Meet Your Mixologist: Toronto's Jen Agg
If there were Canadian cocktail royalty, Jen Agg would be the Duchess of Dundas. With Black Hoof, Cocktail Bar and now Raw Bar (just opened this May), she's got a near royal flush in Toronto's Little Portugal neighborhood.
Agg looks and speaks more like physicist or a literary critic than a bartender — no-nonsense smarts with rattlesnake quick humor— but that may be why the cocktails you'll find at all three locations are so lofty, so intricate.
We caught up with Agg in the midst of a flurry of feisty journalists vying for her attention at an ungodly interview hour. Thankfully, Jen was game on, even as the clock struck midnight.
How did you get interested in craft-cocktails?
Jen Agg: I started bartending when I was 18. Opened a cocktail bar when I was 21 (we served cocktails, but nothing like what I do now....let's just say it was a 20-year-old's idea of a cocktail bar). I am self taught and spend a lot of time experimenting.
From doing a whirlwind tour of bars in Toronto, your cocktails are distinctive and elegant. What is your theory/approach for achieving this?
Balance, balance, balance. I make drinks that I want to drink. I tweak and tweak to achieve an integrated drink where no ingredient is superfluous and everything works in harmony for the greater good. I tend not to use too many ingredients (with the exception of bitters and syrups which often have many ingredients). And I insist that all my staff measure and taste everything. You can have a recipe that calls for 1/2 oz. of lime juice and get a really acidic lime, so you have to know how to deal with that. And they know to toss a drink and start over if something isn't right. Basically we just keep aiming for perfect (or, at least our version of perfect).
What's your thoughts on the Toronto cocktail scene? Besides the bartenders working at Black Hoof/Cocktail Bar, are there Toronto bartenders you admire?
I think it's gotten much better in the last couple of years. There is a very small group of bartenders and owners who have worked hard over the last few years to do cocktails justice. Sadly, as I was learning, there wasn't really anyone to go to in Toronto. I spent a lot of time in NYC at Angel's Share, Milk and Honey, etc. They were way ahead on the quality cocktails train. Of course, there are a few people who make great drinks, but I mostly drink wine.
What spirit/ingredient are you experimenting with right now in cocktails?
I like mixing base spirits. Gin and rum. Tequila and rye.
You have a kind of boys-with-their-pet-insects-meets-science-lab-meets-Donna-Reed-canning station above the Black Hoof bar (pictured above). Looks pretty complicated, what's going on there?
Looks complicated, but isn't really. It is a combination of infusions and bitters we are currently using plus a lot of "small batch" experiments. Sometimes things don't work out (like the time I forgot a jasmine tea infusion and it got way too tannic and bitter, so I turned it into a bitter) so you don't want to be wasting high quality liquor in large amounts. Generally, the more dense the ingredient to be infused, the longer the infusion time. And tea is always very quick, two or three hours max.
What's your opinion of the new barrel-aged trend in cocktails, does it make it better or is it just merely a new schtick?
Both. When done carefully and properly, barrel aging can add depth and can soften hard flavors. Buuut, it does nothing for vermouth, the oxygen just tears away all the perfume and delicacy of a great vermouth. Some might say that the change is for the better, but I think what they mean is that it's interesting. My most successful barrel aging experiment has been aging gin to use in a Martinez — takes an already great drink up a notch. I'm not done with barrel aging, but I do love the idea that a cocktail is a wonderful (and fast) confluence of liquor, some other stuff and ice.
I'm a Manhattan specialist and Cocktail Bar's Manhattan is like Beethoven's Fifth Symphony: a masterpiece. Can you reveal your recipe?
It is very, very simple.
2 oz good 100% rye
7/8 oz Antica formula sweet vermouth
5 ml hoof bitters
2 rehydrated dried sour cherries
Served very cold, up in a coupe.
You may not have a favorite spirit, but you certainly have a spirit you detest. Where did the quote come from that's proudly displayed in Cocktail Bar?
It is excerpted from a tongue in cheek essay I wrote titled Vodka is Stupid. It was very divisive. People either loved it or hated it. As I imagine, they either love or hate me. Once you start saying what you really think, you must grow iron skin. You can read the whole thing here: Vodka is Stupid.
You own three eateries/bars in Toronto: Black Hoof, Cocktail Bar and Raw Bar. Raw Bar just opened in May. And strangely enough, vodka appears on the Raw Bar cocktail menu. Why is that?
Since I don't use vodka at the Cocktail Bar (although, we've always had it at the Hoof), I think people might be a bit surprised I'm using it at Raw Bar. It's a simple explanation. A Caesar is a Canadian classic where the use of vodka makes total sense. Whereas at a classically based cocktail bar, it makes less so. Despite offering a vodka drink, I am far more partial to the gin and tequila versions. The gin one has tomato juice, hot sauce, Worcestershire, lemon and curry. The tequila one is with tomato, lime, orange, Valentina's with a cumin/coriander/Maldon salt rim and a big bunch of aromatic cilantro. And there's an Asian one with shochu (basically, Korean vodka), Gochujang (Korean soybean chili), soy, yuzu, Clamato with a black sesame/Maldon rim.
What cocktail creation are you most proud of?
I don't take that much pride in my cocktails. I enjoy keeping the bar high and putting out quality drinks. I am far more proud of the commitment to quality I've instilled in my staff.
And if you could have one mediocre superpower (ex. warming coffee with your pinky), what would it be?
I can't resist a snarky response. I have a low tolerance for mediocre anything, so if it were a choice between a mediocre superpower or no superpower, I'd go with no.
Cocktail Bar, 923 Dundas St. W, Toronto, ON M6J 1W3