Throughout human history, across continents and civilizations, alcohol has been a stimulant for social interactions,
a tonic, a component of ceremonies and a culinary amusement which can be traced to the Neolithic age. Giggle water—as alcohol was called in the 1920s—is the cat’s meow.
Vintage cocktails such as the slender, cool Tom Collins are adorning our bars once more, as is the style and ambience revived by the modern speakeasy. The original speakeasies or blind pigs were surreptitious private bars where those who imbibed would swill illegal, often locally-distilled spirits during the years of Prohibition.
The speakeasy has been resurrected in North America; and we found two marvellous Canadian establishments that have manifested the energy of the Roaring Twenties in remarkable fashion.
Noble is a modern-day speak hidden beneath its sister café, The Middle Spoon—a popular spot in Halifax for desserts and classic cocktails. Started six years ago by Ciaran and Lacey Doherty—offering mainly desserts a and classic cocktails—it was vital that they make the best classic cocktails possible. Ciaran Doherty spoke to us about working with renowned bartender, Jenner Cormier, saying that “this is where their cocktail program really started.” Says Doherty, “Bar- tenders are a different type of animal, they have fun. Canada has a unique alcohol history and our bartenders are very well versed.” Halifax is relatively quiet some days of the week, and then typically on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays the city is buzzing. Says Doherty, “on those days we had to turn people away.” Doherty considered expand- ing, but anything he chose to do had to t the schedule and it had to be creative.
On the other side of The Middle Spoon building is an old boiler room. To get to it you have to go down stairs, past the bathrooms, through the kitchen, down a hallway and through a boiler room blast door. Inspired by the look and feel of these hidden spaces, it was Cormier who had the idea to make it into a speak. Noble was born, named for the term given to Prohibition by the US Congress in 1920, “The Noble Experiment.”
Last summer, Buzzfeed listed Noble in its “20 of the best places to get drunk in Canada” list. Without a password, you can’t get into Noble. When you are granted entry, you walk into the boiler-room-turned space which is reminiscent of a 1920s speakeasy. The décor includes a large wall lined with encyclopedias and the whole bookcase pushes back into a storage room. Doherty says that they’ve never actively marketed Noble. Only a handful of people knew about it at first and then interest grew through word of mouth.
Noble has its own cocktail menu but serves food items from The Middle Spoon kitchen. Noble’s alcohol is a varied selection. Doherty and Cormier wanted to change the narrative about Halifax—a university town where the spirit of choice is vodka. “Cocktails are a science. Recipes should be balanced to give you the end products you want…how does it start? How does it finish?” It’s all about the integrity of the ingredients. Syrups are made in-house—delicate infusions like hibiscus and rose petal syrup.
At The Middle Spoon, quietly utter the password to get into Noble. The cocktail menu flips frequently to keep things interesting and Noble’s bartenders are encouraged to be experimental. When asked about his favourite cocktail, Doherty can’t help but return to the classics. “A Manhattan with bourbon. My close second is a Tom Collins.”
Tony Migliarese tells us that Proof was, in part, inspired by visiting cocktail bars throughout his travels. Migliarese and his partners, Nathan Head, Je Jamieson and Jesse Willis, had already worked with one another over an eight-year span in Calgary—they’re all service-oriented and experienced in the industry and they decided that Calgary was ready for what they had planned. Proof opened its doors in May 2015 and sure enough, Calgary loved it.
Proof’s first menu was made up of well-priced beers and wines, but it was cocktails that really got things hopping. That first list of cocktails was a combination of Proof originals and classics. The second and third menus were made up entirely of original recipes. Migliarese says that the bar shelves are like a library, filled with interests and possibilities. Proof’s gorgeous, vintage branding and the strangely wonderful imagery used in their menus is part of the allure. Menus are changed throughout the year, as are the menu illustrations. So beautiful and interesting are their menus, that Migliarese says “people collect them. It’s a talking point, which is huge in a cocktail restaurant.”
Migliarese and partners continue to meet once a week and they talk about how to get better. They also spend some of their free time together volunteering along with their staff. Migliarese stresses the importance of giving back in Calgary. He feels it is essential for all modern restaurants to contribute in their communities. Within the Calgary bar community, Migliarese says, “everyone supports each other. Bartenders share ideas. Calgary is great. We all seek to elevate the community.”