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Exploring Windsor’s Cocktail Culture

It may have been “on the rocks” to begin with, but these talented mixologists are “shaking things up” in YQG
Author: Suzy Kendrick
Photographer: Syx Langemann
6 years ago
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From James Bond’s request for a shaken, not stirred, martini to the four fabulous females of Sex and the City sipping on cosmopolitans at a Manhattan hotspot, the appreciation and enjoyment of cocktails has been a poignant part of popular culture for quite some time.

People have always found occasion to drink—to celebrate, to socialize, to curb sadness, or simply to escape. In the ancient Egyptian and Grecian cultures, it was believed that alcoholic intoxication provided a gateway to the gods.

As most trends develop in Europe, spirits were no different. They first appeared in upmarket Parisian restaurants in 1792. At the start of the 19th century, vermouth gained popularity in Milan. Point being, cocktails were around long before the first stateside bar opened in Manhattan.

However, cocktail culture was developed in the U.S. in the second half of the 19th century. By the 1920s, cocktail bars had become an American institution. That concept was then imitated in Europe, and the rest of the world.

Here in our fair border city, local cocktail enthusiasts have often ventured to the other side of the Detroit River to imbibe, especially if their palates demanded more than a beer or bar rail selection. That is, until recently.

Did you know?

Vodka didn’t appear on the spirit scene until the 1970s. This new neutral-tasting option, opposed to the previously most popular choices of gin, rum, and whisk(e)y, took over the alcohol portion of many mixed drinks.

Windsor’s Mark Dutka is a third-generation career bartender. His family, who used to own and run Riverside Drive’s Abars, may have played a part in the illegal cross-border transit of alcohol during Prohibition, but you didn’t hear that from us. Dutka says he learned to walk behind the bar, literally.

“[Bartending] is just in me,” Dutka says proudly. “I spent my childhood there. I’ve done other things but I’ve always come back to it. I love meeting new people every night and making them happy.”

Along with business partner, Lucas Tourangeau, Dutka opened Windsor’s first true cocktail bar, The Blind Owl, a mere three years ago. At their “hidden in plain sight” location on Ouelette Street, they focus solely on making craft cocktails with the freshest of accoutrements. Herbs are harvested daily from community gardens. All syrups are made in-house. Citrus is juiced by hand. They even make their own bitters with flavour variations like rose, firewater, ginger, honeycomb, and lavender.

“[When we opened], people who were already into cocktails were going to Detroit,” says Dutka. “Other Windsor business owners told us we were crazy for opening this place and that the concept would never sell. They said it was too fancy, that the drink recipes would go right over people’s heads.”

“People who follow the crowd will usually go no further than the crowd. The person who walks alone is likely to find himself in places no one has ever seen before.”—Albert Einstein (who, it is said, enjoyed sipping on a glass of cognac now and again)

Fast forward to today. Business-wise Dutka says The Blind Owl is doing fantastically. The cocktail haven was even given notable recognition on a national scale: an honourable mention by Canada’s 50 Best Bars of 2018 presented by American Express. It was the only place in Windsor to make the highly respected list.

A new cocktail bar is in the works for the Dutka/Tourangeau duo. Dutka hints it will be opening this fall. A “laboratory for cocktails,” they will feature unique variations on 100-year-old recipes along with an extensive wine program.

“The trend in drinking is changing,” Dutka says. “People are drinking less, but they’re drinking better. I’ve always wanted to keep people in Windsor, but I understand that they want variety.”

Tom Scully has been bartending in the area since he was 18 years old. He started by working in downtown establishments and says he remembers well that at that time bargoers didn’t care about quality; it was quantity that was demanded.

“Bartending was about manufacturing, just like Windsor was—whether you were working on the line at Chrysler or on the line at the bar, you were just pumping out product,” Scully says.

It was beer and simple two-ingredient mixed drinks that were ordered, making it tough for truly passionate bartenders with dreams of creating and serving more elaborate recipes to spread their wings. As a result, many flew the coop to bigger cities where cocktail culture was already alive and thriving.

Scully was living in Toronto when The Blind Owl opened in 2015. Inspired by what Dutka was doing with cocktails, he decided to move back to Windsor and join the movement. Along with his business partner, John Alvarez, Scully opened F&B, known for their cocktails and small plates, in 2016.

“Essentially we had to work together to develop the cocktail culture here,” Scully says. “Our first menu at F&B had a lot of classics with a lot of twists, just to get Windsor to understand what was possible. It was part education, part creativity.”

Scully’s far-reaching knowledge of spirits and passion for exploring all facets of mixology led him to enter the Bacardi Legacy Cocktail Competition that same year. With his rum-based concoction, “The Ambassador”, he won the Ontario regional final, beating eight Torontonians in the process. Since, his recipe has been shared internationally with bars and restaurants in Canada, the United States and Australia serving up his unique, award-winning cocktail. Locally, you can enjoy it at F&B.

When it came to cocktail aptitude and ability, Scully says he believes winning that portion of the international competition was a point of legitimization—not only for himself, but also for Windsor. The city now had a platform of accomplishment and recognition that could be built upon.

“Windsor is finally being taken seriously,” Scully says. “Today, we definitely want to be on par with Montreal and Halifax.”

Over on Pitt Street, just a stone’s throw from the Detroit River and the casino, Panache has catered to a mature, professional crowd for the last eight years. Owners Jody and Mike Stojcic say they’ve witnessed trends come and go when it comes popular spirit preferences; vodka to gin to bourbon to tequila.

While they’ve been developing cocktails since they opened, the couple says the struggle, until now, was convincing people to try something new. In comparison to a simple bar rail–mixed drink, like vodka soda, high-end cocktails tend to cost $14 and up.

“We’ve definitely noticed a shift in the last few years,” Jody says. “People’s palates have changed. They’re more willing to try something new, especially in social situations where, for example, their friends have experienced a new drink and encourage them to try it.”

Whether it’s peer pressure or general awareness, the Stojcics say they’re seeing, first-hand, the development and expansion of Windsor’s cocktail culture. Jody creates new cocktail lists every three months to keep clients engaged and excited about what’s possible.

So, what’s driving this in Windsor?

It’s the bartenders.

“People like the familiar face of their bartender,” says Mike.

“It’s trust. Pair that with the bartender’s passion for mixology and it’s contagious to want to try to experiment.”

“I’m a creative with liquids and spirits,” Scully says. “We can walk people through the process to figure out what they may like.”

“I like when people come in and they’re hesitant to try, or have never had a cocktail before,” says Dutka. “Their reaction is usually something like ‘Wow! I had no idea I could get a drink like this in Windsor.’”

In an effort to bring bar industry professionals and enthusiasts together, Dutka and Scully created the Windsor Ontario Bartenders Guild. It currently has 30 members and growing.

“We want to build a community that shares,” says Scully.

For an annual fee of $120, anyone can acquire an open membership that gives exclusive access to upcoming events and tastings. Industry memberships are open to current front-of-house service industry professionals for $100

Visit www.windsorbartendersguild.com to join.

“I foresee a lot more cocktail bars opening in Windsor in the next five years,” Scully says. “[Windsor] is always going to be a small blue-collar town; that’s what differentiates us. But, no matter what colour your collar, everyone likes to drink cocktails.”

Tom Scully of F&B

Tom Scully of F&B mixes the perfect cocktail for The DRIVE magazine with the concept of ‘less is more’ to complement our look and feel in the magazine

Watch our how-to-video as Tom Scully shows us how to make this fresh, light, and oh-so-delicious cocktail on our website or YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCiQnVgDkcPvyC0Jn4qcQZsQ (we’re mixing up the video now…stay tuned – it’s coming soon…)

The DRIVE cocktail recipe:

• 1.5 oz (45 mL) Beefeater Gin

• 1 oz (30 mL) St. Germain Liqueur

• 0.75 oz (22 mL) fresh lemon juice

• 1 egg white

• 3 dashes Dillon’s Pear Bitters (available at Behind the Wood)


• Add ice and shake again for seven seconds

• Double strain

• Garnish with toasted thyme

We would love to hear how you enjoyed The DRIVE cocktail. Email us at: [email protected]

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