Undrudgery: Danielle Tatarin (Part 1)

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Vancouver is arguably the most beautiful and expensive city in the world to live in. For most, the goal is simply to live IN it. We all have to work, and work hard to keep up with Our Lady of VanCity, but there are a select few who know the score. Why not live in the world’s most liveable city and hold down one of the raddest jobs she has to offer? We all know somebody who goes to work smiling. What are these jobs and how do people get them? More importantly, are they as awesome as they sound…

VOL.6a HIGHLIGHTS: Underage drinkMAKEing, homemade bitters and the world’s wealthiest bartender 

Photo: Kelsey Klassen

Danielle Tatarin (@DanielleTatarin)
Mixologist | Founding President: CPBA | Bar Manager
Years in the industry: 11

The first thing you see when you enter Danielle Tatarin’s modern apartment is the booze. Bottles of hard alcohol line every surface of available counter, shelf, and window ledge the way people collect potted plants (if you happen to be legendary botanist John Bartram). The light from the tall windows trickles through the blinds, refracting off the intricate glass surfaces of the spirits, giving the room a soft grey glow, now identified as the colour of hangover…

Tatarin’s impressive collection, currently at about half its usual size, is not for personal use per se. The rare, high-proof and highball destroying diversity is a necessity in her line of work – which happens to be regularly reinventing the seasonal cocktail menu for her Chinatown bar, The Keefer; teaching classes on drink making and the history of spirits through Designer Cocktail; traveling the world in search of new distilleries to support; founding and presiding over the Canadian Professional Bartender’s Association; and winning contests like a boss. Yet she looks young enough to still be ID’d.

The interview was so interesting that I have divided it into two parts – The Story and the Questions.

Photos: (L) Contributed, (R) Kelsey Klassen

This is the biggest personal stash of alcohol I’ve ever seen!

It’s about half the size it was. My ex-boyfriend and I split it up, and then my old roommate drank a bunch of it. I have a bottle that is signed by Bill Samuels, the owner of Maker’s Mark, and I came home one day just as a girl was going to make a drink with it. I was like, “You have to leave right now.” Who opens a signed bottle? It had a wax seal I dipped myself. At least she didn’t get to pour [laughs]

Start at the beginning…

I got into it a really long time ago. Even just living in this apartment with my collection, it’s taken me a really long time to get here and say Wow, this is what I do for a living: traveling and getting to tour distilleries, seeing the world basically being a bartender.

Not many people would think that bartending could be a career. Bartending fell out of its cool era and goes way back. It was a profession where you could make a lot of money and the local saloon was a central part of the community. Back in the 1850s Gold Rush, one of the most famous bartenders, Jerry Thomas, made more money than the president.

I’m originally from Alberta and I started bartending when I was 18 in Edmonton, 1998… but really I started when I was a little kid. I was too old to hang out with the little kids and too young to be with the big kids. I was just always hanging around the adults looking for something to do so I started making drinks for them.

My dad taught me how to make China White shooters and Harvey Wallbangers and I was the little bartender at 11 or 12. From then on at every BBQ or Christmas I was the family bartender, mixing people drinks. It’s still that way today. I wasn’t actually drinking the drinks, I had no clue except that I enjoyed making them. The actual process – I thought it was very scientific how one layer of Baileys could be on top of Creme de Cacao and I was fascinated with how to make that happen.

I’d go through all the bottles until people were like We can’t do anymore shots! and I wouldn’t know that they were getting drunk [laughs] I just felt like I was a part of everyone having so much fun.

I started out working in a nightclub, I was a shooter girl, and worked my way up to get behind the bar. But in Alberta you’re basically slinging high-balls and it wasn’t anything special. I went to Australia with a couple of friends and found a job in Surfer’s Paradise, this cocktail bar called Melbas, and to keep your job there you have to pass a test every week on their cocktail list. It wasn’t elaborate by any means but they had 20 or 30 cocktails, shots – some of them were classics, some were their own concoctions. Late 80s, 90s drinks like Sex on the Beach.

That really got me into the fact that there’s more to drinking than just highballs. When I came back to Edmonton I realized I didn’t want to live there for the rest of my life. It was so cold all the time, and a quiet city. I had come to Vancouver in highschool in November and I remembered that it’s warm year round. I had met some people traveling, I didn’t have a job, I had a year of university behind me but I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do in Vancouver and it was either go to school or start my own company.

I had a couple friends that I moved here with and we were all bartenders and the goal was to own our own bar but being 21, 22 we didn’t have money or people behind us. My girlfriends and I started a company called Garnish Girls and did private catering for parties and specialized in making cool garnishes. We’d do platters or skewered different fruit shapes. That got people into wanting specialized cocktails so for every party we would do we’d make them a cocktail. That lead into us producing our own garnishes like candied apples, oranges, lemons… all these different things. The business changed quite a bit in the 5 years we were running it. It went from fresh cut lemons and limes, to private party catering, to cocktail designing, to teaching cocktail classes.

That company really got me into the industry as more than just slinging beer and making highballs. I really wanted to start making customized cocktails so I read all these books and found out there was so much history behind the drinks and that really got me intrigued because every bartender has that point in their career where they decide if they are going to do something else. I knew if I was going to go to school I would study cultural anthropology but when I started learning about drinks and culture behind them it tied in exactly to what I wanted to do.

Photo: Kelsey Klassen

The girls I was working with wanted to do other things so we parted ways and we closed Garnish Girls and I started my own company – Designer Cocktail in 2008. With that I was freelance bartending, teaching cocktail classes to groups of 5-20, generally around ten people around the Lower Mainland. I started meeting more bartenders doing the same thing and thought Whoa, there’s this whole community of people doing what I do. I kind of got bored with not being behind my own bar, and realized my goal was still to own my own.

I wanted to get behind the wood and start meeting people. I had a friend who was opening up db Bistro and Lumiere who needed some help doing it so I took that job. From working there after about a year I knew I didn’t really like working for someone, its a pet peeve, I’d rather be a business owner and work for myself so I got tired of it.

I had also been making money on the side doing Designer Cocktail and was getting more and more work doing that, consulting so in 2009 I went back on my own. At that same time, Cam who was opening The Keefer came to me about running the bar next year and asked me to consult cuz the people he had hired just weren’t working out. That was what I wanted to do so I took that opportunity.

The consulting involved building the bar program: I did the cocktail menu – he gave me the concept of the kind of drinks he wanted, the atmosphere, so I took that and started designing drinks and a program around it, the training program for the bartenders. I think I created 20 or so cocktails for them, and that’s a feat in itself.

You can just mix this with that and it’s going to taste good. There’s so many different flavours and that’s what I find the most interesting. You can learn about the spirits that go into it and that makes a huge difference in how you mix a cocktail. If you don’t know going into it what’s going into the spirits then you have no clue on how to to mix it properly. There’s so many different types of gins, rums, bourbons, ryes, whiskeys, and just on their own they all have different flavour profiles that you can draw from when you make a drink and you can take that drink so many directions so it’s quite challenging.

Photo: Contributed

And the drinks at The Keefer are unique to that bar? 

Ya. We have classics on the menu, my passion is incorporating classic cocktails and doing some sort of twist on them. So our specialty at The Keefer is that it’s based on the concept of apothecary-style cocktails. When you think apothecary you think medicinal and you go back into the 1800s and apothecaries were playing with herbs, bitters and tinctures and using them to cure ailments. Since we’re located in Chinatown I wanted to incorporate the Chinese medicinal ingredients.

One of my favourite stories is to tell people who don’t know about cocktails is in the 1800s in New Orleans there was a guy named Antoine Amedie Peychaud, an apothecary who made his own bitters to cure ailments and started mixing them with cognac and whiskey to make them more potable. There’s potable bitters, like Campari or Jerry Thomas’ Own Decanter Bitters where you can have a glass of it and get drunk and non-potable bitters where you wouldn’t be able to just drink them on their own.

So he started mixing them with booze to make them more palatable for people to drink and they were to cure stomach ailments and headaches and all these people would come into his store and they’d drink the bitters with alcohol. That eventually turned into creating the cocktail called the Sazerac.

That was the inspiration for apothecary style concept of The Keefer where we create these bitters and tinctures and teas and mix them into drinks. We make all our own bitters from Chinese medicinal herbs to cure specific ailments or help your energy.

Part 2