Words by: Nikki Bayley
Back in high school, she wanted to be a mountain climber, and while Lauren Mote may not be scaling peaks for a living, she’s at the top of the heap in the bar world. Event partner and Keynote speaker with Tales of the Cocktail, Inductee of the Dame Hall of Fame, winner of Bartender of the Year for both Diageo World Class Canada and Vancouver Magazine in 2015, co-creator-owner of the successful Bittered Sling bitters line and the newly appointed (summer 2017) Diageo Reserve Global Cocktailian, Mote is known around the world for her creative cocktails and work as an educator and mentor within the industry.
Mote’s career in hospitality began back in Toronto in the 1990s, when she was singing songs and slinging burgers at a gourmet burger chain called Lick’s (“we used to have singing competitions and I wrote a song called Secret Mayonnaise Man, to the tune of ‘Secret Agent Man’ about the restaurant’s secret sauce”). Discovering early on that she had a passion for the industry (“I knew I wanted to be with people, and create things to make an amazing experience,”) Mote graduated to working in Toronto’s downtown core once she was old enough to serve behind the bar.
“The first drink I made was meant to be a Shirley Temple, the order came in and I assumed that because we were in a bar, everything was a form of cocktail or mixed drink.’ Mote says, rolling here eyes with self-deprecation. “The head bartender wasn’t there when the order came up, so I grabbed my Bartending for Dummies book and made what I assumed would be the same; a Shirley Temple Black - little did I realize that the nostalgic zero-proof cocktail didn’t actually have vodka as an ingredient… that got sent back pretty fast!”
After juggling a university career studying Languages & Political Science, while working at a high-energy sports bar (2003-4), Mote decided to take a job at Le Select Bistro (2005-7), (still one of Toronto’s best wine-focused fine-dining casual bistros – it’s an institution). “There were just three cocktails on the list there, and almost everyone on staff was a somm. So I took that thick phone book of a list and studied it.” However, after a year or so, she became drawn to the “amazing stuff” on the back bar. With a sense that her talents would be developed and appreciated out West, Mote left University, and made the move to Vancouver which was quietly earning itself the reputation of being a city which was serious about its food and drink.
Things fell into place with a Bar Manager job at chef Rob Feenie’s paradigm-shifting restaurant Lumière in 2007, “This which was the first place I ever saw a proper mise en place for drinks; the only mise you had behind the bar were lemons, limes, olives and nuclear-red cherries but here were proper cherries, fruit prepped to order, kiwis, berries, all these modifiers.” Mote explains, “We didn’t have a lot of bitters back then in Canada, just Fee Brothers and Angostura, Peychaud would be bought in from the US in our luggage.”
Applying the same theory of how a sommelier would treat a wine to spirits, Mote began to taste, smell and make tasting notes to create what she laughingly calls, “random cocktails which weren’t necessarily inspired by classics because I had limited experience with modern cocktail culture”
Around 2008-9, Mote entered —and won—her first bartending contest and crucially had an epiphany when she was running the bar program at The Refinery. “I opened a jar of nutmeg and stuck my nose in and then I smelled some lavender; when I realized that they were tasting notes I dropped both jars on the floor, ‘The chemicals compounds are similar in different botanicals!’” Mote’s eyes light up at the memory, “I had always had a keen interest in food science, and this just changed so much about my perception of food and flavours”.
Over the next two years, Mote embarked upon a period of intense creativity with a biweekly-changing cocktail menu of 12 original drinks, implementing a hand-made bitters program with some two dozen bitters, brewing champagne yeast-fermented sodas and vermouth from scratch. “I created around 240 cocktails here, my nose was going crazy!” she grins.
In 2010, Mote met her now-husband and co-owner-creator of Bittered Sling, chef Jonathan Chovancek, “I’d never met anyone who thought about flavours like me; Jonathan’s a bit older than me, he’s lived and worked all over the world. He has the ability to read something or taste it and then recreate it.” Pausing to find the right word, Mote says diplomatically, “Chefs are behind closed doors mostly, and that’s not me – I wanted to be out in the open, and really Jonathan is exactly the same; he’s my biggest mentor, alongside my mother, Linda.”
Combining the culinary smarts of a talented chef (Chovancek’s led culinary teams for three Olympic games, James Beard House, and Relaix & Chateau) and flavour and science obsessed bartender, the pair launched Bittered Sling in 2012, their line of small-batch cocktail bitters and culinary extracts made with fruit from the Okanagan Valley and Fair-Trade botanicals and spices from all over the world. Now selling across North America and soon to be available internationally in the United Kingdom.
The (Fair Trade) cherry on Mote’s career arrived in 2015, after being persuaded by close friend, Grant Sceney—who ranked as one of the world’s top six bartenders at the 2014 Diageo World Class—to enter World Class. “I said it just wasn’t my jam to compete anymore, but he insisted that I should. I tried to pull out so many times!” Mote exclaims. “I wound up sending in a recipe when I was on my way back from the Okanagan, making Bitters with Jonathan.” Placing within the top ten, Mote scored a place in the national finals in Chicago. “Once I had that, I decided I was going to try and win. I learned so much about what I was capable of doing from 16 years of wine, cocktails, cooking, travel and I channeled 100% of every experience into World Class and it worked, I won for Canada.”
The global final in South Africa came the day after Mote and Chovancek’s wedding, and Mote placed 12th in the world. (“I knew it was a long shot, I was exhausted after organizing the wedding and running a bar (and Bittered Sling) full time, I was disappointed for a heartbeat but then we celebrated Canada’s finish.”) Now her work as the Global Cocktailian, consultant, and International Spirits Diplomat takes her around the world, and although she’s no longer regularly found behind a bar, Mote still gets to do plenty of bartending, “I don’t miss counting inventory or dealing with staffing challenges, and I don’t miss having to fight with owners who aren’t interesting in investing in our bartender’s futures. Bristling with energy and flashing that thousand-watt smile, Mote is off to her next appointment, “I still don’t sleep a lot,” she deadpans, “But I’m ok with that; six hours is fine.”