RCL Exclusive

Made With Love Cocktail Competition: The Best of Bar Culture

The international festival highlights service, style, and taste.

Food and Drink By

I’m standing outside of the fermenting cellar in Toronto’s Distillery district. The Distillery is a pedestrian-only neighborhood. Its cobblestone streets are lined with public art displays and outdoor vendors that flank Victorian-era industrial buildings. The buildings are home to cafes, art galleries, theatres, and high-end restaurants. While the architecture of the Distillery harkens back to a grittier era of the city, today it is mostly home to tourists and the wealthy. It’s a highly photographable, highly fashionable, place to spend a night out.

This evening converging on the Distillery is a crowd of waiters, bartenders, chefs, and other industry types. Along with the service people, there are a number of foodies and fashionistas. We’re all here to attend the regional finals of Made with Love. The annual event pits eighteen of the best mixologists in the city against one another in a competition to create the perfect cocktail experience. It’s a Monday night, but the area is alive with excitement. Everyone is ready to go.

Made With Love event. (Graham Isador)

The fermenting cellar is a cavernous event space usually reserved for weddings and bar mitzvahs. But tonight the perimeters of the hall have been lined with booths from each of the competing restaurants. A DJ is spinning in the corner playing a mixture of throwback jams and top 40 hits. Purple lights are everywhere and make for a mood that feels part Prince concert and part boudoir shoot.

As we enter the space, a hostess hands my friends and I dog tag necklaces. The hostess then lays out the guidelines for the evening: we are encouraged to try a sample cocktail from each of the competing establishments. Some booths will also have a food pairing. At the end of the night, we’re supposed to offer our dog tags to our favorite bartender. The bartender with the most dog tags wins audience choice and a slew of wonderful prizes.

Wasting no time I make my way towards the first booth. The mixologist is an impossibly cute blonde with tattoos and an oversized hat. She gives an earnest and long-winded explanation of her cocktail creation before pouring the liquors into a comically oversized sterling shaker. As she mixes the drink she gives a performative shimmy. Her concoction is poured into several tiny cups for my crew. We smile, cheers, and take a sip. The drink is…not good. Like, exceptionally bad. Whatever flavor combination she’s made now tastes of dollar store chocolate cupcakes. While theoretically making a liquid taste like a pastry is something to be admired, who the hell wants to drink dollar store cupcakes all evening? 2/10 stars for big hat and her terrible drink. The evening is off to a bad start.

The next booth greets us with big smiles and an immaculately dressed gentlemen hands over fresh salmon with capers and cream cheese served on a crostini. I’m about to take a bit when his partner pauses me. Before I bite into the food, she suggests I have a sip of this. It’s a gin fizz with cucumber and real fruit caviar. I take a sip then a bite. They’re both delicious and compliment each other perfectly. 8/10 for the Fish guy and his Fizzy friend. 

Things go on like that for the next few booths and just like that my plan for an earnest and thought out review of the evening is lost to bottomless glasses of tiny booze and dumb reviews of each competitor.  As we drink more my indoor voiced turns to an outdoor voice and what began as personal asides to my companions become obnoxious and ardent proclamations of what is good and what is bad, complete with relatively arbitrary ratings and poorly thought out nicknames. While the reviews earned the ire of most people within each shot they make my friends laugh. It’s all a mixture of high low, and we’re managing to have a good time. And really isn’t that what cocktail culture is supposed to be about?