Words by: Ian Cameron
Arguably, more than any other bartender, Canadian Jamie Boudreau has wholly embraced the digital world. He started a cocktail blog way back in 2004 and now his cocktail lessons on the Small Screen Network regularly attract 100,000 views - viewing figures that make him arguably one of the most powerful voices in the global bartending community. With 24 years in the industry under his belt he's certainly a veteran of the Pacific north west bar scene and has helped lead a transformation of drinking culture there. Finally bored with the frustrations of working for other people, he has just opened his first bar in Seattle, the city he now calls home.
"Creating my own bar was a necessity to save my sanity," says Jamie. "After working for countless owners for the last 24 years, I've realized that I only ever worked for one owner who truly got it - who actually understood what hospitality was about. All they care about is percentages. I could give a rat's ass about making money."
He's exaggerating. At least we hope he is. He knows he's got to give probably a rather large rat's ass if he wants his bar to survive, but the point is well made: his priorities are about product, service and happy customers, not percentages, balance sheets and bottom lines. "I'm here to put out a good product and give people a great experience. If you look after people they will take care of you. Nickle and diming takes away from the good times."
So his first bar, Canon, is a whiskey and bitters emporium which opened earlier this month, with a large collection of pre-Prohibition whiskeys arranged around an Angostura-stained bar. Most of the four walls are devoted to bottle storage and his vast collection of cocktail books and collectibles. A bartender's wet dream: "In time, I want to build the largest spirit collection in the city," he says.
It's a neighbourhood bar, selling beer, wine, cocktails and, crucially for Seattle, food as well. "In Seattle there are few examples of bars that offer both food and drink and do both well. We hope to change that. My bar will offer great food and drink in a relaxed atmosphere. There will be no pretense."
Canon's cocktail menu mirrors the rest of the shelves in the guise of a hard-backed book, containing over 100 cocktails - and their recipes. There's a bookmark of weekly specialties for an easier read, though even he says he doesn't know why he bothers with menus preferring 'dealer's choice'.
"Having my own bar is kind of great and kind of scary. I have no one to blame if it fails."
Jamie's 24 years in the business should put him in good stead. Key bars he's managed include seafood specialist Blue Water Café and French high-end restaurant Lumiere in Vancouver (now closed) and Vessel in Seattle, currently in the throes of relocation, for which he won plaudits for the quality of the drinks, in turn earning the north west respect as a region for its cocktail prowess.
"I have great pride in the impact that Vessel had on Seattle. It really made bars there up their game. The influence was immediate as bars throughout the city started changing their equipment, menus and ice machines. We are now a blessed city with many great cocktail choices.
"Seattle and Portland are similar in that the smaller, neighborhood bar seems to thrive. People in the Pacific north west seem to want intimate venues, with most holding well under 200 people. For the most part, bar-goers up here don't want anything that smacks of pretence.
"In Vancouver, the bartenders work closely with the kitchen and come up with amazing flavour combinations, partly because they have to compensate for the lack of spirit selection in the province. British Columbia is a controlled province, so there's limited supply of alcohol. That forces us to be creative.
"Happily, it's the gateway to Canada from the west coast so it's also very cosmopolitan, with influences from Asia, India and Pakistan, so there are new and interesting flavours coming in all the time."
It's all a far cry from the food and drink culture Jamie remembers from his childhood. "When I was growing up there was no sophistication. It was mainly highballs: rum and Cokes or rye and ginger. If you got lucky someone would order a Long Island Iced Tea. There was no complexity."
Most people fall into bartending, and that was most definitely true for Jamie. In fact, his first move into hospitality was somewhat unpredictable, not least because it was somewhat forced, and it wasn't the most auspicious of starts. "I was told by my mother that I should get a job or move out, so on my 16th birthday I found a job in a Vancouver fish and chip joint as a dishwasher," he says.
It turned out pretty good. A week later the server walked out so Jamie was forced to step up to the mark. "At that time the servers made all the drinks, just simple stuff, but I was young and knew nothing about anything. A customer asked me for a Caesar, I brought him a salad, not realizing that it's actually a Canadian Bloody Mary [made with Clamato]. Luckily for me most people drank beer."
A similar pattern emerged a couple of years later, when he was working in a hotel restaurant and the barman didn't show up for work, and once again was thrown in the deep end. "I was still technically underage and not supposed to be behind the bar, but it happened that the bar that all the local priests went to and they realized if I didn't serve them no one would, so no one ever said anything."
His own cocktail epiphany came from poring over cocktail menus from London and New York on the web until he could visit the cities themselves. "I like to think that I don't embody any one style of bartending and that is due to the fact that I always try to absorb something new from every bar that I visit - I've been lucky enough to visit hundreds of bars in North America and Europe."
Fast forward twenty years and self-taught Jamie is somewhat taken aback by the effect he's had on the way bartending is perceived in the north west. "I don't know if I've done anything to elevate our profession, but there has definitely been a shift in both the guests and the bartender's perception about our chosen career path in the last 10 years. I'd like to think that we have to thank the celebrity chef that came before us.
"If I've had any influence on other bartenders, it's probably due to the web and the fact that I started a blog about bartending/cocktails before there were the hundreds that there are now. It started pretty much because I started getting into classic cocktails a lot. Guests and bartenders were asking what's in this, what's in that, so around 2004 and after writing 1 million recipes on napkins I thought why not use the interweb."
His blog has taken something of a back-seat as he has concentrated on his internet TV show, Raising the Bar with Jamie Boudreau. He admits it might be more of a tool for the beginner bartender than a professional mixologist, but the cocktails he makes cover the full range of classic to modern drinks, and he teaches everything from basic techniques through to creating foams and smokes.
With high production values, it's without doubt a fantastic shop window into the creativity and expertise of the modern bar world, and from the comments viewers add, he is clearly an inspirational bartender.
Plus, he seems pretty well suited to the small screen. "I'm French Canadian so half of my communication is hand gestures and face gestures," he says. "Raising the Bar just sort of happened when I moved to Seattle. It was very different from the entire west coast. It reached out to other bartenders who craved more information so you go to the interweb. Now we're getting 100'000 hits for some episodes. To me that's kind of crazy for something that's supposed to be very simple."
Despite his popularity, he's sanguine about its effect, and apparently a little worried that he'll reveal the "dirty little secret" about the bartending profession to budding mixologists. "It's probably the easiest job out there. We are shaking monkeys. We shake, we stir, we strain. By contrast, a chef has so much more training and more ways to change temperature of his product. Our ingredients are limited, the whole goal is to leave something liquid. It boils down to the fact there's only so much you can do with liquid. For a bartender to attain celebrity status is crazy."
We at CLASS think the world could do with a few more bartender celebrities like Jamie. While he's at it, he could do worse than impart some sagely career advice about the profession.
"I wish I would have decided to make this my lifetime career at a younger age. I would probably tell myself to focus on this and drop out of university (as bad as that may sound). I felt that I wouldn't make myself and others happy unless I had a "proper" career, and it took many years of university before I realized that this was the profession for me.
"I could've been much more ahead of the game, as well as be quite a bit wealthier if I hadn't gone to university.
"So kids: stay out of school."