The Bartender’s List- Tao Zrafi

It was back in June, shortly after the Diageo World Class Canadian Finale which had just taken place in Vancouver. I was to be heading to Montreal in a little over a week and was trying to get a sense of the burgeoning cocktail scene in the city I used to call home. It was around this time that I started to hear whispers of a talented Montreal bartender who had just competed in the World Class Canadian Finale. Bar professionals and cocktail enthusiasts alike were singing the praises of a Mr. Tao Zrafi and insisting that I pay him a visit at the recently opened Pandore.

Unfortunately, we hadn’t crossed paths while he was in Vancouver (like I would let that would stop me). I googled the bejeezus out of the dude until I found his Facebook page “Taology.” I sent him a message requesting an interview, and low-and-behold! Awaiting me on the other end was one of the most gracious, lovely and talented people I could hope to meet.

Tao invited me to come by Pandore on a late Thursday afternoon to meet in person, sample some cocktails and have a chat. As Tao explained he worked tirelessly to put together a well-thought-out, balanced, and innovative menu. All I can say is he succeeded. Not only was it one of the most exciting bar experiences I’ve had, the man made me the best (mark-my-words-THE-BEST) Manhattan I’ve ever had. Consider this a Manhattan throw-down folks. It’s gonna be a tall order to beat the incredible classic Tao concocted for me that evening.

I consider it a true honour to have sat at Tao’s bar, to learn a little more about his perspective on the Montreal cocktail scene, to gain a better understanding of his approach to bartending and to see his reverence for the profession at work behind the wood. Tao- I can’t thank you enough for the experience and I so look forward to the next time I have the privilege of sitting at your bar. Cheers!

1) How long have you been Bartending?

About four years now. I moved a lot from bar to bar when I first started bartending so I could learn faster.

2) Where are you currently working?

I’m heading the bar program at Pandore in Montreal. The project was more than a year in the works and finally opened in June. Our hope is to be the best a high volume cocktail bar can be in Montreal.

3) What was your first sip of alcohol?

We used to party a lot in Tunisia (where I come from). I didn’t drink back then and was the only one among my friends with a car so it was actually a blessing. Most of them tried to sneak some flavoured Absolut vodka into my juice. I remember loving the smell so much that I bought the bottles without drinking them.

4) If you could only have a 5 bottle bar, what would they be?

 Any expression of Chartreuse liquors, Fernet, Campari, Tanqueray Rangpur and Lagavulin.

5) What is your death-row drink?

A shot each of my 5 bottle bar, with a glass of Fernet tonic- if I may.

6) What is one rule you wish all patrons would follow that you’re not allowed to make?

We work in bars and restaurants. We shall not give rules. The society we live in dictates how we act. Through all of our differences most people act the way they do because it’s in them, because they are surrounded by those ways of living. I can’t get angry at a customer and impose a set of rules so they can make me happy.  Although. I could probably write the book on rules and how to break them.

7) Other than your own, where is your favourite bar to go for a drink?

Vice Versa which is the best beer bar in Montreal. Triple Crown and Gus for comfort food and simple tasty drinks. Otherwise I love 416 Snack Bar in Toronto, and the cocktails at Yours Truly are spot on.

8) The album that would capture the feel of your dream bar?

The Mega Super 90’s Mix, with a bit of Shaggy, Ace Of Base, Diana King and the like.

9) The one cocktail book that should be behind every the bar?

Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All. It has great pictures, excellent recipes that anyone can (and should) follow, especially if you don’t have your own measurements for the classics.

10) The one non-cocktail book that should be behind every bar?

The Alchemist By Paulo Coelho. Perhaps after elementary school we should teach the essence of this book instead of the literature they use now

11) Three words that best describe your approach to cocktails

Inventive, simple and fun.

12) Most unusual drink request?

Vodka water

13) If you could make a cocktail for anybody, dead or alive, who would it be and what would you make them?

Bob Marley. It would be a rhum manhattan with a spray of hemp tincture. And I would ask him if he could smoke just a tiny bit less so he could hang on a little longer in life and really change the world.

14) If you weren’t a Bartender, what would you be?

I wanted to be a farmer. I studied architecture and design. If it was a job I would not choose anything else besides being a traveler. Surprisingly enough and luckily for me, a bartender can be a bit of all of the above.

15) Your favourite hangover remedy?

Fresh pressed juice- leafy greens, beets, apples, carrots and turmeric

16) If your shifts behind the bar had a theme song, what would it be?

It would start with ‘’It Don’t Mean a Thing ‘’ by Duke Ellington Orchestra, escalating to ‘’Elevation’ by U2 (although I don’t like the band or Bono).

 17) As Montreal is famous for it’s park-imbibing, what would be your chosen drink for a picnic in the park?

 Aperol, Campari, Lemon, Orgeat topped with elderflower soda.

 18) What is your favourite fictional bar from tv, movie or book?

 Don’t have any in particular but it would be one of those small, tiny, cute bars tucked in an old European city not far from the Mediterranean.

 19) One drink on your current cocktail menu that everybody needs to try.

 The Caribbean Manhattan which consists of Plantation 5 yr Barbados rhum, Cocchi Vermouth di Torino, a couple of dashes of chocolate bitters and Fernet Branca.

 20) What is your favourite three-ingredient cocktail and how do you make it?

 Hanky Panky with your favourite gin, a high quality vermouth and more than a touch of Fernet. Divine. I love the fact that my wife can drink these without making a face. Everytime I see girls at the bar acting like babies when they slug down shots with anything bitter in them, i feel very lucky to go home after my shift.