Brynley Leach is a generation or two behind the 2013 Lifers subject for Eater Cocktail Week, Claude Masson of L'Express. But Leach, 35, has been in the game for over 15 years now, first in Ontario and then at popular, heavy-volume Montreal bars like Sir Winston's, Karina and Suite 701.
At every stint prior to his current gig at the very hot Slang, the bartender tinkered with, refined and pushed his cocktail methods. Cut to 2014 and Leach has single-handedly raised the bar for cocktails in NDG.
His current place of work has the look, at times, of a lab (indeed, the name of the restaurant is technically Slang LABOaMANGER), with Leach as a cocktail-maker slash chemist. See him "cryo-poach" a boozy meringue or Pisco sour sorbet à la minute and you may wonder where you are. This space, after all, was recently a video store.
Beyond the special effects reside more traditional shaker skills. Leach's Peach Cobbler is a blend of peach vodka, clarified orange juice, clarified lemon juice, cherry bark bitters and vanilla bitters. A Spur of the Moment merges vodka, rum, pineapple purée, pear bitters, Angostura bitters and citrus shavings. Want a Manhattan or a Martini? He can make that too.
We recently spoke to Leach about his cocktail bona fides and his program at Slang.
How did you get your start?
I got my start at The Crooked Cue in Mississauga. It's like an upscale billiards club. The manager there, Neil Wilson, took me under his wing. I had known him since I was 8. After a job in telecommunications, I knew I wanted to work at night with people. I told Neil I wanted to bartend and he saw I could be taught. He said it wouldn’t be easy. He knew my parents and felt comfortable enough to yell at me. He was a perfectionist. From the start there was zero room for error. He basically taught me to be him. I started behind the bar, then spent a month in the kitchen, a month in the dish pit, a month as a waiter. Throughout my time there, when someone called in sick I jumped in and helped. And a lot of the time I was in the kitchen.
We moved to Saint-Henri and the first day I went out to look for jobs. I had no hook-ups and didn't know a soul.
From there, my girlfriend, who is French Canadian and from Quebec - we met in Toronto - had the opportunity to move to Montreal for school. This was in 2001. I was 20. We moved to Saint-Henri and the first day I went out to look for jobs. I had no hook-ups and didn't know a soul. We walked around forever, dropping cvs off at a bunch of places. Sir Winston Churchill's was the first place we went to and was actually where I wanted to work. When I got home I had a message from the bar to come in for an interview. They hired me straight out as a bartender, which was rare for them.
Where did your interest in cocktails come in, beyond the usual mixed drinks?
Before I left Mississauga I started bringing a little cooking to the bar and implementing desserts into cocktials. I’d put these experiments on my chalkboard and try to sell them to customers who usually drank beer, wine and Tequila. Cocktails then were like Cosmos, Sex on the Beach and Harvey Wallbangers.
What do you remember about those early days at Sir Winston's?
Well one of the first people I met was Farsim Fahandezh [now a partner in Sel Gras, formerly a bartender at Buonanotte, Suite 701 and other Montreal bars]. Farsim was my mentor and the first person I connected with in Montreal. Farsim was working days at Sir Winston's and nights at Karina next door. She took me under her wing. She gave me two days of training at Winnie's on the Azbar system. After that they told me I would work the service bar at Karinas on F1 weekend. My first thought was, ok I can do this. Then they warned me it would be like New Year’s but busier.
By 10:30 p.m., people were losing patience. So I got yanked off. On my first shift!
So my first shift was Thursday of Grand Prix. It was jamming. Packed within minutes, bottles of XO, Cristal, Dom, nobody cared. And I can’t figure out the stupid machine. By 10:30 p.m., people were losing patience. So I got yanked off. On my first shift! After they were apologetic and told me my inventory was accurate and that I didn’t fuck up. I was just slow. From there I became assistant bar manager and was given more leeway to come up with my own cocktails.
Is that when you started to get involved in the cocktail community here in Montreal? It was tiny back then.
It was. Chris Natale [founder of Absolute Bartending school, now general manager at Spirit House Montreal] came in one day with a gang of bartenders. He said 'Somebody told me about you, you’re Brynley right? We want to invite you to a cocktail competition at Cheeers.' It was Chris’ competition with prizes for accuracy, order efficiency and speed. There was a flair component with Sam Dalcourt and Jean Vasquez. I won first place in accuracy but got destroyed in on the spot orders. That’s where the real competition culture in Montreal started.
What do you make of the current cocktail scene in the city?
It’s a cocktail revolution. I look at older menus and a lot were alcohol-heavy and very basic compared to now. Now we have better facilities and a spirit of open-mindedness. Specialty ingredients are widely available. Back then we were getting creative with what we had on hand, with no outside ingredients. We had a more minimal selection of alcohols. Now it's much more eclectic.
Drinks were designed to get people drunk. Now cocktails have to have a profile.
Drinks were designed to get people drunk. Now cocktails have to have a profile. I have 8 types of gin behind my bar now. That was unheard of years ago. Bars used to stock lychee syrup from the can. We used to make 700 raspberry mojitos at Suite 701 per night. When people realized you could put fruit in a mojito it was like, what?!?
We've come a long way. For example, you incorporate liquid nitrogen in some of your cocktails at Slang. Can you talk about that?
It’s a show. I have a 120 litre tank of liquid nitrogen that we refill once a week. I use double insulated mixing bowls for alcoholic sorbets and cryo-poaching. I can make an alcoholic sorbet à la minute. It takes about 4 minutes and it’s one of those specialty cocktails that you’re lucky enough to get because you’re at the bar. Like a Pisco Sour sorbet for example. I don't use an egg white for that. Just cane sugar, bitters, some nice Peruvian Pisco, fresh lime juice; freeze it up, mix it, drop it frosted in the glass, top with homemade lime soda. And then you add a drop of bitters on the ball of Pisco Sour sorbet and cinnamon.
Pretty heady stuff for N.D.G. How do customers respond?
Well the way I see it is people go to restaurants to enjoy something they can’t - or won't - make themselves at home. So N.D.G. does have its own character but we’re all here to make sure they have a really enjoyable experience and eat and drink well.
What do you make of cocktail and food pairings?
That whole concept is a good one but it’s hard to pull off. What I do is try to match ingredients and start off light. It’s very different from what you might do with wine.
Your favourite places for cocktails in Montreal?
Le Mal Nécessaire, Le Bremner and Midway
This interview has been edited for clarity.