This weekend marks the final run of publication for Behind the Boîte.
I was recently blessed by being selected to participate in Camp Runamok, a life-changing week of whiskey education for bartenders run by Lush Life Productions down in Kentucky.
In honour of one of the most enriching experiences in my bartending career thus far — and because it’s possibly the last time I’ll be able to say “because it’s my blog and I can do what I want” — this final run will be distinctly different from those in the past.
Every post will be, in some way, coloured by camp.
Putting us on the map
Behind the Boîte with Josh Lindley & Jessica Blaine Smith, creators of Bartender Atlas
CAMP RUNAMOK SPECIAL EDITION
By MARTA S
Traveling can be trying.
Don’t get me wrong — I’m lucky to say that I’ve traveled a fair bit throughout my life, and every excursion is an experience I’m grateful for. But one of the most trying parts of traveling for me — besides the usual headaches (missing trains, losing luggage, fucking jetlag) — is the anxiety of wondering:
Am I doing this right?
You have a finite amount of time in whatever new city you’ve decided to venture to. You want to make sure you’re doing and seeing and going to the best places you can, in the window of time you’ve got.
And as more and more people are becoming savvy travellers, involved food and drink enthusiasts (I will not say foodie, I just won’t), and are basically dying to live like Bourdain, more and more people are looking for the more authentic side of travel. Seeing landmarks is cool, sure, but the idea of living like a local seems to be the more pervasive mindset among the jetset.
I agree with this philosophy. I can get a picture of the Eiffel Tower on a postcard. I’m sure as shit not waiting in a line to ride an elevator up it when I’m in Paris.
Travel should enrich you. It should teach you things — authentic, unique things. And some of the best people in the world to ply for this information are bartenders.
Call me biased, but bartenders know where the cool shit is. You know, the shit that Lonely Planet might not write about.
The first thing I do when I’m in a new city is find a bar or restaurant deemed worthwhile to visit (do your research), sit at the bar, and make friends with the bartender. I always — always — leave with a handwritten list of worthy things to do and can’t-miss places to go.
Enter the concept behind Bartender Atlas. A worldwide directory of bartenders, it’s been around for just over a year now and has managed to log the profiles and locations of over 350 bartenders on nearly every continent on the planet. You can look up the city you’re going to, and see exactly where to find its ambassadors of hospitality. It also hosts an array of other content — blog posts, profiles, guest articles — and events. And it’s run by two lovely humans who live right here in Parkdale.
Meet the makers
Josh Lindley and Jessica Blaine Smith are — to use a Millenial hashtag term — relationship goals. I mean that sincerely — they make a hell of a team. Since I regularly harass Josh when he works the bar at Chantecler (one of my favourite spots in the city), I was able to needle them into inviting me into their home one afternoon to chat about their shared passion project.
Josh and Jess have known each other for a long time. Throughout the interview, they finish each others’ sentences, and look to each other for confirmation that what they’re saying makes sense. They make each other laugh, constantly. It’s gross. And I adore them.
“We met when we were 17. We grew up in neighbouring towns. ‘Springfield’ and ‘Shelbyville’ as it were — Cobourg and Port Hope,” Josh jokes. “We ran in the circle of friends that were into music and art; kind of the weirdos that didn’t necessarily participate in say, volleyball, or the coolest, most popular stuff.”
The two dated for about two years in high school (yup, high school sweethearts), but broke up before leaving for university — and Toronto — in 1999. They did, however, remain pals over the years. They reconnected five years ago when Jess showed up at a restaurant Josh was working at at the time, and have been together ever since. Two years ago, they got hitched.
Jessica studied photography at Ryerson University and it’s been her livelihood for 14 years. Her clients include “lots of regular folks” alongside corporate clients like Tangerine, Capital One, and Tequila Tromba. She focuses on portraits in all formats: corporate, editorial, weddings, babies, brands, and lifestyle.
“I like to say my camera has taken me all over the world, shooting in places like Trinidad, New Zealand, France, Cuba, and Australia,” she tells me. Last year, WeddingBells magazine named her one of the year’s 30 most inspiring wedding photographers in Canada.
Josh studied radio broadcasting, and worked at 102.1 The Edge right out of school. “And then I quit that job to live in a van and tour with friends and ostensibly run a record label, driving lengths that no one should have to drive,” he says. “I did that for a while, which is a lot of fun, but a really good way to go broke.”
Around 2005, a friend of Josh’s working at the Drake Hotel wanted to move up from being a barback to a server. For this to happen, he had to find his own replacement. Josh took the job, and within two years, was bartending at the Drake himself.
It was there that Josh — like so many talented Toronto bartenders — started to take the craft seriously. Around 2008, based on what he had seen in his travels to Miami and New York City, the Drake’s owner Jeff Stober decided to implement a serious cocktail program. The bar management team brought in Employee’s Only founders Dushan Zeric and Jay Kosmas to train the staff on the nuances of the cocktail.
“I started buying cocktail books, working on technique, reading blogs, and watching YouTube videos and whatnot. That’s when I got dorky with it,” Josh says with a smile. “From that point on, it’s just been me trying to travel all over the place and attend as many seminars and competitions as I can, to learn what I can. I bartended at the Drake for five years, but I’ve done pretty well in 50-seat restaurants since,” he says with a smile.
Inspiration in Oz
“Part of our inspiration for [Bartender Atlas] was when we were in Sydney two years ago,” Jessica recalls. “We only had two nights [there], so we were cramming in a lot of stuff to do. We went to Eau de Vie, which is one of the best bars in the world, and chatted with the bartender.
“She asked us what we were going to do with our last day in Sydney, and when we told her she was just like, ‘Nope.’ She then proceeded to tell us how we should spend that last day instead, by telling us exactly what bus to catch, where to take it, what to do there, and then what bus to take back to the city.”
The two toyed with the idea of creating a bartender directory as a way to help foster similar experiences for other travellers. They even purchased the domain for the site back in 2014. But it took Jess coming home from a particularly frustrating day at work in early 2016 to get the ball rolling.
“I’m a maniac,” she says with a laugh. “I have really high expectations. I knew we were doing well in our careers but I thought that we both needed a new challenge.
“I’m one of those people who believes don’t just talk about stuff — do it,” she continues. “That’s the only difference between people in this world, really: People who talk about things, or complain about things, and people who actually take action and make changes.”
So the pair took action, and by May 28th, 2016, they had gotten enough bartenders to fill out the online form to launch Bartender Atlas.
“The idea [with Bartender Atlas] was if you were traveling somewhere like San Francisco, you could look up what bartenders are working in that city, and read their profiles,” Jess explains. “And maybe they collect antiques, and you collect antiques! So then you can sit at their bar and know you already have something in common.”
And it’s a great way for bartenders to connect with one another, as well.
The Camp Connection
Josh Lindley is one of a handful of Canadian bartenders who’s been offered the opportunity (twice) to attend Lush Life Productions’ yearly whiskey education camp for bartenders, Camp Runamok. Camp is hosted down in Kentucky for one week, twice every year. Now in its sixth year, thousands of bartenders from all over the world apply for a chance to get in. Lush Life only chooses 125 for each session. Getting to go to camp can be a life-changing experience.
I was honoured to be selected for the most recent Spring 2017 session, and Josh was an invaluable resource to me before I left, dispensing advice and encouragement from behind the bar every night I’d see him.
The magic of camp is integral to the Bartender Atlas story.
“We probably couldn’t have started Bartender Atlas if Josh hadn’t gone to camp,” Jess says frankly.
“The first year I was there, myself, Mike Webster, and Robin Goodfellow were all on the same flight down,” Josh remembers. “You land, you’re there for ten minutes, someone gives you a hug, and you’re told the bus is leaving for camp in two hours. So you go up to the airport bar. The three of us are sitting there, exhausted, and some girl just walks up and is like, ‘Hey, is this chair taken? No? Okay, I’m hopping in! Nice to meet you, I’m Ashtin, I’m from Chicago!’
“There’s no pretense to it. We’re all just going to camp. No one really knows what they’re getting into, but there’s no point in being shy. So instantly, it’s like, cool, now I have a friend who lives in Chicago. And that happens 120 more times throughout the week.”
“Camp Runamok was so amazing because he got to meet so many bartenders from all over, especially the United States,” Jessica adds. “When you make those special connections, you’ve got to hold onto them. Being open to that and really connecting to people is the only way to live!
“Because Josh is a really nice guy,” she goes on, grinning at him, “he’s held onto people, and it’s really helped Bartender Atlas — those connections. It’s so beneficial, and not just for bartending, but as a person. It makes you a better human.”
“And look — you’re rarely too cool for something. Almost never,” Josh adds.
“Another big thing about Runamok that was definitely an influence on Bartender Atlas is that it’s entirely democratic,” he explains. “[Just like camp, Bartender Atlas] is like, ‘You’ve been making drinks for six weeks? Cool, man!’ We’re more than happy to support you in your growth. You don’t have to be somebody who’s well established to be part of it.”
Connecting through cocktails
Josh and Jess also use Bartender Atlas as a tool to provide people with more immersive, hands-on experiences relating to cocktails, spirits, and the bar community. It’s an extension of their philosophy that Bartender Atlas exists to bring people together.
They’ve organized two Bartender Atlas tours (as they call them) so far: one in Toronto, and one in Melbourne, Australia. Each tour involves bringing a group of bartenders to different bars across the city, as well as having them participate in a black box cocktail competition, among other events.
They also invite bartenders from outside the city to participate. In Toronto, two bartenders from Birmingham, Alabama — Steva Casey and Eric Bennett — participated. In Melbourne, the guest barkeep was Lachlan Robinson from Perth.
“The coolest thing was that everyone wanted to meet them, and everyone was genuinely interested. That’s the ultimate reward to doing this, seeing the community part,” Jess says warmly.
They can’t disclose the location for the next tour — tentatively planned for this fall — but it is coming.
“We’ve also done some mezcal classes with El Rey — we’re going to do some more spirit classes,” Jess tells me. “And those are geared towards everyone. If anyone is interested in learning, we want to teach.”
Heading to NOLA
Bartender Atlas shows no sign of slowing down.
“We’re going to Tales [of the Cocktail] next month, and our intention there is just to get a lot more bartenders to sign up,” Jess tells me.
“Like a recruitment drive!” Josh adds.
(So to my fellow Spring Session 2017 Runamok Squirrels going to Tales — and I know you’re reading this — find them. Sign up. In fact, you can do that right now. But find them anyway. Maybe give them a layback for me.)
“We’re just going to harass everyone we see, so hopefully we come back with quite a few bartenders from there,” Jess says energetically. “And after that we’re going to do a bit more of a push to attract more cocktail enthusiasts to the site. Otherwise…”
“Just keep on keeping on,” Josh chimes in. Finishing her sentence for her.
Marta S is a bartender & freelance writer living & working in Toronto. She created Behind the Boîte in March 2015 & is going to miss it. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow us on all the things!