Meet Katie McDonald of Veneto Tapa Lounge in the Hotel Rialto in Victoria, BC. Katie is an award-winning bartender with a skilled palate and a flair for combining flavours to create unique cocktails. Fresh off a win in the BC Hospitality Foundation’s “Dish ‘n Dazzle Bartending Shakedown,” and a guest speaker at the recent Breathe Now conference, Katie graciously answered some questions for me, elaborating on the creative side of her job.
How did you get started in this career?
I started bartending nearly three years ago now, and I would like to say that it was my life-long dream but it began more as a curiosity. After I graduated from University I had read an ad for a bartender that used words like “mixology” and “craft” which, at that time, I had to look up online. I started going to the bar called Solomon’s once a week to drop off a resume and touch base. After about a month of doing this, a server encouraged the owner, Solomon, to hire me. Even though I had told him that I would mop his floors for a shot at the bar, Solomon never made me do that – instead he entrusted me with making cocktails right away.
What is your favourite part of your job?
It is tricky to single out one aspect of my job that I like the most, and I suppose that is a sign that I truly like what I do. In school I took Art History and it is in bartending that I find my art, instead of being an appreciator. Don’t get me wrong though; I still do my fair share of appreciating. The bar is a business, but if art sells then there is great joy for me in finding the balance. My strengths and knowledge lie mostly in the area of flavour pairings and gabbing – I have the most fun when I am chatting flavours (new and old) with coworkers and patrons, and simply seeing people relax and enjoying themselves.
What inspires you to create a drink?
Creating new drinks can come out of anywhere. When I first started, Solomon was kind enough to let me have the “keys to the castle” in terms of product, but he had a few recommendations to conserve cost (no willy-nilly pouring of every thought that came to mind). I was frustrated for the first couple of months because I wanted to create something great, and now I realize that desire is how we learn. Currently, I work at Veneto where we put spontaneity on the menu with things like Spin the Wheel” (patrons choose their spirit and whether they prefer sweet, savoury, tart, etc… and the bartenders create a drink on the spot). I am still far from a master, but I have certainly come a long way. Sometimes a new drink will be for a competition or something I made on a whim for a regular. Occasionally I will take a walk through Chinatown and buy fruit, vegetables, or cans of things that I haven’t heard of before. The less glamorous side of inspiration comes when we simply need more tequila-based cocktails on the new menu.
What are your favourite flavours or ingredients to work with?
My go-to product at the moment is aloe vera, but this will hopefully lead into something else. Simon Ogden and I joke that our bartender’s ketchup is Lillet, a type of fortified wine that seems to go with everything acidic. I know it sounds cliché but I also enjoy making bitters, syrups, and pretty much anything else you can with ingredients that lend themselves to being re-worked. I find if you can tailor a base ingredient in a beneficial way you can add an extra lay of complexity to your drink (this is not to encourage abuse or tampering with everything).
How important is the garnish or visual appeal of the drink?
I don’t believe in hierarchies, but you will find a lot of cocktail nerds saying a garnish should be functional (there are several definitions of what functional can be). I have seen garnishes work for aromatics, flavour, or simply because they made me smile. Simon has taught me to always ask “why?” and if there is a reasonable explanation, then I think that is sufficient. All this being said, the garnishing or finishing of a cocktail is just as important as any other step, and all can make the difference between a marginal, good, or great drink.
You work in what is generally considered a “man’s profession,” are there any advantages or challenges that go along with that or is it pretty much an even playing field?
Recently I was asked to participate with a women’s conference called Breathe Now. I was more than flattered, and I realized that I would finally have to face a few questions and topics that I had avoided considering and developing opinions about. My job attracts more men (the proof is in the lack of female resumes in our stack), but this does not mean there isn’t equality. In my opinion, it is the debate between equality and difference; meaning men and women are by nature are different, and coupled with our individual personalities we bring different attributes to the job. I have enjoyed a privileged position of being the “token girl” in the Island cocktail community, but I am only in the position I am because of hard work (and I like to think a little natural ability). I am in the “lipstick generation” of feminists, and for me I enjoy the luxury of not having to think about my gender in every step I take. I am thankful to those who worked hard to make the world the way it is because I can be a strong female force without being a victim fighting for equal opportunity. All this being said, I would rather be the “best bartender” on the Island rather than the best “female bartender.”
Who inspires you?
At work, Simon Ogden, Josh Boudreau, and all the wonderful servers are a constant support, and they inspire me to persevere with creativity and customer service. All of my friends from school and after have been supportive and encouraging of what I do, in fact, I have been lucky to garner respect for my craft. My family has come on board and only ask that I pursue happiness and success. All of this support is inspiring and a constant motivator. Finally, the biggest influence in creating new cocktails is the clientele I serve, as they challenge me by pushing their own boundaries in the exploration of flavours.
Where do you see cocktail culture going in the next five years?
Drinking culture tends to follow food culture, and no, that does not mean cocktail trucks are on the horizon…unfortunately. Our clientele, and the people in Victoria have become more open and encouraging of new and craft products, so I only see more local ingredients appearing on the scene- from what I have been hearing and seeing this is the trend everywhere only to different degrees (i.e.: breweries, distilleries, and farms). I got my start in cocktails, not nightclubs or pubs, and this has influenced the way I view my job and the work I do. In my eyes, bartending is not simply something I do while I am pursuing other goals, but it is no doubt great for that. I believe that we will see the job of bartending become something closer to what we see in the kitchen, as there are already globally recognized accreditations in wine (sommelier) and beer (cicerone).
What achievements are you proud of?
I am proud that I have found something that makes me happy… and I get paid to do it! Being involved with Art of the Cocktail and Tales of the Cocktail are certainly things that have made me feel that the work I do is not for myself or in vein. I also enjoyed my time with Pol Plastino on The Zone, as it was flattering to be asked to do a radio segment.
What advice would you give someone just starting out who might want to follow in your footsteps?
I would shake their hand and say, “welcome to the business.” Simon Ogden had great advice for me that I would pass on to anyone, “it’s not about us, it’s about them.” When people finish work they can pick any bar to have a drink at, and when they choose yours there is some respect, gratitude, and patience owed to them. I would tell new barkeeps that there is always more to learn, and lessons can be ascertained from the humblest sources as well as mentors who have proven their influence. There are few things more motivating then hearing someone like Angus Winchester tell you that the only person who holds you back is yourself in a tone that is so nonchalant that you instantly find resolve.
If you’re in Victoria, try one of Katie’s delicious creations at Veneto Tapa Lounge.