In search of great gins and cocktails, Virginia discovers a bar-lovers dream
Dramatically rising from the northern shore of Lake Ontario, Toronto is not only the capital city of the province of Ontario, but it is also Canada’s most populated city. Diverse and broad, it’s a port city for immigrants from around the world, imparting a rich art and food scene, with a growing presence of great gin and cocktail bars.
Long, bitterly cold winters mean that summer is deeply and passionately celebrated in Toronto, with many of the city’s bars offering visitors outdoor seating, patios or decks, on which to savour the warmer seasons and months.
The cocktail renaissance was late to take over Toronto, with Vancouver, far across to the west of the country, playing a much stronger lead early on.
However, Toronto’s cocktail scene is in full bloom today, standing proudly alongside robust craft beer, wine and cider bar offerings, that span across the city.
When it comes to cocktails and gin, here are 10 of the best bars that ensure that Toronto has something to offer drinks lovers from around the globe.
472 Queen St. W. Toronto, Ontario
Since 2008, Barchef has been the city’s (pricey) “modernist” culinary cocktail destination where Frankie Solarik’s extensive menu showcases smoked drinks, esoteric ingredients (like antique leather) and molecular cocktails. The menu is broken down into “Sweet & Sour,” “Sipping,” “Bottle Aged” and “Modernist” cocktails. The artfully presented drinks showcase a spirit with produce and herbs, in drinks like Pear and Juniper. Featuring local spruce tip gin, pear eau de vie and late harvest Vidal wine, the cocktail is layered with nitro Chartreuse, chantilly cream, rosemary gel, absinthe and balsam fir carbonic cream and a white chocolate encapsulation of a pear.
Famous Last Words
392 Pacific, Toronto, Ontario
If you love books and vinyl, Famous Last Words is your place. It opened in 2016 in the Junction ‘hood and is so named for a Timothy Findley novel. This unique bar is lined with books, complemented by a glass-covered table framing Scrabble tiles arranged in the names of literary characters. The bar hosts author reads, book-themed cocktail classes (like “Libations on the Left Bank,” exploring French novels with French spirits), book clubs, trivia nights and themed cocktail specials around books like The Lord of the Rings. Drinks are likewise literary in name, while gin gets its own section with drinks like The English Patient, a variation on a Corpse Reviver #2, or the house drink, Famous Last Words, combining Georgian Bay gin, Chartreuse, Luxardo Maraschino liqueur, lime and sage.
505 College St. Toronto, Ontario
A Toronto favourite for proper Spanish tapas, pintxos and sherry, Chris Brown and Grant van Gameren’s Bar Raval (and their sister Bar Isabel) feels like being whisked away to Spain, from the patio to an ornate, wood-lined interior, evoking famed Barcelona architect Antonì Gaudi. As expected when it comes to Spain, sherry and vermouth play prominent roles, but gin is equally important in the country. Here gin gets at least one featured cocktail on the changing menu, like the tart and vegetal Into the Sun (Beefeater Gin, Raval Akvavit, apricot, celery, lemon, honey and Tio Pepe Fino sherry).
923 Dundas St. W. Toronto, Ontario
Hidden upstairs from the meat-centric Black Hoof and neighbouring Rhum Corner (serving – you guessed it – all things rhum and rum), cosy Cocktail Bar is a favourite for cocktail geeks wanting properly made cocktails and classics. House drinks are listed in categories like Seasonal, Bold & Citrusy, Liquor Forward and Wild Cards. Jen Agg (author of the entertaining, empowering food/drink memoir, I Hear She’s A Real Bitch) and her bartenders kick up a classic Mule with gin and Suze, or shake up a creamy Absinthe Whip (absinthe, orange, coconut, pistachio). Gin is highlighted in classics like a Ramos Gin Fizz or Corpse Reviver #2, or house drinks like Smoke Ring (Hendrick’s Gin, mezcal, Lillet, peach liqueur, Boker’s bitters) show off vegetal-fruity with smoky.
828 Bloor St. W. Toronto, Ontario
From the Northwood and Northern Belle team, Mulberry Bar took over a former taco kitchen in 2017, transforming it into a 19th Century Parisian escape in emerald greens, lit by a Parisian arcade arch and punctuated with plants. Bar bites range from veggie paté to caviar chips, while elegant wine cocktails and thoughtful non-alcohol drinks exist, alongside low ABV drinks like An Umbrella Over Cherbourg (rhubarb and white chocolate liqueurs, rose water, saffron, lemon). On the higher ABV side, gin is illuminated in drinks like the savoury-herbal-bitter beauty, Something Like Paradise (Dillon 7 Gin, pine liqueur, Cocchi Americano, gentian liqueur, dry vermouth, verjus).
878 Bloor St. W. Toronto, Ontario
Housed in a red brick Edwardian dotted with antiques and an old piano, Civil Liberties is another one of those “tell the bartender what you like” (aka Dealer’s Choice), kind of bars with a house motto of, “Let The People Decide.” The laid back, intimate bar is marked only by a pineapple sign and is known for their tight team of bartenders and wide range of cocktails. Gin fans can move any direction with their gin request, whether vegetal and green or citrusy and refreshing.
913 Dundas St. W. Toronto, Ontario
Café all day, bar by night and sister to Toronto’s popular Northwood bar/café, Northern Belle is Dundas West’s hangout for cold-brew coffee by day and night time snacks like Turkish red lentil dip or cheese platters. Belle boasts a broader selection of vermouths and amari than its sister bar, while in keeping with both locations, cocktails highlight a range of spirits, including gin. Gin drinks might go bubbly and dry in a Rosemary’s Baby (Tanqueray gin, lemon, rosemary, cracked pepper, Cava) or veer towards bold and floral in a French Inhale (Citadelle Gin, Lillet Blanc, St. Germain, citric acid).
The Bar at Alo
163 Spadina Ave. 3rd Floor Toronto, Ontario
One of Toronto’s most celebrated restaurants, Alo, is home to a sleek, intimate bar upstairs. The modern French restaurant showcases seasonal ingredients from chef/owner Patrick Kriss and team, while the walk-in only cocktail bar offers an á la carte food menu and straightforward but beautiful cocktails. The short menu changes, but gin is typically always featured in drinks like Pine to Palm (Tanqueray Gin, Campari, lemon, lime, pineapple syrup) or Made of Stone (Tanqueray Gin, aquavit, cherry eau de vie, Byrrh, coffee liqueur).
838 College St. Toronto, Ontario
The cosy, all-day sister to bocce/shuffleboard bar Track and Field, Pray Tell is a neighbourhood hangout marked by a plant-lined wall, wood ceilings and snacks like mushroom and cashew queso, pork belly eggs Benedict or HK brioche French toast slathered in kaya coconut jam and condensed milk. Cocktail names nod to TV shows (like Arrested Development in the Steve Holt! cocktail), while gin goes playful in drinks such as Big Bud, Little Bud, mixing Beefeater Gin, RinQuinQuin peach apéritif and St. Germain elderflower liqueur with lemon, strawberry, coconut extract, all frothy with egg whites.
619 King West, Toronto, Ontario
Goldie opened at the end of 2017, transforming a 200-year-old townhouse in woods, golds and velvet with a relaxed, first floor cocktail bar (for those heading here for a good drink, not so much a “scene”), and a DJ booth-equipped upstairs lounge for those looking for more of a party and bottle service. Drinks run playful with plenty of 80s references, like Enya’s song in the campy, neon blue Orinoco Flow cocktail (blue curaçao, manzanilla sherry, pineapple, coconut, lime, orgeat, Bittered Sling plum and root beer bitters). Gin gets its due in changing drinks like Skinny Dip (Hendrick’s Gin, homemade spruce tip liqueur, green Chartreuse, lime, celery bitters) or Phil Collins’ reference Sussudio (Botanist Gin, white port, spruce, green Chartreuse, Yuzushu yuzu saké, Bittered Sling Western Haskap bitters).
Tokyo’s Best Bars
We leave Canada and head for one of the great bartending cities of the world – Tokyo, in search of more great gins and stunning cocktails.