Bartender Ray Daniel on Whisky Cocktails and Toronto’s Bar SceneBy Sandra MacGregor
Since getting his first job in a bar in Ireland at the age of 14, Daniel has been in love with the creativity and energy that’s part and parcel of working in the bar scene. But if you want to stay at the top of your game in the craft cocktail industry, expect to put in serious time, says Daniel.
He admits to spending between two and three hours a day concocting new drink combinations — at Char that means specializing in cocktails featuring Canadian whisky.
“Whiskey is one of the fastest-growing and highest-grossing liquor categories in the world, North America in particular,” says Daniel. “It has lots of bold flavor, which means it’s not as easily manipulated as products such as vodka or rum, but it does mean that you have to think a bit more and get a bit more creative.”
His dedication to his craft paid off when in February 2017 he won the Woodford Reserve Manhattan Experience in Canada. The competition tests mixologists’ proficiency with bourbon by having them to create two distinct cocktails (one a Manhattan) using Woodford Reserve bourbon.
What it’s like to work in Toronto at a hotel cocktail bar? Do you have free rein to express your creativity?
Some people don’t realize that through[out] history, it was actually hotels that were considered the best place to go for a perfect cocktail. It’s where you found the best bartenders.
That’s true especially in Europe and some places in America where the hotel bar is still the top spot to get a great cocktail. That’s what I like about Char; we’re bringing back the feel and quality of the hotel bar.
What’s the cocktail scene like in Toronto?
Seriously, without being biased, the city is on its way to being one of the best cocktail scenes in the world.
When I came to Toronto and started out, making cocktails was considered kind of uncool. Now across the city you can find excellent handcrafted drinks at your local bar and even at little hole-in-the-wall places. It’s a really exciting time.
Are there any interesting trends you’re noticing in the city?
Well, bars are starting to make their own tinctures, bitters and syrups. We do that here, and it can take three to four weeks to get the flavors just right.
I also think bars are starting to simplify things. There’s a movement away from the 16-ingredient cocktail. People want to know what ingredients are going into their drinks and that they are fresh.
Where do you like to go to grab a drink outside of work?
There are so many wonderful spots across the city. I like to go to Rush Lane & Co; they are doing some amazing things there. I also like Pretty Ugly.
Toronto is so diverse and multicultural that there is not really one drink that could ever represent the city.
What’s your favorite attraction in Toronto, somewhere you would tell visitors they should go to see a unique side of the city?
I love the Island. It’s one of those places where, depending on where you stand on the island, you can look back on the craziness of the city and just walk a bit and be looking over the lake and feel completely removed and serene. I also like Cherry Beach, which also makes me feel very relaxed.
Is there a local cocktail that best represents Toronto?
Toronto is so diverse and multicultural that there is not really one drink that could ever represent the city. One thing I have noticed though is how much of an appreciation Torontonians are developing for Canadian whisky.
Unfortunately, for a long, long time, there was great Canadian whisky on the market, but it was not appreciated in its own country. That’s finally changing; even abroad people are starting to understand the amazing quality of Canadian whisky.
Can you share the recipe for one of your winning cocktails at the Woodford Reserve Manhattan Experience?
The Black Hall
The cocktail is named after the street in Ireland, Blackhall Road, where Daniel grew up.
- 2 ounces Woodford Reserve Double Oaked
- 1/4 ounce Laird’s Applejack
- 1/4 ounce Amaro Nonino
- 4.4 ml (slightly less than a teaspoon) coffee-infused Amaro Lucano
- 2 dashes Carroll & Co. Cherry Masala Chai Bitters
- Spritz of Old Barn Tincture (a mix of Woodford Reserve Rye, smoked bacon, charred applewood, buttered popcorn and jalapeño)