Anyone who has ever driven between Alberta’s two largest cities has noticed a slight curve in the otherwise straight highway that momentarily slows your speeding vehicle. That curve in the corridor leads to Red Deer—Alberta’s third-largest, but often overlooked, city.
Red Deer isn’t targeted as a host city by anyone travelling to Alberta to stage major seminars, spirit releases or to showcase international brand ambassadors. For the local bartenders who want those experiences, they have to commute down to Calgary and up to Edmonton—which they do, consistently.
To The Lost is the epicentre of the emerging Red Deer cocktail scene. Owner Sean Draper (who is also part owner of Red Boar Smokery and a bartender at The Vat pub) has worked hard to provide space for the small scene to grow, and he admits to spending more time working on the books than on the wood. But his investment has been crucial to giving the city a home base.
Draper credits bartender Chris Gooding with taking the creative lead at To The Lost. Gooding moved back to Red Deer from Vancouver Island to take on the challenge.
“We’re on the fourth menu since opening on April 10, 2015,” Gooding says. “We started with a menu that featured stuff from bartenders around the world. We went seasonal from there. Our summer menu featured one page of originals and two pages of other bartenders’ stuff.”
For its fall menu, To The Lost decided to feature 18 house-created cocktails. The customer response was positive, and three of Gooding’s creations were the fall’s top sellers: Bourbon for Apples, O Nameless One and the Crabapple Sour.
Bartenders in Red Deer face a unique set of challenges compared to those tending bar in larger centres.
“Preconceptions of bad experiences with liquor is a big one,” Seth Van Havere says. “Listing ingredients on the menu isn’t enough; you have to explain the flavours to guests. People are deathly afraid of things like chartreuse, tequila and even gin. They need to be romanced and shown that they work.”
Van Havere, who is called the “godfather of craft cocktails” by his fellow barmen, tends bar part-time at Red Deer’s State & Main and spends the other half of his time running Old Fashioned Cocktails, a consulting and events company.
“I only started really caring about cocktails in 2010, when I started reading as much as I could,” he says. “I was at the crossroads: get a real job or bartend for life. I decided that if I’m going to be a career barman, I need to know everything about it. David Wondrich’s Imbibe was the kickstart to really caring, being a history buff. That’s when I realized bartending was more than pouring highballs and pints.”
Price is another huge issue that Red Deer bartenders must face. Many locals are hesitant about a $12 drink, given the area’s saturation with chain restaurants serving low-quality $8 versions of similar beverages. Without the steady stream of new customers found in larger cities, building a base of regulars is key; places like To The Lost are constantly struggling against being labelled as too expensive or a special-occasion place.
Despite this, the area’s bartenders remain optimistic.
“We run the cocktail programs at Fratters Speakeasy and Cilantro and Chive in Lacombe, with plans to expand in the coming year,” says Matthew Buck, who tends bar at To The Lost and manages Fratters Speakeasy; he also runs Old Fashioned Cocktails with Van Havere. “I’m incredibly excited about the future of this city. It’s a very cool time to be a part of the scene here.”
Tarquin Melnyk is an Edmonton native who has been tending bar in numerous cities for the past six years. Named Bartender of the Year at the 2013 Alberta Cup, he is a published cocktail writer and photographer, and a partner in justcocktails.org.