Message in a bottle

Meet the team creating cocktails without limits
By Blair Phillips
The team behind BarChef
The team behind BarChef
Thirty years ago, Saturday morning cartoons meant Reece’s Peanut Butter Cups commercials. The pitch: a character eating peanut butter from a jar slams into someone gorging on chocolate. 'You got chocolate in my peanut butter!' and 'You got peanut butter on my chocolate!' they shout angrily, until they taste the combination. The BarChef Project’s Toasted Old-Fashioned delivers a flavour combination just as delectable and better yet, comes complete in a bottle.

Brent VanderVeen and Frankie Solarik worked Toronto’s fine-dining circuit before opening BarChef in 2008. 'The idea was to put together a bar program that wasn’t limited by anything. When we were working in restaurants, Frankie was always getting in trouble for stealing ingredients from the chef,' laughs Brent. 'The chef would order supplies for the kitchen then run into trouble when ingredients went missing.

Meanwhile, Frankie would have all this liberated stuff on his bar.' Once on their own, the pair put the bar first and the kitchen second: Buy ingredients for the bar and let the kitchen steal from them. 'This opened up Pandora’s Box to do anything. We wanted a great cocktail bar without limits,' says Brent. The resulting cocktail menu has elevated the genre from Sparta to Mount Olympus.

Four creative forces drive BarChef’s menu: Their famous Modernist sensory assault cocktails, spirits thrust forward, balanced sweet and sour antagonies and bottle-aged cocktails at rest. 'We always had the idea of doing a cocktail that people would be able to take home,' explains Brent. 'We wanted people who knew what an Old-Fashioned was to try it, then have an, "I haven’t had this Old-Fashioned before!" reaction. We didn’t want a traditional Old-Fashioned but a BarChef Old-Fashioned.'

The Old-Fashioned is as popular as ever

'The Old-Fashioned is the original cocktail: spirit, sugar, bitters, and water,' says Robert Simonson, the author of The Old-Fashioned. 'It is the ur-cocktail. It is the impeccable formula upon which an entire national drinking tradition was built. You can’t erase it from taste memory any more than you can erase the sandwich.'

The drink dates back to the early 19th Century when newspapers described the combination of whisky, bitters and sweetener as a Whiskey Cocktail. Then, in 1862, the father of American mixology, Jerry Thomas, published the recipe. Later that century, bartenders slammed their own ingredients such as muddled fruit and absinthe into Thomas’ recipe. It got to a point where people would order an old-fashioned whisky cocktail, meaning no add-ons.

'Old-Fashioned' gradually became the Whiskey Cocktail’s synonym, but it wasn’t until 1888 the cocktail’s recipe was published by the name 'Old Fashioned' in Theodore Proulx’s The Bartender’s Manual. BarChef’s Old-Fashioned tips its hat to the classic but flaunts the bar’s approach.

'We wouldn’t be able to make a great cocktail without a great whisky,' says Brent. 'Considering this cocktail is 95 per cent whisky, it’s so important to use quality whisky.' So, he reached out locally to Still Waters, a distillery that shares the bar’s aesthetic. 'We wanted to make sure that it would be a quality product. Stalk and Barrel Red Label fit the bill and fortunately they were open to the idea.'

The whisky is bright with floral rye spices and a beautiful flavour symmetry of oak with a citrus pith finish. It has a delicious weight to it, muscular enough to hold up nicely to Frankie’s style of bitters, 'As soon as I tasted this whisky, I knew it would be perfect for the first release. It had that essence of a delicious Canadian whisky – a no-brainer,' says Frankie.

An art lover, Frankie channels Mark Rothko to build his bitter’s components. Rothko was an influential New York artist whose style was floating colourful horizontal rectangles on a field of blended light-transmitting shades. Philosophy and mythology influenced him to evoke emotions such as tragedy, ecstasy and doom, using colour. People have been known to break down weeping when looking at his paintings. These are regular people, not art collectors who just dropped 81.9 million dollars on a Rothko.

Frankie pairs his components as a colour composition translated into flavours, sans tragedy and doom. 'In this bitters, there’s a brown whisky base tone, which provides a general undertone of flavour. Then there are medium tones, accents and high notes,' explains Frankie. 'You have specific spices that are proportioned to mix with the base colour of the whisky. To provide depth, there are darker spices that pair with the whisky but there are also certain spices that shine a little brighter. Then there are spices to provide height and floral qualities, which in this case couple beautifully with the whisky. It’s a matter of layering the spices, so they pair gorgeously with the final composition.'

Toasted chamomile is the cocktail’s star spice. Frankie discovered it when making a chamomile flavoured isomalt component for a dish. Isomalt is a sugar substitute with a lower melting point than sugar. He had heated it to 140° C when the chamomile began to toast. The yellow and orange chamomile flower has a gentle, sweet fruity, crisp and floral scent, 'When I got the aromatics off that, Whoa! I had to capture that in a liquid, so I started toasting dried chamomile flowers and infusing them in whiskies and that’s how we got that flavour profile.' All of the other bitter’s spices such as cardamom, star anise and saffron are the accent colours to make the toasted chamomile shine.

Frankie’s perception of balance extends to mouthfeel. The cocktail’s texture isn’t syrupy or cloying but silky like nectar in a Greek myth context. The liquid needs body to be able to linger on the palate, so it has time to pick up all the complexity and subtle nuances of the bitters. It’s a tricky balance between the whisky, BarChef’s essence and maintaining that body. To help, maple syrup has replaced time-honoured sugar as the sweetener adding a darker shade of brown to the cocktail.

Frankie can be obsessive, so he travelled to Elmira Ontario in search of the perfect syrup. If you’re in Elmira looking for a museum of art, forget it, but there is a maple syrup museum. Every spring it hosts the one-day maple syrup festival that holds the Guinness record for the planet’s largest. Elmira named its hockey team the 'Sugar Kings', but at the festival, the arena hosts a pancake flipping contest. The festival’s mascot is a giant maple syrup wielding flapjack. Like Frankie, they are maple syrup obsessed.

Frankie’s voice lifts with excitement, 'This was a huge experience, I went out to a sugar shack and met with the farmer. We’re talking legit old school; these guys don’t even have e-mail kind of vibe.' Frankie wanted maple syrup with a flavour profile that would link the bitters’ high notes, maintain the floral-toasted-caramelised tone and saffron accents then bridge the toasted chamomile. A big order. 'It was very particular. We lined up ten different samples, went back and forth and had lengthy conversations ending up with a particular grade.' Frankie’s Rothko influence returned, 'The light transmission also had to be at a particular level. It was an obsession, the same way that we proportion our bitters here, I took that same approach to the grade of maple syrup.'

The BarChef menu is full of other passion driven examples

Take Frankie’s signature Vanilla and Hickory Smoked Manhattan inspired by its classic namesake. It’s presented in a chunky antique rocks glass with a hand-chipped ice ball that with a slingshot, could take down Heracles. In the glass a gorgeous blend of vanilla infused brandy, cherry and vanilla bitter, and hickory smoked syrup interlace Crown Royal Special Reserve whisky. The ingredients stack together like a colourful Rothko, presented in a bell jar sitting atop smoking hickory chips. The aromas revive memories of toasting marshmallows on a campfire.

Crown Royal was on the menu in 1959 when New York’s Four Seasons Restaurant opened in Seagram’s corporate headquarters. The Seagram vs Rothko story of the artist cancelling his painting contract and refunding his fee back to Sam Bronfman, is legendary. With the Smoked Manhattan, Bronfman finally has his Rothko. And for anyone wanting to experience an excellent Old-Fashioned at home, the BarChef Project has your back sending their message in a bottle.

Tasting Notes

BarChef Project:

The Toasted Old Fashioned

A seamlessly blended cocktail where every flavour plays a role. Floral with silky honey, rich maple and bready rye spice over a captivating toasted spice blend.

Stalk & Barrel Red Label

The nose is bright with sweet barley and curvy rye. Sweet creamy honey and spiced vanilla support a floral equilibrium. This is a lovely sophisticated blend.

Stalk & Barrel Blue Label

Soft vanilla surges into vanilla fudge with floral and peppery rye spices. Ripe summer fruits and a slight nuttiness glide into a delightful creamy-toasty finish.

The Kensington Cocktail

A groundhog would declare the arrival of spring with this cocktail. Spring violets and lavender grow from deep earthy patchouli accented by rosemary and rye.

The Vanilla and Hickory Smoked Manhattan

Rich stone fruits and creamy vanilla blend impeccably with Crown Royal’s baking spices. Toasted marshmallow accented with a tour de force of beautiful hickory smoke.
The BarChef Old Fashioned served over ice
The BarChef Old Fashioned served over ice
Creating  the cocktails
Creating the cocktails