The Refinery | Vancouver
What have you been working on lately?
Recently, I have been trying to perfect classic cocktail making techniques with my staff. The most important thing to me is being able to translate quality as well as history to each guest, in every aspect of the business. While the bar program is sound, I can focus on other things – trips to the Okanagan to prepare bar ingredients for the fall/winter, as well as accompanying our chef, Michael Carter, while he plans his upcoming menu changes, and gathers product from the valley as well to jar & pickle in house.
What are some current trends you’ve seen in the cocktail market?
There has been a large resurgence in classic cocktail culture, which excites me – only then, when my peers and I can perfect those techniques, can we then attempt to “raise the bar”. In bars right across Canada, barkeeps are becoming more – the humble bartender becomes a mixologist – flaunting his/her best skills and talents for others to learn from. The industry is becoming less about one individual making a difference, it’s now about building a team.
Which spirit is due for a renaissance?
Personally, I feel that whisky is making a renaissance, and has for a while. To me it’s a conceptual renaissance for consumers that order “vodka & soda” traditionally breaking outside of the box, and including spirits like whisky, gin, and rum into their drinking pleasures. There’s no lack of bartenders that can help those make the transition from a default vodka beverage to an extremely delicious, well balanced cocktail including one of the aforementioned spirits.
What’s the price point on your cocktails?
Our cocktails, at The Refinery range from $10 – $14. Based on the quality of the products, the amount of labour it takes to produce these products from scratch on a daily basis, and finally the time it takes our bartenders to carefully construct each cocktail, the price is quite reasonable. A $10 cocktail example comes from our vast repertoire of classic cocktails using good quality stock ingredients, and small amounts of housemade ingredients. A $14 cocktail example is the Charred Bourbon Sour, where many components of the cocktail are created daily, like the Charred American Oak & Caramelized Coconut Syrup, and the House Bitters.
What drew you to restaurants and in particular, to mixology?
I have been working with food and beverage since I was 14. I quickly added amateur cook, industry worker, and bartender to my resume. The important thing for me has always been the people – that includes guests and co-workers alike. My start in what we all define as “mixology” came when I was 23. I had just started Year 2 at the University of Toronto. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to start working the bar at Le Select Bistro in Toronto. While working at the bistro, I learned from several of the city’s best sommeliers, and Lachlan Dennis – the uber passionate Bar Manager. It was an infectious learning curve for me; I just couldn’t get enough knowledge. I was applying all I had learned about food, and food science on my own time, and wine & spirit tasting notes – this created a monster that I didn’t know existed. Eventually, in 2007, I moved to Vancouver; my lifestyle and industry outlook were immediately changed. I completed my Sommelier program, opened an online writing source – Poivre Media Co., and just put my head down, studied and worked away in some of the brightest places in Vancouver. It was serendipity.
What goes into creating a new cocktail? What inspires you?
I am inspired usually by just one thing – it could be an ingredient, a fact, or a feeling – the cocktail concept is always derived from passion. By nature, I am a very sensual person that needs to express my excitement about something through creation – there you have it. Everything is deconstructed – like a tasting note. It’s like taking apart an engine, examining the individual components, putting it back together again, and turning it on – only at this point can you see how each tiny addition can really effect the finished product.
What was your training like?
My training was riduclously informal. Most of it has come from studying it myself, followed by many dollars spent on trial and error! Now, I have all of the tools to make it right the first time, and I’m always so delighted when it works out!! Most people that do what I do have gone to great lengths – had wonderful opportunities to travel abroad and train with some exceptional mixologists, but I never grabbed chances like that. I had to make do with books.
Who are your mentors?
So many people, for so many reasons.
My staff. Left to their own devices they are well-oiled machines with so much talent. They’re hungry for knowledge, and keep me inspired to mentor them.
Chef JC Poirier inspire my continued love for food.
Sommeliers Jean-Jacques Quinsac, Sebastien Le Goff, and Iain Phillip inspire my continued love for wine.
MFK Fisher and Jeffery Steingarten inspire my continued love for writing.
Jennifer Hennessey, the ultimate leadership coach.
Mixologists’ Jay Jones and Frankie Solarik inspire my continued love for passionately creating cocktails, and setting “the bar” at its highest.
My cousins Eden & Aura Hertzog. Both bakers, both independent, both teachers, both passionate, and both successful.
Lastly my mother, Linda. She constantly tells me how proud she is.
What are some of the trends that you’ve been seeing in the country or in Vancouver specifically?
We are finally creating a supportive community; we will all reap the economic and social benefits of cooperation. I notice its impact in Vancouver, and on a recent trip to Toronto, I saw it forming – very exciting!
How busy is the bar at The Refinery?
We sold more cocktails in my first two weeks at The Refinery with our then new house cocktail list, then The Refinery sold in the 5 months previous to my start! We have become a destination during what seems like endless construction on Granville St, a recession, and during a time of redefining our neighbourhood – there has to be more to Granville Street then night clubs!!
If you weren’t a mixologist, what would you be doing?
I would likely try my hardest to own a farm/vineyard in southern France, make my own wine and spirits, and write books about how much I love my life.
By: Richard Wolak
photo credit: Tris Hussey