Kandra Kergen is the beverage director at The James Saskatoon—a boutique hotel that she has been a big part of for the last five years. Kergen has been around the industry all her life, eventually finding her way into management. It’s a role in which she flourishes; leading, mentoring, working with up-and-coming bartenders, as well as fellow restaurants and bars in Saskatoon.
Kergen likes to be on the map, and she thrives by putting others on the map, too. She knows the local landscape like the back of her hand. Most importantly, she understands the vitality of the corporate and culinary tourism scene currently booming in Saskatoon.
“Saskatoon has a reputation of being behind the times…but we have a young population, it’s a wonderful time to be part of it, people [are] excited about trying new things,” says Kergen. She speaks of Saskatoon draws like their new art gallery. She praises the work of Tourism Saskatchewan for bringing in corporate and agricultural tourism. Being part of a hotel: this is something that comes naturally to Kergen who works through the lens of hospitality, including the building of beverage and food programs that have diverse, universal appeal.
Growth has come out of challenges, as it often does. Kergen keeps up by “catching the groove.” She says the work of championing local has inspired an uptick in chef-owned restaurants and a return to the atmosphere of an era where bar service was respected, expected and appreciated.
E is for ‘Experience,’ and it’s got to be Extra
Kergen is focused on delivering an exceptional guest experience. She wants to send guests away with lasting memories and impressions of the city and province. Can you order a great Old Fashioned in Saskatchewan? You betcha. Kergen’s beverage program features classic cocktails and a judiciously curated wine list—she credits The James Hotel organization for supporting her career through extensive travel and education. She thinks it’s the smartest thing any hospitality employer can do to ensure the operation’s success as a whole.
As for the bar: Kergen’s cocktail menu is large, with around 36 drinks on the menu. The menu is divided into sections which are curated according to sensory experience: Fresh, Sharp, Spirit-Free and Warm.
Kaitlyn Stewart was born in the Toronto area, but she has lived in Vancouver most of her life. She maintains ties to both Toronto and the West Coast. Understanding two vastly different urban centres is part of what makes her tick.
Stewart was the first Canadian to win the prestigious Diageo World Class competition in 2017 and she continues to travel with the World Class team instructing, leading seminars and judging competitions. All while running the beverage program at downtown Vancouver’s Royal Dinette. She’s also preparing to open a dedicated cocktail bar in late spring or early summer. Stewart is especially proud of this achievement, citing the extreme difficulty around getting a liquor primary license in Vancouver. This latest venture will be quite unique and she’s pretty stoked about it.
For Stewart, bartending was just a means to pay for school. It wasn’t until she fell into a restaurant job in Vancouver that she had her first mentor behind the bar—Justin Taylor, a celeb in his own right on the Vancouver bartending scene. Stewart credits Taylor with opening up doors to the other side of the bar world. He pushed Stewart into her first competition and she “fell in love” with bartending. “I realized I could make this a full-time career,” recollects Stewart. And it has taken her to some amazing places across the globe while working with extraordinary collaborators.
“People don’t set out to be successful,” says Stewart. It just kind of happens. “I grew up in a restaurant family. My parents have run restaurants throughout my life. [My] family still works in hospitality.” Stewart was born in Markham (northeast of Toronto) because her dad was opening a Keg franchise at the time. “So they were great role models who showed me this is a viable industry and career they can make for themselves. They too were super successful in what they do.”
Stewart never wants to become jaded, but to possess an open mind and “keep up with the kids of today,” she says. She’s been in the industry for 15 years and considers herself a veteran. Staying current is part of her attitude and her ethos. “Once you’ve been in an industry, you fall into routine. I really want to keep pushing myself to stay creative and up-to-date.” As such, Stewart commonly pores over cocktail blogs, YouTube tutorials, Instagram and TikTok. “Social media adds an extra layer when creating cocktails.” When building recipes she asks herself and her staff, “Is this Instagrammable?”
What’s in the 2020 zeitgeist?
According to Kergen it’s a newfound fascination with spirit-free cocktails—inspiring a section she added to their beverage program last year. “The spirit-free thing is a huge trend; people are trying to drink better,” says Kergen. She says it’s important to guests and to the bottom line to give the option of non-alcoholic without compromising on flavour, aesthetic or experience.
Garnish spirit-free cocktails with the same sophistication and creativity that is applied to regular cocktails. And charge more!
Both Kergen and Stewart agree that guests in 2020 are much more knowledgeable than the guests of just five years ago.
Back then, Kergen says she was still explaining what a bourbon is, and what constitutes a gin. Today, she says, guests are challenging the bar by coming in with a lot of knowledge about what they like and what they don’t like. In response, Kergen has added “A bartender’s choice” option to the menu with added service; it’s a custom curated drink made in front of guests based on their input and preferences and the bartender’s feedback.
Stewart agrees. When she started, she says people knew what they liked, but weren’t otherwise informed. It’s the little things that inspire humans and bartending has evolved expressly because people are more educated. Stewart believes this is a great tribute to restaurants and the bartender community, who have respectively become even more passionate about educating staff and being educated by guests. Add to this the phenomenon that is social media and the public’s fascination with beautiful food and culinary celebs—the sky’s almost the limit in culinary careers today.
According to Stewart, the next big trend is the RTD craze. She thinks it will be an all-time boon for this category—from canned vodka sodas to full-fledged high-quality RTD cocktails. It’s a major step up and a big expediter for behind-the-bar operations while achieving consistent quality control, too.
And, Stewart adds, that from province to territory to province, what is popular may be quite different. For example, she says: “Vancouver has a massive microbrew scene, local beer emphasis and a natural wine movement.” Biodynamics are in the BC 2020 zeitgeist at Royal Dinette, Stewarts says she offers a fully natural wine list. What’s on her new-and-cool radar? She loves an app called Raisin Natural Wine App (you can check it out at raisin.digital). According to Stewart, tapping into the local zeitgeist allows you to gain the trust of customers while educating tourists—both of which are best for business.
Canadian celeb bartenders Kandra Kergen and Kaitlyn Stewart tell us more about their favourite local beverages, recommendations and inspirations.
Kandra Kergen Recommends:
- “Everyone has a terrible tequila story,” says Kergen. She finds it exciting to introduce guests to exceptional tequila while teaching them to sip it well. Clase Azul Reposado is an ultra-premium reposado tequila made with Tequilana Weber Blue Agave that is slow cooked in traditional stone ovens for a minimum of 72 hours.
- A range of glassware is a great way to spark conversation. Don’t stick to certain glassware or rules!
- For example, serve a vintage champagne such as CRISTAL LOUIS ROEDERER in a white wine glass. People can get their noses in it and enjoy the complexity of it.
Visit local distilleries!
- Black Fox Distillery is just outside Saskatoon. They were awarded in 2017 for the best cask gin in the world, and they’re one of Kergen’s favourites.
- Black Fox Gins be creative and use gin to replace whisky in some recipes.
- Zacapa rum based out of Guatemala. It’s a phenomenal sipping rum—a darker rum.
DIY shrubs + syrups
- Make them in-house. Especially for use in spirit-free cocktails. Be creative with herbs, fruits, spices and vinegars.
- Some beers are fabulous served in a snifter; glassware is versatile and can be used to present new aromatics.
Kaitlyn Stewart Recommends
- “I love cider so much!” says Stewart. Dominion ciders are amazing.
- Fav natural wine: A Sunday in August offers a number of varietals and their labels are cool too.
- Local spirits do really well. Odd Society offers a local favourite called Mia Amata Amaro. Mia Amata is an Italian digestif liqueur to be mixed in a cocktail, enjoyed after a meal with ice or served chilled and neat.
- Windfall urban cidery is run by a local Vancouver couple. They offer Jackpot which is a dry craft cider and a rosé cider called Hail Mary.
- From Gaspereau, Benjamin Bridge’s pet nat in a can is the “coolest thing ever.” Stewart loves their labels and designs. And of course, the taste.
- Sheringham Distillery is located on Vancouver Island and offers coastal craft spirits, including one of their newest offerings. Lumette! is a zero-proof gin and the first of its kind. There is so much interest and opportunity in the alcohol-free category.