Meet Your Mixologist: Nishantha Nepulangoda From Blowfish
Nishantha Nepulangoda serves cocktails with a smile. The Sri Lankan native has not only won a slew of international awards, including the Grey Goose Pour Masters award in 2012 and the Bombay Sapphire Most Inspired Bartender, but has also garnered a profound sense of hospitality. His emphasis on friendly service is most evident when he’s working at Japanese restaurant and Sake Bar, Blowfish. A modern twist on traditional Japanese cuisine, Blowfish is a chic venue where trendy 20 and 30 somethings sip on chardonnay and snack on delicious sushi. From the hanging chandeliers to the sleek black furniture, Blowfish oozes class.
Whether he’s using the shaker to mix drinks or peeling oranges to rim the glasses, Nepulangoda exudes confidence and precision. His impeccable bar talents can be summed up in his signature cocktail; the Caribou Crossing. A sweet and spicy concoction of vodka, jalapeno black pepper and grapefruit, it will surely leave your lips tingling. But the distinguishing feature is definitely the notorious Cointreau caviar on the side. After winning first place in the Cointreau cocktail competition a couple of years ago, Nepulangoda was awarded a caviar kit, the only one in Canada. These specialized kits were given to VIP bartenders around the world and are used to turn the Cointreau alcohol into hardened pearls. Naturally, the cocktail has gained high appraisal from many Torontonians. We sat down with Nepulangoda to talk cocktails, mixology trends, and bars.
How did you get started in your cocktail career?
As a kid, I played a lot of competitive rugby. At 19, I became the school captain of my high school team and was playing tournaments all across the country. In Sri Lanka, rugby is a very popular sport and it’s an excellent opportunity for young players to get scouted by managers and CEOs of different companies. During a tournament in 1991, I caught the eye of the general manager from the Ramadan Hotel, who offered me a job. I started working at the Ramadan Renaissance and worked as the bar back for about three years. With this experience, I was qualified enough to travel internationally. I got a call from the Dubai Beach Resort and Spa to work behind the bar and within 24 hours I was packed and ready to go. I worked in Dubai for nine years and developed a really good foundation as a bartender. After I met my wife at the resort, who was the manager of the hotel at the time, we decided to move to Toronto in 2004 to settle down.
What places caught your eye in Toronto?
The first place I came across was the Miller Tavern and I worked there for just over a year. After that, I started working at Blowfish. I saw it as a place where I could grow and develop the cocktail menu by using some of the skills I had garnered through various cocktail contests. Other places I really like are BarChef and Harbord Room. All of these venues maintain consistency, balance, and above all else, hospitality.
What kind of cocktails have you seen served up at these places?
The trend right now is a modern twist on the classic cocktail. I like to incorporate this trend into my own cocktails, and maintain a fusion of Asian and North American influences.
Which mixologists do you look up to?
One person who comes to mind is Rob Montgomery at Miller’s Tavern. He has a good grasp on cocktail culture and is able to balance old fashioned and modern elements.
What’s your go-to cocktail?
It definitely has to be the Boulevardier, a mix of Bourbon and Campari. It’s a classic cocktail that has a history to it.
What’s been the highlight of your career so far?
I met the CEO of Marche International, Mr. Oliver Altherr, at Blowfish one night. He was impressed by my cocktails and invited me to be the International Guest Mixologist for the European Food Summit in Zurich. It’s a place where industry leaders mix and mingle and exchange ideas about the restaurant industry. I got to serve my cocktails to the 300 top business people in Europe and have been the guest mixologist for the past three years. It’s always been my dream to be part of such a prestigious event and I’m very grateful to take part.
What is next for you?
I will be travelling across Canada as a guest judge for the “Made With Love” Mixology competition in the Fall. As well, I’m thinking about starting my own small cocktail bar; a small place with a modern, speakeasy atmosphere.