Q&A with David Bain, bar manager at Model Milk in Calgary

The bartender on the importance of a solid bar program and what makes a great drink

There’s a new kid in town, and he’s mixing up some tasty creations as the new bar manager at Calgary’s Model Milk. I had a chance to chat with the dapper and drink-minded David Bain, and watch him work his magic behind the bar.

Check out his recipe for St.Helena and give it a try at home.

So what brought you to Calgary, specifically, to Model Milk?

While bartending in Vancouver, an old friend from Perth, Australia approached me to open a whisky bar with him. When that fell through, my girlfriend and I set the task of finding somewhere else to go. Looking for suitable city, we found Calgary — with its up and coming food scene and the liquid arts poised for explosion, it seemed perfect. With no jobs lined up and nowhere to live, the trip over the Rockies felt both harrowing and liberating at the same time. My placement at Model Milk came about from a letter I sent to the CPBA (Canadian Professional Bartenders Association) reaching out to find professionals that might have room for me behind their bars. Fortunately for me, Model Milk was looking to fill the shoes of Stephen Phipps, if that is possible, when he was promoted within the company.

We can all appreciate a damn good drink, but clearly you’ve got a love for it beyond that of the average person. How’d you get into this career?

I have been in hospitality for more than two decades, starting in the back of house, moving to the floor when I was of age to serve alcohol. Moving through the ranks from server assistant to waiter, to manager/wine director, and now to bartender/bar manager; I have had the chance to work in some exceptional venues in Canada and around the world, Model Milk included. I learned early in my career that knowledge was the key to longevity and success in this business, and set my sights to learning as much as I could about my craft.

What’s the first drink you remember having?

My father used to race vintage cars when I was growing up, and the circuit started in Vancouver and worked its way down the coast to Laguna Seca. Every race night, there would be a winner’s circle party and being all of seven or eight years old (the smallest of the group), I was easily convinced by one of the older kids that it was a great idea to shimmy under the tent to procure the small bottles of sparkling wine. With my mission accomplished, we then had to figure out how to get into the damn thing. Of course, we were unaware that the contents were under a great amount of pressure. Staring right down the barrel, the explosive cork hit me square in the forehead. Lucky, I have both of my eyes today, but it was my first concussion.

What do you drink at home?

I hold a solid inventory of spirits at home, usually anywhere from 75 to 100 labels, give or take; this consists of mostly bourbon and gin. I would hazard a guess that 60 per cent are not available in our market, as I beg and plead with my friends and family to bring me “weird and interesting” spirits back from whatever country they would be visiting. I have a standing order with my aunt who travels to Holland on a regular basis and returns with Aged Genever.

Okay, so we’re all curious: what’s in your fridge?

I have the usual syrups and tinctures, all of my vermouths (as they are one of the few liquors that will oxidize), a bottle of bubbles 'cause you never know when you will need to celebrate something, and beer, usually IPA. The freezer is full of ice of all shapes and sizes, as well as two bottles of fruit that was grown inside the bottle then soaked in eau de vie. I haven’t decided exactly what I’m going to do with them, but most likely I will use them for a cocktail competition sometime.

What was the best drink that you’ve ever had? Where did you have it?

One of the best drinks I have ever had was a cocktail called Felice. It consisted of lemon and coffee bean-infused grappa, sweet vermouth, Chianti reduction spiked with a hint of white Alba truffle and Aphrodite bitters.  This was crafted at a little hole-in-the-wall cocktail grotto in Gastown Vancouver called Notturno it was made by the legendary “H”.

What’s your go-to ingredient for an awesome cocktail?

My go-to ingredient for an awesome cocktail would have to be tequila. It has so much depth; you can easily hide the alcohol but you can never hide the spirit of the agave. People generally underestimate the time and the skill that goes into making tequila, but the blue agave usually takes anywhere from eight to 14 years to mature, during which they are tended by hard working El Jimador’s and can only be harvested by hand. Under one of the strictest of alcohol governing bodies in the world, tequila carefully matured to perfection, taking anywhere from nine to 20 years to get from seed to bottle. When you start with a great ingredient, you are inevitably going to get a great end product.

You’re stranded on an island. What three things would you bring along?

A surfboard, ice — lots and lots of ice — and a pot still. I think I could Gilligan’s Island the rest.

Vancouver has an incredible cocktail scene: mixologists are known for making their own bitters and getting really creative with ingredients. How does the Calgary scene compare?

Calgary’s cocktail scene is on its way to being the next big North American cocktail destinations; we are just a few years behind. I was lucky enough to be part of the cocktail explosion that happened in Vancouver and I see the telltale signs of an emerging scene. There is a huge demand for a well-crafted beverage and only a handful of passionate, like-minded bar-smiths that provide them. What changed Vancouver’s scene was the second generation of bartenders spreading the gospel like wildfire. Six or seven great bars turned into 15 to 20, and things kept expanding until now, when it’s necessary to have a great bar program if you hope to be a competitive restaurant.

What do you suggest having on hand for an impromptu party?

Every bar needs a great old-fashioned glass, a good size v-shaped or couple glass and wine glasses for red white and sparkling. A great party needs ice and lots of it. And finally, bitters. When the citrus runs out and all you have are spirit-forward drinks, bitters will save your life.