. Her main thesis of the day was the importance of good ingredients. She made two Manhattans for us to compare and once the second one was served, there was really no comparison at all and her point was made: ingredients matter. The first was made with rye, Martini and Rossi vermouth, homemade dried cherries and her very own rye-based bitters (with cloves, cinnamon and allspice). While the homemade extras gave the drink character, it tasted like a typical Manhattan. The second Manhattan was made with rye, homemade dried cherries, custom bitters and a select, hard-to-find velvety vermouth that would make Don Draper drool. That particular Manhattan was deep and earthy, and one of the best I’ve ever had. It encouraged me to not only make my own bitters, but hunt for that delicious bottle of vermouth as well. Luckily, I like a challenge!

Dave Mitton, owner of the Harbord Room, started off his mixing round by making a classic Sazerac, the drink that began in New Orleans back in the 1860s. It’s made with Hennessey, Herbsaint & Peychaud’s bitters and of course, Dave’s own homemade twists. Like Jen, Dave is constantly trying new combinations of liqueurs and homemade syrups and is in a constant state of creation. The second cocktail he made was in my opinion, the best of the bunch, the Ronald Clayton. The drink was actually named after Dave’s grandfather and consisted of Dave’s own homemade vanilla-infused Crown Royal, tobacco-infused Crown Royal, tobacco syrup, barrel-aged whisky bitters and a splash of maple soda water. All those ingredients shaken up and poured over ice created the essence of an interesting man. I mean, I’ve never met Ronald Clayton, but Dave has, and his homage paid to his grandfather in this mixture was definitely interesting!

Often drinks are named after far away places (Singapore Sling) or people we don’t know (Tom Collins), so knowing the story behind the Ronald Clayton and its reminiscence of Dave’s childhood really connected me to the drink. Hearing a story or making personal connections sometimes makes a drink more our own…at least until we get to the bottom of the glass. I like the idea that cocktails with a name and a past are gaining popularity again, drinks that our grandparents’ generation enjoyed bring a sense of maturity to imbibing.

We don’t usually think about cocktails or mixed drinks the same way we think about wine, spirits or even beer, but cocktails can be just as sophisticated and complex. Dave and Jen are illustrating the truth of this statement while indulging in their individual passions. They’re striving to give cocktails the attention within food culture that they deserve. They’re revitalizing and enhancing the cocktail’s cultural value by making their own bitters and syrups, and using ingredients like vanilla-infused ryes, maple syrup and homemade dried cherries, making each and every drink unique and special. Through their efforts, they’re setting a place at the table for the cocktail…and I feel like it’s about time!

Kristina Santone is the Assistant Editor of TAPS, Canada’s beer magazineThanks to her italian mother, she loves all things foodand is an avid vintage cookbook collector.