Photo: Jessica Blaine Smith
In a bustling megalopolis like Toronto, there’s no shortage of places to get a drink. Hogtown, after all, is a city where parched throats can sip on cocktails laced with black truffle snow, mojito raviolis, and spherified fernet. Still, as much as Josh Lindley, the bartender at Little Italy’s relentlessly popular Bar Isabel, appreciates this brand of mixology, he makes one point clear: When it comes to truly transcendent drink-making, bartenders have to start with the basics. Like quality ingredients. Complementary flavours. In other words, Lindley says, begin with the basics.
“There’s a lot of philosophy that goes into it,” he says. “There’s a lot of art that goes into creating drinks as a bartender. But for artists, before you can make a living off your art, you go to school for years and you work at some design firm. You need to approach bartending in the same way: You learn all your basics, your spirits, your vermouths, your modifiers, your syrups. You learn all that, then you worry about making your own drinks. If you can’t make a drink that’s 200 years old, and make it well, then there’s no point in trying to expand beyond that.”
[pullquote]When any band starts out, you gotta start with covers in the same vibe before you start writing your own stuff. I apply the same thing to booze. There’s no point in trying to write a rock opera if you can’t figure out some Green Day song.[/pullquote]
Lindley, for his part, has gotten far beyond that point: He’s rocketed up Toronto’s food-and-drink scene, and even if he started as a 25-year-old barback (“I figured if I could walk through a crowd of 1,200 people stringing a bass, I could carry cases of beer through a crowd of 300”), he’s made drinks for the Drake Hotel, Campagnolo, and handfuls of others, before landing at Bar Isabel. Indeed, he’s a rising star in Canadian bartending circles, but before he seriously fell in love with booze—an easy-drinking bourbon set him on his current career path—Lindley was already established in Toronto’s music circles: He once spearheaded Edge 102’s punk-rock radio show and worked with Underground Operations, a label that cut releases by the now-exploding Protest the Hero, Hogtown punk legends Marilyn’s Vitamins, and even early releases by Lights.
And even if Lindley doesn’t work in the music industry anymore, he still derives plenty of inspiration from music. “Bartenders and bands have a terrible habit of sounding pretentious, even though when you actually talk to these people, they’re not like that at all. It’s just hard to translate that into interviews,” he adds. “So to say say something like, ‘I’m very inspired by the sprawling guitar work on the new Iceage album, and that has me thinking about how I work with this [high-end, small-batch] vodka…’ You end up sounding like some nerd.
“But you know, really, depending on what I’m listening to, it totally has an effect on how I’m creating drinks.”
Lindley’s musical lineage has, in fact, crystallized many of the drinks he’s created at bars or for competitions: His Long Winter cocktail is inspired by art-damaged hardcore act Fucked Up (“it’s smoky, and I joked that when you stir the ice, it looks like the front of the crowd at one of their shows”). He named a concoction after the Victim Party, who he considers friends (“I wanted something strong and aggressive, but with a sweetness to it”). And after entering a whisky competition, he invented a drink called the Sudbury Saturday Night, after the Stompin’ Tom song (“it was inspired by fall fairs and had crappy little chunks of ice in it, because when you go to a fall fair and order a whiskey coke, you get the littlest chunks of ice”).
But creating delicious cocktails isn’t the only part of the job. Equally as important? The social aspect. “A big part of the job is reading people. It’s just like bands—they have to figure out what the audience is feeling like at the time. Sometimes you want to play all of your rippers up front and settle in, or sometimes you want to ease into it.”
Still, despite his sophisticated creations, Lindley insists that his profession is time-tested: It’s a profession that existed in his grandfather’s era, and it’s a job that’ll exists as long a humankind does. And while trends in drink change, the basics—”a bourbon sour, Manhattans, and Old Fashioneds”—will remain. As will the need for quality bartenders.
“There’s the joke that the mafia and bartenders are the only two professions that never suffer during a recession. They’re always around.”
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