Guest bartenders ride the cocktail wave

Visiting cocktail makers bring in fresh ideas and fresh faces

Guest bartenders pour on the charm

Jaime Hogge

On Sunday around midnight at Unlovable, a subterranean bar along Toronto’s trendy Dundas Street West, a steady stream of customers heads inside. The main draw isn’t a band or even a DJ—it’s the bartender. Matt Turenne, a jovial man in a lumberjack shirt, normally pours drinks at a large restaurant and bar called Parts & Labour, but he’s spending his night off “guest bartending” here.

“I’m stuck at my own bar all week, so it’s fun to get behind the bar at a place where I hang out for fun,” says Turenne as he prepares his own take on a Manhattan: Kentucky bourbon, sweet vermouth, the aromatic liqueur Amaro and two dashes of Angostura bitters. He’s one of a half a dozen or so local bartenders and restaurant staffers to do a guest stint at Unlovable in the last two months.

Although bars in Canada are just starting to dabble in it, the practice is commonplace in New York City. Some Manhattan bars bring celebrities behind the bar for charity events, while others recruit regular people—preferably those with large numbers of thirsty friends. In the last few years, the Mad Men-inspired cocktail craze has spurred an increase in guest bartending so drink specialists can show off their creations at new venues.

“These days, bartenders are taken more seriously,” says Shawn Soole, executive barkeep at Clive’s Classic Lounge, a cocktail bar in Victoria. “They’re looked upon more like chefs. People want to be able to try cocktails from different bartenders because their expertise and skills are completely different than the bartender down the street.”

Chefs have a long history of guest cooking stints, from the unpaid apprenticeships known as stages to contemporary events such as pop-up restaurants and supper clubs, where chefs show off their skills to a different crowd and cook outside their comfort zone, not to mention create buzz for their establishments.

At Toronto’s Unlovable, owner Jamal Ryan Severin-Watson says his guest bartending nights, dubbed “Get Used To It,” have boosted sales on previously moribund Sunday nights. Where they used to be lucky to get 10 to 15 people in the door, now they get 40 or 45. Previous guests include Paul Keodprom, a local caterer and bike shop employee, and Duncan MacNeill, co-owner of the nearby restaurant the Federal Reserve. Like most successful bartenders, these guest stars tend to be charismatic folks with lots of friends and acquaintances. And while customers can see their bartending buddies at their regular venues most nights, the switch makes things more interesting. They enjoy the novelty of seeing a familiar face behind the bar at a new location.

Another Toronto bar, Queen Street West’s Czehoski, started its own guest night a few months ago. On a recent Sunday, guest bartender Matthew LaRochelle, co-owner of the Kensington Market bar Cold Tea, made daiquiri-like drinks with Metaxa, Cointreau, lime juice and salted pineapple syrup. The bulk of Sunday night patrons are people in the industry who get Mondays and Tuesdays off. “I started to get to know other bartenders in the city, but because we all work on the busy nights, we never had a chance to go out and see each other,” explains organizer Robin Goodfellow. “I figured that if I can’t go visit them, I might as well bring them to me.”

Some bars have taken the concept to the extreme. At McFadden’s Restaurant and Saloon, a large “party bar” in Manhattan, amateur bartenders sign up for shifts on the website. “We make the requirements clear,” explains Kristi Paris, a marketing supervisor with East Coast Saloons, a management company that works with 26 bars that use guest bartenders. “The biggest requirement is that you bring out all your friends.” While some people flake out and don’t show up, others draw a crowd and eventually become staff.

“Guest bartending is extremely important to our business model,” Paris says. “Sometimes on Thursday nights we’ll have five or six guest bartenders at McFadden’s. It’s a little bit hectic, but if each one of those people brings 20 friends, you’re looking at an extra 100 people who are going to fill your bar.”

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