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Dave Schmidt Talks Montreal Cocktail Scene

Photo: Randall Brodeur

Dave Schmidt is the man behind some of Montreal's most inventive and reliable cocktail programs. The barman, restaurateur and all-around enthusiast is a partner in Café Sardine/Iwashi Izakaya, Maïs, Datcha and, soon, a tiki bar - in Chinatown no less. Hot off his Cocktail Confidential map, Schmidt spoke to Eater Montreal about his cocktail background, cocktail philosophy and hopes for the city, bar-wise.

Where do you currently tend bar?
I own three places now so I don't bartend as much. I set up programs and I have a manager who helps out. Café Sardine is Iwashi Izakaya at night now, with Asian-style drinks. Things like infused tonics, sake-based drinks, homemade ginger syrups. We do a good Moscow Mule. It's a simple program. We're going for a casual feel. Same at Maïs too. It's not fine-dining like other places I worked at in the Plateau. I'm really aiming for a casualness like in New York where you have taquerias with incredible drinks. My thing now is quality with good price points. Sometimes it seems like in Montreal it's either burgers or high-end. We need more in the middle.

Maïs has a more complex cocktail menu. We cold smoke agave syrup for four hours with hickory and make Old Fashioneds with it. We make our own orgeat syrup for Mai Tais and serve it in a coconut can. Purple corn juice syrup for a chicha morada cocktails with pineapple husks. We're souping it up. So basically I'm busy running around and doing admin stuff and problem-solving.

Datcha is a tiny, long, narrow space that we took over with a full liquor permit on Saint-Urbain and Laurier. It's more of a DJ, club vibe but we're doing interesting cocktails too, often with Club-Mate. It's an energy drink made by the Loscher Brewery in Germany that doesn't have a lot of garbage in it like Red Bull.

You wrote in 2009 that "Montreal has virtually no cocktail culture." Is that still the case in your opinion?
I still think it's very weak. There are a lot of pretend cocktail bars but it's not like in New York where you walk in a nondescript place and the cocktail program is so strong. I think Montreal needs it and people are trying. But I don't feel it's where it should be.

Is it the customer base that has to catch up or is it the bartenders themselves?
It's a combination of both. Montreal's a wine city in many respects, way more so than New York. We have so many small, affordable restaurants with amazing lists full of private imports. And customers are super knowledgeable. It's not just whites and reds but regions, styles and so on. Well New York is like that with cocktails. It's a difference in culture. That's the best way to describe it.

I make vodka sodas at Datcha but more and more Manhattans now too. Which is funny because it's supposed to be high volume. As the owner I want high volume but at the same time I want to indulge my creativity, take the time to experiment. You know, smoke salts, work on syrups, et cetera.

How did you hone your craft as a cocktail maker? What drew you in?
I like the fact that it's creative and social. When you're in the kitchen you're not mixing with customers. With cocktails it's a nice amalgamation of what I enjoy. I can't see myself doing anything else.

Do you have a particular philosophy or approach that drives you?
Everything homemade is key. If you can make your own bitters (not legal here), own syrups, use the least amount of artificial stuff, that's what it's about. People are boring with their approach, they're not funky or all-out. Like some places do classic cocktails but I find they're just buying vermouth, looking up old recipes and that's it.

What do you make of the current stereotype of the hipster bartender? You know: the one at a retro speakeasy in Brooklyn who works with craft ice and meticulously sources artisanal bitters and small-batch spirits. A force for good?
Yes but price ruins it. Why are cocktails so expensive? They're the biggest markup in the industry. Why are there $12 cocktails in Montreal? When you turn something from a necessity into a luxury people decide they don't need it. I can't get drunk on $80 worth of cocktails - I don't have that kind of money.

I want to make cocktails more accessible. Like with beer. When cocktails hit the luxury realm, people stop buying them en masse. Montreal definitely needs to understand - rent isn't that high so make it fit with the market. $14 cocktails in Manhattan make sense but not here.

What spirits and products do you like to work with best?
Piger Henricus is a thick Quebec gin that is really good and not overly junipery. In terms of spirits, I like the fact that tequilas are booming. Mezcal for the smoky edge. Kombucha and weirder, outside of the box stuff.

I like the direction the SAQ is going in now. There was no bourbon five years ago but now it's much better. Tequila too. There's a demand and they're realizing it. Still, you have to find ways to be creative and work around your limitations.

Any favourite cocktails to make and drink?
Not really. I could just be a nerdy bartender and say Negronis and Boulevardiers. I drink them all the time but I'd much rather say that my favourite cocktail is the last one that I made.

Any cocktails you refuse to make?
No. I just won't stock certain things. I don't have cranberry juice so I can't make Cosmopolitans. I buy unrefined apple juice and offer to make something with that instead. It creates a link with the customer. Like with Bloody Caesars - I do them differently. I rim with coriandar salt, put in seaweed and a pickled hot pepper. You have to be cordial when you suggest alternatives. More often than not the customer says oh, you tailored that for me, now that's my drink and I'll order it whenever I come here. It's hospitality.
· Maïs [Official Site]
· Café Sardine/Iwashi [Official Site]
· Datcha [Official Site]
· All Cocktial Coverage on Eater Montreal [EMTL]


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