Getting Ready for the Art of the Cocktail

photo: G. Hynes

Drink editor Treve Ring recently chatted up the reigning Cocktail Queen (Festival Director Kathy Kay) and Liquid Revolutionist (Bartender Shawn Soole) about this year’s Art of the Cocktail Festival (AoTC).  This three day fundraising festival benefits the Victoria Film Festival, and celebrates the Art, Craft & Tradition of the Cocktail with participants from across North America.

The Slow Food movement has invaded cocktail hour, and spirit-speak can rival wine geeking any day. Serious mixologists worry about the shape, size and solidity of ice, the quality of their bitters and the perfect balance of flavours. They collect vintage glassware and space-age ice molds. They tinker with dehydrators to crisp garnishes and smokers to lend complexity, and concoct recipes for fresh fruit purees, housemade grenadine and infused syrups. Art of the Cocktail recognizes the renaissance of this craft, and helps spread the spirit of the Spirit.

AoTC is now in its second year.  How will this year’s festival be different than the first?  What will remain the same?

Kathy Kay. We’re only having one Grand Tasting this year instead of three. And that event will be at Crystal Gardens. Also, we’ve put a big focus on industry – workshops exclusively for them, along with Industry-only brand tastings that will give the brands and bartenders a great opportunity to connect. Plus some fun private events that will give them a chance to connect in a more relaxed atmosphere.

Shawn Soole. The Best Bartender in the Pacific Northwest Competition Presented by EAT Magazine won’t differ too much from last year. The presentation cocktail competition will be dialed in a bit better than last year but other than that the other portions will be the same. Though this year it will a stand-alone event instead of part of the Grand Tasting.

Who is the target market of the festival?

KK. We’re looking to attract both the public and the industry, with different events.

For the public:  We’ve set up the Grand Tasting on Saturday, a series of workshops on Saturday and Sunday, Bartender’s Competition on Sunday and then multi-course dinners with paired cocktails on Monday.

For the Industry: On Sunday and Monday there are workshops plus a Brand Tasting event on Monday and I’m sure they’re going to want to go the Bartender’s Competition.

How many people participated in the Bartender Competition in 2009?  How many contestants are you hoping for in 2010?

SS. We had about 8 competitors last year and we are hoping for about 15-20 this year but no more than that. When you get too many competitors it gets boring for the crowd.

How many people attended the entire festival 2009?  How many are you planning for in 2010?

KK. In 2009, we had 457 people.  In 2010 we’re hoping for 1000.

Having a major cocktail event here in Victoria is gutsy.  What was/is feedback from people in the industry?

KK. I’ve always been a cocktail fan.  I think having a perfect tiny cocktail with hors d’oeuvres before dinner is such a grown up thing to do. So with all the Provincial Government mismanagement of our tax dollars and the subsequent slashing of Arts Funding we were trying to think of a way to raise money and do something fun and different in the community that wouldn’t just be another fundraiser.  I’d heard about Tales of the Cocktail and the Aspen Food & Wine Show and I thought that Victorians would be up for something unique like that.

For feedback from the industry it’s been great.  Kathleen Shandley, from PMA was on board right away and got Global Hendrick’s Gin Ambassador Charlotte Voisey here and they sponsored a brunch and helped us spread the word. Others followed and now some brands even contact us.  I get feedback that it’s spreading the cocktail culture and since we support intelligent drinking it’s presented in the right way.

SS. I think last year changed the way people saw the industry and our jobs as a whole. People (being the general public) started to realize there were a handful of crazies doing cocktails like no one had ever seen before. When you create that buzz, then other bartenders jump onto it. The general public changed the industry, not the other way around.  It’s a really exciting time in Victoria right now.

What are some of the seminars and events scheduled so far?

KK. Well, it’s growing on a weekly basis, but right now we have these confirmed:

Workshops for Public:

The World Traveller:  Best Bars & Cocktails.  Kevin Brauch takes you on a tour of his top cocktail bars in the world and the cocktails that make them great.

The Oddballs: For the person with the adventurous palate walk on the wild side with Dr. Cocktail, Ted Haigh, as he explores non-traditional cocktails and the keys to their success.

Workshops for Industry:

How to Win the Competitions:  A panel consisting of competitors and judges dole out the tips necessary to get the edge in a mixology competition.

Pimp My Menu:  Jeff Morgenthaler of the world famous Clyde Common demonstrates how to up your cocktail game.

Dinners with a Twist: Vista 18, Veneto Tapas Lounge, Spinnaker’s Gastro Brewpub

The festival is a fundraiser – tell me more about where proceeds go.

KK. The funds go to the Victoria Film Festival film programming – it’s actually quite expensive to bring some of the films in, because there are fees for the distributor or filmmaker and the shipping costs from Europe or Asia.  The money also helps us to bring the filmmakers to Victoria so they can talk to the audiences at their screening.  It’s what makes coming to the Film Festival really special.  You don’t just see a film; you get to meet the director, or the writer or one of the actors.

Best Bartender in the Pacific Northwest Competition.  That’s a pretty big title.  What is involved?

SS. Well I wanted to create a competition like I used to do back home in Oz. And the title is Best in the Pacific Northwest so it couldn’t be taken lightly. There is a written portion of about 50 questions that are a mix of multiple choice, short and long answer and recipe questions. I don’t make it hard/hard, I write it out of my head without doing any research. This way if a bartender says that I made it too hard, I can just tell him that I know all the answers so it can’t be too hard. If I know it, then the best of the best should.

Then they go to a blind tasting. Five spirits in no particular order or category. You get points for style of spirit (whiskey, gin, etc.) and then extra points for naming the brand.

The final stage is the presentation of your cocktail to the judges and crowd. You get points not only on the drink but also on your demeanor behind the bar. This is not a mixology competition but a bartending competition – you get marked on everything you do in your job.

Each year there is a theme ingredient for the cocktail.  Any hints for this year?

SS. Well I like to keep that a secret, and we know that Kathy Kay likes to throw curve balls.  Last year’s ingredient was Cedar.

How can interested participants apply?

SS. Go to the website ( and apply there.

What is your favourite cocktail (forevermore, or just presently)?

SS. I do love my Negroni’s but I hate when people sit at the bar and ask me what my favorite cocktail on the list is. I learnt a long time ago that it’s not about me but about you, I love strong bitter flavours, you may hate that so why would I make you a Maximo di Negroni when you aren’t going to like it. At the moment though I am pushing Fernet Branca and Cola to everyone, it tastes like unsweetened root beer and is an Argentinean classic.

KK. Forevermore it’s the Martini made with Plymouth Gin, Noilly Prat, Bitter Truth Orange Bitters and a Castelvetrano olive – it’s perfection.  Oh and I do have a fondness for Murray Stenson’s Trident – aquavit, cynar, dry sherry and peach bitters.  The first time I went to Zig Zag in Seattle I mulled over the cocktail menu before I went (it’s online) and I couldn’t get my head around that flavour combination and so then I really wanted to order it.  When I did, Murray wanted to know why I wanted that one – it seems that the cocktail had been mentioned in the media down there and a lot of people ordered it without thinking about the type of drink they usually liked and so hated it – and Murray being the gent that he is would take it back and make them something else so from then on he wanted to check out the type of palate someone had before he’d make them the drink. Thank gawd I passed muster because it’s now one of my favourites and Shawn makes it for me at Clive’s.

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