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Beyond the Rail Cocktail Competition Spotlight: Erin Simpson & Katie Shewen

MENU Magazine is thrilled to shine a light on RC Show’s Beyond the Rail Cocktail Competition Third Place Winners Katie Shewen, Bar and Beverage Manager at the Wild Tart & The Badley and Erin Simpson, Bartender at The Badley in Elora, Ontario.

Both Erin Simpson and Katie Shewen were called to the bartending industry from a youngish age. At 18 Simpson’s dad got her a job as a host, encouraging her to work her way up to become a server and make extra money to put towards school. Shewen’s calling was a bit earlier than that. “As a five-year old I wandered off from my mother at a summer holiday resort and when she found me, I was sitting at the bar drinking Shirley Temples, chatting away with the bartender,” she says. “I like to think the bug bit me back then.”

A deep passion for the bartending industry is another thing both women share. “From the people to being able to create new drinks, it’s all just really interesting,” says Simpson.

Right now, I love teaching a younger generation about the industry. I get to inspire people, get them excited about their work and help them achieve their goals.

Shewen echoes Simpsons’ fondness of the bartending community. “Creating unique spaces where people can enjoy and share their favourite things with friends is a privilege and I feel our industry is lucky in that we are instrumental in building that social aspect of our society.”

Both currently working at The Badley, a retro chic diner, cocktail lounge and Inn located in Elora Ontario, Shewen lead the charge to enter Restaurant Canada’s 2022 Beyond the Rail contest, having positive experiences participating in other industry competitions. “I was lucky enough to participate in the Speed Rack Cocktail Canada competition, at the Restaurant Canada Show in 2018 and really fell in love with the female bartending community in Canada,” she says. Speed Rack Canada is an all-female charity bartending competition designed to highlight up-and-coming self-identifying females in the cocktail industry and give back to those impacted by breast cancer. When Shewen saw the posting for the team’s competition aspect at this years’ Restaurant Canada show, she knew she wanted to get Erin involved: “The opportunity to share that experience with an up-and-coming bartending talent was exciting for me and I also had the chance to expose her to the impressive world of competitions.” Simpson’s first competition ended up being an incredible experience, “I loved just about every second of it,” she says, “apart from having a camera pointed at me while on stage!”

For this year’s Beyond the Rail cocktail competition, the first live show since COVID, Restaurants Canada wanted to honor the togetherness and resiliency of the bartending industry through a team-based competition. Challenging competitors to showcase not only their creativity, technical skills, and teamwork, but to also draw inspiration from this year’s show theme of “Revival.” Six teams had to incorporate sponsored products, a mystery item from the Restaurants Canada Show floor and their own proprietary house-made ingredients to make two signature cocktails reflecting the spirit of their bar. The first drink was the team’s interpretation of the “Ideal Celebratory Drink” and the second was “The Show Piece.”

The two drinks Shewen and Simpson choose not only incorporated the theme of “Revival” but was a true reflection of their community and their bar. Their ideal celebratory drink was a julep- inspired concoction, with a nod to the Kentucky Derby – which fell the week prior to the contest – and their hometown Elora, which also has a racetrack. “We wanted to make sure our drink represented the community we come from and had ingredients we love,” says Simpson. Leveraging the sponsored beverage – Makers Mark – the team made good use of Shewen’s vintage ice crusher, and the secret ingredient – Asian Pear – which ironically is also Simpson’s favourite fruit. The drink was topped with Prosecco for “that bubbly satisfaction.”

Their second drink, the Showpiece was all about their place of work, The Badley. Using Canadian Club and the secret ingredient, which was tea, the team ended up crafting a modernized ice cream float. Incorporating a Rooibos Lavender Tea and Lime Yuzu Fever Tree Soda, the team scoured the Restaurant Canada Show floor, partnering with the London Ice Cream company to use a dill pickle ice cream in their creation. The result was a four layered ice cream float, garnished with passionfruit macarons and finished with two straws – the classic diner shareable drink. “Nothing in this drink sounds like it should work together, but somehow it did,” says Shewen. “One of the judges even asked us ‘why does this taste so good?’”

The team was proud of their house made ingredients which included a cucumber basil syrup made of otherwise wasted basil, a practice both incorporate at The Badley. “We did a good job of honoring the theme of revival for this competition,” says Simpson, “by using ‘not so pretty’ food and showcasing drink styles that had been forgotten about as the industry has evolved.”  But the competition was more than just making drinks for the team. “I think we both had a revival moment ourselves,” she continues. “I had just recently come back into the industry after taking some time off and this was Katie’s first competition in a long time. It was really like a comeback for the both of us and got us excited about making drinks again.” 

Shewen agrees but does find there still seems to be a lack of focus specifically on bar sustainability which at times requires product that is not always locally available. “Erin and I were super excited to work with as many vendors on the floor as possible, because we feel like fostering community is how the industry is working to come back stronger than ever.”

Fostering the female bartending industry is something both Shewen and Simpson feel strongly about.

My biggest piece of advice for women, is to stay focused and advocate for yourself and work hard to develop a welcoming environment for everyone,” says Simpson.  “Changes have occurred but there is still a lot of work to do. So much harassment towards women is still normalized and we are the people who will initiate change. It starts small, but big changes happen when we all work together.

Advocating for yourself was something Shewen did struggle with in her career. “Most of my mentors were male when I was starting out, in fact the bartending community I was a part of in the UK was called “The Southwest Bartending Fraternity,” started by men and at the time of my membership there was just two women. At events I would often get asked whose girlfriend I was,” she says. Shewen has been inspired to see what so many Canadian female bartenders have accomplished in the past 10 years, citing talents like Evelyn Chick and Christina Viera breaking their own glass ceilings and organising competitions and events such as Speed Rack and Beyond the Rail. “In that aspect I would consider a lot of my contemporary female bartenders as mentors and inspiration.”

Outside of competitions, both women are heavily into music. Simpson plays piano, guitar, the ukulele, and sings, once playing in a band. She also loves to spend time with her two dogs and tries to sit down with a book every day. “Bartending is very social and extroverted, so on my days off I typically like to take time for myself and reset.”

In her spare time, Shewen loves to hike the trails of Elora and help run local music festivals such as Riverfest Elora and the Hillside Festival. “I try get involved in community events when I can. I am really proud of the community in which I live so whenever I have a chance to give back, I try to make time for it.” 

Katie Shewen

As far as stocking your bar at home both Shewen and Simpson like to have a standard bar rail of vodka, gin, rum, tequila, and whiskey, with Shewen collecting rare or uncommon spirits such as Cachaça, a distilled spirit made from fermented sugarcane juice. In addition to the good stuff, they advise including:

  1. Good Versatile Bitters
  2. Shaker
  3. Jigger
  4. Good Ice
  5. Favourite glassware

Shewen and Simpson share with us a feature drink that quickly became a favourite at The Badley. After being inspired by using Asian Pear at the Beyond the Rail competition, they collaborated with a colleague to create a pear syrup, pairing it with Martini Fiero, a vermouth made of white wines, aromatized, and fortified with citrus and bittersweet orange, and a bit of soda for a refreshing end of summer patio cocktail.

The Perfect “Pear”

  • 1.5 oz. Vodka
  • 0.5oz Martini Fiero (or similar)
  • 1 oz. Pear Syrup
  • 0.5oz Lemon Juice
  • Shake ingredients and strain into Highball with Ice
  • TOP with SODA
  • Garnish, Half Orange Wheel and Edible Flowers

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