In Gord we trust
Meet Gord Hannah, head bartender at the legendary Drake Hotel
By MARTA S
If you’ve ever been up to the Drake Hotel Sky Yard on a Thursday, Friday, or Saturday night, then you’ve likely been served by head bartender Gord Hannah. And if you have been served by him, I’m here to let you know — in case you didn’t already — that you’ve been served by arguably one of the most beloved bartenders in Toronto.
Gord’s been bartending at the Drake almost from the moment the hotel opened its fabled doors nearly 12 years ago (Ed. note: Who else feels a little old right now?). Four or five years ago, I started solidifying my place as one of the Sky Yard’s regulars. Over the years I’ve gotten to know Gord in the close way that any regular gets to know their bartender. He also frequents the Drake Hotel bars on the other side of the wood as a patron, so we’ve gotten to share many conversations “enlightened” by the mutual warmth of more than a few cocktails.
I meet Gord at the Drake lounge bar one afternoon — “It’s always so strange to see my regulars in the daytime!” he exclaims — this time over a humble round of water. Gord is — as always — charming, witty, and sharp as a tack. His stories hold people’s attention the way only a seasoned bartender’s stories can.
From science to service
Gord grew up in Whitby, Ontario. As a kid, he wanted to be a scientist. “Since about kindergarten,” he says. “I liked the lab coat, I liked the idea of being able to ask questions for the rest of my life.”
His first job in the service industry was working back-of-house at Whitby’s (now sadly closed) Cullen Gardens Miniature Village as a dishwasher at the age of 14. I learn this was largely a pre-determined fate in his town.
“In Whitby, you had three [first] job options if you were a boy,” he explains. “You worked either as a stockboy, a dishwasher, or at a gas station. That was everyone’s first job. It was regimented,” he says, only half-joking. “All my friends took the grocery store job, and I took the kitchen job.”
Gord credits his family for instilling him with a strong work ethic from the get-go.
“I come from a blue collar family. My parents are blue collar Scots,” he says with pride. “So I was all about hard work — don’t miss a shift, always show up on time, work as hard as you can.”
And so young Gord Hannah dutifully worked his way up the hospitality industry ladder. Some might be surprised to learn that, because of this, Hannah has some chops in the kitchen.
“I did every [BOH] job along the way. I started as a dishwasher, then I went to salads and desserts, then I went to soups and sauces, then I went to veg, then I ended up [cooking] on the line. That was from age 14 to 18. For four years I worked in a kitchen alongside professional chefs. It was amazing.”
When Gord turned 18 he was old enough to get a job serving front-of-house, so he left the kitchen and began working on the floor. His first FOH stint was as a barback at huge (now defunct) Toronto nightclub Palazzo back in the ‘90s.
Getting pushed & paid at Palazzo
“Palazzo was a high-end, thousand-person venue out by the airport. [The work was] extremely demanding and extremely lucrative. I started out as a barback, which everyone should do, I think. I was scared to death of my bartenders, because they were always so busy. I’ve always worked in high volume places, so there I learned to move as fast as possible.
“If you didn’t work fast, you got stuff thrown at you,” he continues with a laugh. “If you did work fast… Well, it was unbelievable.”
He paints a picture for me. “You have to remember — this was back in the ‘90s and it was a $50 cover charge at the door; a rum and coke was $9. The whole front lot was Lamborghinis and Porsches and limos. This was the heyday of the clubs. They don’t exist like that anymore. So if you worked hard, you made a ton of money. And you learned the camaraderie — you learned to move fast, be aware, behind the bar.”
He credits this time at Palazzo as being when he learned the basics of good bartending — the speed, the attentiveness, the efficiency. However, at just 18, Gord also knew the nightclub lifestyle that this work was creating for him was not something he should keep up. So he decided to go to university in Halifax, escape the scene, and study neuroscience instead.
“But then I found the Halifax nightclub scene so I’m not sure how smart I was, actually,” Gord says, with a self-deprecating laugh.
Halifax is where Gord applied his basic knowledge behind the bar and got to step it up a notch. He began tending bar at Brad Denton’s beloved cocktail lounge, the Velvet Olive.
“The Velvet Olive is legendary now,” Gord says. “It was the first restaurant in Halifax to not have a deep fryer. We were the first ones to have a dress code, the first ones to have a doorman say ‘no’ at the door. We wanted to change the landscape a little bit. Halifax is amazing at hospitality, but we wanted to create a proper cocktail bar. What [my time at Velvet Olive] taught me was innovation and invention. [It] taught me to be a host, how to represent a brand.”
It also taught Gord that bastion of ‘90s barkeep skills — flair bartending.
“This was 1998. Flair bartending was becoming a thing. Which, you know… People come down on flair now,” he says with a smile, “but there’s something to be said about the showmanship, and trying to engage a guest, and learning a skill [behind the bar] that’s beyond just ‘making drinks fast’.”
His flair skills even led him to represent the Maritimes in a national flair bartending competition — his first bartending competition ever.
“Oh, I lost terribly,” he says, and we both laugh.
“Could you still flair now?” I ask him.
“Well, here’s the thing — think about how in 1950s gymnastics they would do a somersault and get a ‘10’. And now they’re doing triple flips and things. So, yeah — I can do a ‘somersault’ in flair these days,” he kids.
“You’re always invited to the best part of people’s lives”
Modern-day flair skills aside, Gord remains a steadfast fixture in the hospitality scene. He remembers the days when jobs in hospitality were largely transitional (“I can’t stress enough how old I am,” he jokes) and temporary.
He tells me he himself even saw those jobs as such, and left the industry several times — for school, for other jobs, for what he and I refer to as “real life”. Yet he always found himself pulled back in, and is happy to see that now bartending as a career exists as a sustainable option for people.
“When I saw all the people I knew in university, when I started dating women with ‘real jobs’ — I saw how miserable they were,” he tells me, matter-of-factly.
He breaks down this viewpoint: “In ‘real life’ you compete to get to work — you’re fighting traffic. Then you compete at work. Then you compete for spaces at lunch; then you compete trying to get home. Then that’s the only time you can go to doctor’s appointments, or get a haircut, et cetera.
“The whole time, you’re fighting this mob to try and get something that you kind of want to do. Whereas with my life, if I want to go get a passport, if I want to go shopping — I exist in this empty [pre-5pm] world. If I want to go out for dinner, or out for drinks, I can go out on a Tuesday night when it’s not busy. And then on a Friday and Saturday, I’m already at the place that people are lined up to go to. At no point in my life am I waiting in line.”
There are so many aspects of his job that Gord loves. “Regulars, and the idea of making new regulars,” he says sincerely. “I’ve always worked in places that have great regulars. I mean, obviously, [Drake] is the stand-out” — thanks Gord — “but I have people that have been drinking with me since Palazzo. They still come to my bar.
“You have to remember that with this job [bartending], you’re a part of the best part of some people’s week. You are part of their escape. You’re part of their weekly end-goal. There’s something very non-stressful about that. You’re always invited to the best part of people’s lives.” It’s a sentiment that I — as a fellow bartender — absolutely adore.
This kind of front-end access to people’s lives when they’re at their most elated and carefree leaves many professional bartenders with scores of great stories to share. Gord is no exception. Here’s one of his — and mine, and every other regular’s and colleague’s — favourite bartending tales:
It’s true. Every year, I’m honoured to be invited to Gord Hannah’s annual backyard BBQ. It’s basically a who’s-who of industry vets and regulars. And every year, my boyfriend Aaron and I find ourselves rushing to get there before 8:32pm. It’s the only social event that we make it out of the house before 11pm for, because at that time, the huge crowd packed into Gord’s backyard takes a collective shot of booze.
“In the hopes that we have the kind of night that guy had,” Gord says with a twinkle in his eye. “One day, 8:32 will be the equivalent of 4:20. But for alcohol.” (Every year at this event, Gord also organizes a collection for a worthy charity. A barman with a heart of gold.)
Living like Lloyd
I ask Gord if he has any long-term plans he might want to talk about or share. He leans back in his barstool, contemplative.
Then he looks me in the eye and asks, “You ever seen The Shining?”
“I always equate my job to that bartender [Lloyd] in The Shining. ‘I’ve always been at the Overlook Hotel. I’ll always be at the Overlook Hotel,’” he quotes loosely. “The idea of making plans in advance?”
There’s a beat in the conversation. Gord shrugs, and grins.
“I’ll be at the Drake.”
Marta S is a freelance writer and bartender living and working in Toronto. If you or someone you know would like to be profiled on The Professionals, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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