RAW: almond Cocktail Bar

Words: Kent Mundle / Photos: Janine Kropla

We meet under the bridge. A sodium glow casts our shadows across the snow. We tuck our chins into our coats. The snow crunches beneath our boots.

We wait.

The structure stands before us; a scaffold skeleton suspends the skin. Slowly, a zipper is drawn diagonally across the white fabric. A face emerges from the seam. I hear someone say that this is Josey - our host for the night. He welcomes us in. The chatter of the previous seating fills the space. Faces red, the group lingers, wishing for their evening to go on. Servers hustle by, dancing to the music beating from the kitchen. Win Butler's voice sings out from the speakers:

"We let our hair grow long and forget all we used to know.
Then our skin gets thicker from living out in the snow".

This year is the third instalment of RAW:almond. The event has grown quickly from a local affair, to an international phenomenon. The addition of chefs and designers from around the world has elevated the seasonal restaurant to the next level. However, Joe Kalturnyk, of RAW: Gallery, and Mandel Hitzer, of deer + almond, are still cultivating an authentic Winnipeg experience. In the past, RAW: almond has provided a cross section of the local culinary scene. This year the new cocktail bar, curated by Josey Krahn of deer + almond, sets the stage for some of Winnipeg’s best bartenders. Following a night of sipping cocktails on the river, we sat down with Josey to ask why Winnipeg was ready for this addition to Raw:almond.

MW: The first instalment of the cocktail bar at RAW:almond is now a few days in. How are things going so far?

Josey: I’m so grateful for the opportunity. It’s a lot of responsibility. I’m scared and nervous every night. That’s why I look like a homeless ghost who only eats golden grahams. But I love it. This first week has been really busy. Today I opened [at deer + almond], worked until cash out, then hopped in the van to come straight [to the river].

MW: Were you the one to suggest adding the cocktail bar this year?

J: It was a natural evolvement from the restaurant. The booze had been in the background; it would just pay for itself, so [we thought] we might as well do something interesting with it. Also, Winnipeg was ready for a cocktail bar. Figuring out how the bar was going to happen was the scariest part for me. All Joe and Mandel said was, “Set up a bar, find some bartenders and do your thing. Just don’t lose money.” But that’s just Mandel’s way of teaching. He would give me a boat and tell me to go get some fish. [I’d be] left asking, “What kind of fish? Do I have a rod and net? Where do I go? Do I clean the fish?”

MW: How did you go about choosing the other bartenders?

 J: Since this is the first cocktail bar, I asked people whose drinks I had tasted, and who I could trust. They were all no-brainers. The people that we chose provided a really good cross-section of different styles. I prefer really simple drinks; Steven (Ackerman) has really ‘dude’ drinks; Garrett (Van Winkle) is really involved and super tech; Peter (Hill) loves tiki drinks; Mike (Fox) is a prohibition style bartender, straight out of the movie Cocktail; Stefan (Braun) is really creative and thinks up some cool and strange combos; Erik (Thordarson) is the guy who has been making great, interesting cocktails the longest in the city, that I’m aware of; and Jen (Leeck), from Handsome Daughter, has this blossoming style of disco drinks with old fashioned ingredients. Jen was just here last night, and she killed it. She brought games and prizes, and people were throwing dice. But on top of it she made beautiful drinks. Not to mention that she’s representing female bartenders. There aren’t enough of them in the city! I’ve heard of many other bartenders in the city. But I just haven’t met them or tasted their drinks yet. Maybe next year I’ll go further afield. 

MW:  It seems as though there is a really positive relationship between all of the bartenders in the city. Everyone is keen to learn and help each other get better.

J: I think that’s true for just about every single endeavour in Winnipeg; that isn’t strictly commerce based. That goes for musicians, artists, poets, and chefs. Everyone here worth their salt is aware that it’s a small place. [Points to some people working in the back of the restaurant.] Look at those guys. None of them work together. Eric there doesn’t even work in a restaurant [Eric lifts a wet mat off of a palette]. He’s been here since 2 p.m. because he thinks it’s a worthwhile endeavour. That, and we bought him a hamburger.

MW: I have heard some concerns this year about RAW:almond, that with its reach towards the international stage, it might lose a sense of local authenticity. What do you think about that?

J: I still think it’s very Winnipeg. Even if I were an outsider, I’d say it’s a special, unique thing here. RAW:almond brings [the restaurant community], that generally spends all their time in their own hovels eating staff meal, together to see how each other does things. The public then gets to see that first hand. You can walk up to the kitchen, talk to the chefs, and see how they’re preparing the food. It’s all very bare bones.

MW: You mentioned that Winnipeg was ready for the cocktail bar this year. Has it become the norm to have a cocktail menu in most restaurants and bars now?

J: At least a modest one. I’d say it’s better to have three solid drinks with simple ingredients, rather than a 15-drink menu. 

MW: The general public often holds a pretentious stigma towards cocktails. Do you still feel that? Is it starting to fade in Winnipeg?

J: It’s moving away from that, I think. Even my mom knows what a Negroni is. People are realizing that there is just a proper way to do things. These drinks have been around for 100 years because they have the proper ratios. It’s like old French cooking - it lasts because it works. You can’t mess with the Old Fashioned. Now people are building on the foundations and doing really complex things like [having you] pull an elastic band to break the ice for a cocktail to fall into the glass. But really, it’s still just sugar, citrus, bitters, and water.

MW: Is there a line at some point though, at which the process supersedes the drink?

J: Personally, I come from the shaken and stirred world. But I think it’s great that people want to challenge it. As long as the drink is solid, I don’t really care if you use dry ice, or half moon ice. It’s about what you can do. If it involves a bag full of lavender, I’m down. Just follow through, and don’t let it be about the gimmick.

MW: The bartenders at RAW:almond are put on stage at the cocktail bar. How are you with being the center of attention?

J: Every night we have been putting on a bit of a show. It’s been fun for sure, although there are still times when you need to be invisible. It’s nice to have the attention though. No one gets into this business without some sort of ego. I simply love the act of preparing a beautiful drink, and I want people to know that. So it becomes a bit of a show to pour things as elegantly, or stir as gracefully as I can muster. Usually I don’t have the opportunity to put things in droppers, but hey, droppers look sweet, so this is the place to have some fun with it. However, from all of the research I’ve done on bartending, what it always comes down to is service. The best bartenders that I have ever been in front of, I could have asked for a glass of water and it would be service with a smile, perfect ice in a nice sweaty glass. A bar is a super special place in that way. There aren’t many spaces that are so egalitarian. Once I served a drink to one of Canada’s billionaires. But there, he was just a dude in a place. Bum or billionaire - it’s just a glass full of liquid. They’re drinking the same thing.

Raw:almond closes for the year on Wednesday, Feb. 11, giving you one more chance to catch the first cocktail bar in action. Otherwise, visit Josey at deer + almond, or mark your calendar for next January, when he and his team of select bartenders are sure to join the crew on the river once again.