He's arguably one of the most passionate and progressive vendors of carefully-sourced cocktail, craft beer, spirits and wine accessories in North America.
Jean-Sébastien Michel owns and operates Alambika. The boutique at 1515 Van Horne in Outremont has, in short order, garnered a cult following among Montreal's most ardent cocktail enthusiasts. That includes most of the city's best bartenders.
Michel recently spoke about his background, his shop and the Montreal cocktail scene.
Describe Alambika for those who may not be familiar.
In a nutshell, it's a toy store for grown-ups. We specialize in cocktail ingredients and tools that are local and handcrafted. No large companies, no big brands. We deal exclusively with small North American brands for everything food-related and, for the rest, source both locally and worldwide.
We focus on well-made, handcrafted products. We're not the biggest drinkware accessory store but we aim to be the best. We try not to be redundant. And we’re keen on having customers sample everything, whether it's a new tonic or bitters.
Where did your interest in cocktails come from?
I come from an academic background. In university I studied the Prohibition era. I worked in a wine accessory store, designing wine cellars and such. I found that something was missing. It was all focused on the baby boomer crowd and old school aesthetics. I thought there must be a need for something younger and more modern. Something that also focused on cocktails, whiskys, absinthe, craft beer and so on. I wanted to steer away from cut-crystal and expensive brands like Riedel and offer high-quality products that were sturdy at the same time. We always try to have a practical element. But to answer your question, it all began as a hobby.
We have bearded hipsters with tatoos, old ladies, families with kids.
Who are your typical customers?
Typical would be curious people that come from different walks of life. We have bearded hipsters with tatoos, old ladies, families with kids. We have local customers from Outremont, French immigrants who want to talk about wine glasses. We have students, professionals and we work a lot with industry people of course. They are loyal. It’s great to work with restaurant and bar people because they give us great feedback. I order samples from different suppliers and bartenders test them and give us their opinions. We work with local woodworkers, glassblowers and blacksmiths to design cocktail accessories. Each one gets a round of tests from different bartenders. Their input is critical. About half of our business comes from bars and restaurants.
What does every home bar need?
I’d go with a multi-tiered jigger. In the store we have jiggers in ounces and millilitres which is important becauce so many cocktail books use only ounces. A good spoon, simple and sturdy. A simple cobbler with a strainer inside, or a Boston shaker. A couple good ice trays. Then after it depends on what you like. A muddler is a good tool. A sturdy mixing glass because most cocktails are stirred, not shaken. After those basics, maybe a hand-pressed citrus squeezer.
What is the most unusual item you sell in your store?
We have two unusual items that we designed. We have a mixing glass made out of Pyrex to withstand abuse and harsh temperature changes. A typical bar will use a traditional mixing glass so much that the spoon creates a weaker spot at the bottom. It gets hot from washing and then ice is added. Over time it breaks at the bottom. By designing this with a local blower it holds up to all the wear and tear. It's a $100 glass but it will last forever unless you throw it on the ground.
Sometimes constraints make you more creative.
We also carry a big wooden hammer made to crush ice. Bartenders put it in a bag, fold it and hammer away. It's simpler and quicker and actually makes less noise.
Another unusual item are these small, one-litre barrels, unfinished and unvarnished, to store and age cocktails. Bars can't legally age cocktails here in Montreal but in New York and London, for example, it's more and more popular. It's one of the ways bars are distinguishing themselves. But bartenders here have to do it at home.
What do you make of the constraints we have in Quebec for bars and restaurants?
Sometimes constraints make you more creative.
We have three excellent tonic syrup makers here in Montreal. There’s no other city like that.
How would you describe the current cocktail scene in Montreal?
We were behind the U.S. and the west coast - Vancouver was ahead of the curve - but we’re rapidly catching up and doing it really well. In other provinces it’s easier in a way because the laws are more lax with regard to what bartenders can do. But now we have a bunch of new syrup makers in Montreal and Quebec. We have a huge crop of new cocktail bars. Restaurants are dusting off their old menus and hiring quality bartenders to devise cocktail programs. They're using the kitchen to make great ingredients. We have three excellent tonic syrup makers here in Montreal. There’s no other city like that. Maybe New York.
It’s moving fast. The Made With Love cocktail competition is from Montreal. We're seeing a lot of local competitions and events. And the community is close. They are in competition but in fact they help each other out. They all want to make Montreal a better place for cocktails. It’s a whole ecology.
Where do you like to drink cocktails in Montreal?
Mostly what I do is visit new places. We tend to go when new places open or when old places have special events.
What is the most underrated place for cocktails in the city?
Code Ambiance in Griffintown [1874 Rue Notre-Dame Ouest]. The guy there [chef and owner Bastien Gérard] puts his heart into the coktails. He’s a pâtissier and chef. The presentation is great and he takes the time to make them well. It’s not his background - he does it for sheer interest.