Recently named Bombay Sapphire’s World’s Most Imaginative Bartender (2012) and Vancouver’s Bartender of the Year (2008), David Wolowidnyk is something of a star in Canada. He sure is pleasant. Sweet smile. Easy laugh. Open nature. And passionate. His passion for drink mixing is extraordinary, and that draws attention.
When I interviewed him at Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans in July, he had this to say:
“I still enjoy learning every single day, and that’s one of the reasons why these festivals are so important. There’s always something every single one of us can take from this festival, and that’s exciting. There’s very few industries that can be that genuinely inspirational on a regular basis regardless of the experience that you might carry.”
On a recent trip to Japan, he asked Japanese master bartender Kazuo Uyeda for advice and was rewarded with a Saturday afternoon of stirring and shaking. According to David, small differences in the angle of the shaker made noticeable differences in the flavor of the drink. Kazuo achieved greater aeration and lesser dilution by turning the shaker to a 45 degree angle and shaking straight back and forth while moving the shaker up and down vertically, chipping off small pieces of ice rather than large ones. Small pieces are more efficient at thermal transfer of energy and are able to drop the temperature much faster, decreasing dilution. At the end, the drink is more balanced, and tastes less alcoholic. Excited by this discovery, David began looking at things in a more detailed fashion than ever before:
“That little point of technique screamed volumes to me,” he said. “I’d already been detail oriented, but I started to analyze every single movement that I did based on: is this the most beneficial movement that I should be doing for this particular reason? Not every single technique is meant to be used in every situation. We as professionals have to discern when, why, where, and how certain techniques and ingredients are used.”
That style of shaking, he said, is unique to Japan. Whereas many Western bartenders focus exclusively on dilution and chill, Japanese bartenders think about aeration, which is equally important for a balanced cocktail.
Technique changes over time as well, depending on the current standards and on the quality of the spirits available. The original Manhattan was a shaken drink, David said, and at that time, bartenders were using more aggressive spirits with much higher alcohol. The shaking would soften the edges making the drink more palatable. Today we have an array of softer, well-crafted spirits available to us. He explains the benefits of stirring.
“We’re able to maintain a beautiful silky texture of ingredients and that silky texture between the vermouth and the spirit can create a much different perception of flavor profile because there’s a richness, an opulence that ensues from that silky texture,” he said. “If we aerate by shaking a Manhattan then we’ve taken away from that textural ability to express flavor profiles.”
Some worry that too much shaking will “bruise” the spirit. Not so, said David. Take gin, for example:
“It’s impossible to bruise a botanical that’s already gone through a very violent process of distillation – [in distillation] you’re taking a spirit and extracting all of these flavor profiles and other sorts of phenolic compounds from these botanicals and then you heat it and vaporize it and condense it again, it’s quite a harsh process. If botanicals had the ability to be bruised then that would do all the bruising. For us [bartenders] to take it and shock it by shaking it with some ice is not going to bruise the botanicals but what it does do is change our ability to perceive the botanicals: because of aeration our palate will perceive it to be different.”
As the bar manager for West Restaurant in Vancouver for eight years David inspires new bartenders to take careful note of their every action. He mentors them on their technique and encourages them to bring new techniques back from other bars. He is a strong believer in improvement and in helping young bartenders. As he puts it:
“To give back to the community, I’ve chosen to not hire any bartenders with experience. I’d rather start them fresh because I believe that everyone deserves a chance at some point and I truly believe that the people who already have a good work ethic and a passionate drive to learn are the people who should be given those chances.”
When asked about his selection of vermouth behind the bar David describes the need for multiple styles, both to please different customers and to pair well with different ingredients. The style of vermouth can greatly impact a cocktail:
“Right now we have three different sweet vermouths. Vya has been my go to for a Manhattan for many years. We also have Punt E Mes but that is towards the bitter side and I find that when using it we need to use it with ingredients to balance the bitterness. We also have Cinzano if someone is looking for something quite light in character. Because of the opulence of the Vya I can add an extra dash of bitter which gives it another level of complexity and a further opulence on the palate.”
He’s careful to put just as much energy toward the drinks considered by many to be less sophisticated.
“I could use the Cosmopolitan as an example,” he said. “Most people today feel like it’s an ordinary cocktail. Whenever someone comes into West and orders a Cosmopolitan I make them feel as if it’s the best Cosmopolitan they’ll ever get in front of them, and treat it with same love and attention as I would any other cocktail. And what it does is it buys their trust. You have this interaction of respect, and they’re not just a fly in the wall. Then, when their cocktail looks as if it’s ready to be replenished you politely ask if they’d like another of the same or something of a similar genre. Nine out of 10 times they leave it to your devices to make them something of a similar nature and they never order another Cosmopolitan when they come in.”