Editor’s Note: Welcome to Your Most Memorable Night Behind The Bar, a new column series from Talia Kleinplatz, founder of the acclaimed cocktail blog, Two For The Bar (Saveur Magazine Editor’s Choice Best Cocktail Blog 2015). She’ll be telling the stories of your favorite bartenders’ most notorious, life-altering, or even infamous shift—the stories that shape who they’ve become.
Close your eyes and take a second to think about the most memorable day of your professional life. Where were you? What were you doing? What did it feel like? What did it sound like? Who was there? What made it so memorable? Did it involve a theatrical British man swinging a bottle at your head? Or a secret bar behind a black velvet curtain? Yeah, neither does mine. But that’s why I like getting this particular memory from a bartender. Because more often than not, the most memorable day (or most likely, evening) of their professional career is more interesting than mine by a factor of about a million.
Take Thor Paulson, for example. Paulson is the bar manager of The Diamond in Vancouver, B.C., a parlour-esque room located on the second floor of one of the oldest buildings in the city. His most memorable night behind the rail was his very first almost three years ago.
If The Sea Was Whiskey
60 ml. – Bulleit Rye
3 dashes – Peychaud’s bitters
7 ml. – Agave water (1 part agave syrup to 1 part water)
8 drops – Saline solution (3 parts kosher salt to 2 parts water)
Green chartreuse rinse
Directions: Stir all ingredients except Chartreuse and lemon oil in a glass filled with Kold-Draft ice for 90 rotations. Strain into a small chilled tumbler that has been rinsed with Chartreuse. Express lemon oil overtop.
A chilly October evening in 2012, Paulson climbed the creaky stairs to the second floor bar, notebook in hand and recipes at the ready. He had been studying the menu for weeks. To his surprise, however, Paulson was thrown to the proverbial wolves when the owners put him in the Elk Room. The space is no longer in operation, but three years ago it was a highly sought after secret bar open only on weekends. Paulson quickly discovered all of his studying was for not as the Elk Room boasted a completely different menu than the front bar and was run by one of the most notorious and feared forefathers of the Vancouver cocktail revival.
As he marched behind the black velvet curtain, past boxes and kegs, Paulson’s nerves reached new heights. He was eventually led into the secret back bar, lit by candles and led by Robin Holl-Allen, or as he is known in the business, “H.” H gave Paulson a quick glance and in a thick, British accent said, “Alright! Light all the candles. We’re going to do a shot of bourbon. And then we’re going to open the doors.” And that’s exactly what they did. Paulson recalls his trembling hands attempting to light each candle in the room, a wave of ruminative dread crashing over him as he realized that not only was he not familiar with the menu, he didn’t know half the ingredients listed therein. Fueled by liquid courage and sheer will, Paulson opened the doors for business that fateful fall evening.
As with most of our first days on the job, Paulson’s was a bit of a blur. Two things stand out for him though. The first was a botched attempt at a whiskey sour. The second was H’s penchant for flare. Paulson specifically recalls a moment mid-way through his shift when H unexpectedly shouted, “Duck!” Thor dropped as H “cut a shot,” swinging the bottle dramatically overhead, narrowly missing his new apprentice.
This was Paulson’s first introduction to a more elevated cocktail experience—a world where secret bars existed and the drinks you made were imbued with intention and creativity. It was filled with strange characters, black velvet curtains, candlelit rooms and enormous possibility. For Paulson it was love at first sight. At the end of the night, the young novice was told, “You did good,” and was sent home. Three years later, Paulson still climbs those creaky stairs five nights a week and steps behind the bar. He knows the menu backwards and forwards, because three years later, it’s a list of his own making.
His years of practice have lead to a refined menu of original and classic cocktails. And if he could only be known for one? Surprisingly, Paulson chose a recent recipe he created. When developing If The Sea Was Whiskey, Paulson imagined just that—a salty, whiskey libation. A take on a classic Sazerac, the final cocktail is true to its namesake: the ocean in a glass (if the ocean were made with rye).
When your most memorable night is your first behind the wood, it lays a foundation and sets the bar for all nights to follow. Paulson’s hands may no longer be trembling and he may no longer be tending bar behind that velvet curtain. But his most memorable night laid the groundwork for the kind of barman he is today, and the kind of barman he aims to be every day thereafter.
6 Powell St, Vancouver, BC V6B 1E7, Canada