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August 18-31
VOL.14 ISSUE. 26
HOME / STORY

Hail The Wombat!

Nathan Raine
Published Thursday July 9, 07:08 pm
Seven bartenders get put to the test with a made-up drink

Photo Credit: Illustration by Evgenia MKIkhaylova

I'm standing on the corner of 2nd Ave. on a balmy but horribly smoky Saturday. Regrettably, the northern wildfires are still burning madly. Emerging from a grey cloud of smoke, Kirkland comes toward me, leading to a quick discussion on what, exactly, to call this boozy experiment we’re embarking upon. After some deliberation, Kirkland lands on “The Tasty Wombat.” So it is.

The experiment: Walk into seven different bars (picked randomly out of a hat) and ask for a drink that doesn't exist (the Tasty Wombat). Leave it up to the bartenders to create something on the spot, with only a couple of rules: No shots and no pre-made drinks — get creative. From there, we’ll drink it down, and write it down.

 

BAR #1: CONGRESS

The bartender slides a couple coasters in front of us, and asks what we're drinking. I ask for a couple of tasty wombats and he nods slowly, as a look of mounted confusion washes over his face. I can tell he's searching the recesses of his brain to figure out we're talking about. Kirkland then goes into the day's first Wombat explanation — make it up, get creative and have fun. The bartender, John, takes a step back and stares at his bar as if looking at it for the first time. “I might need a minute,” he says. Sure thing. This gives us time to indulge in some of the witty conversation that all journalists are famous for. Ahem. I'll spare the queasy details, but he assured me that it was like an adult trip to Disneyland.

Bartender John springs into action, and then asks for a lighter. Kirkland produces one of his cancer igniting devices, and John begins burning an orange peel, which eventually ends up rubbed on the rim of the glass, then dropped into it. The concoction inside is a pale orange, and it's delicious. John, with a hint of satisfaction, outlines just what he came up with:

1/2 ounce Southern Comfort, 1/2 ounce Disaronno, 1 ounce of Crown Royal rye, 1/2 ounce of honey syrup, orange juice, a burnt orange and lemon peel.

It's surprisingly refreshing, and the burnt orange provides a nice smoky flavour to go along with the citrus, as well as with the condition of the air outside. Even more impressive, John tells us [ironically] that he's just returned from a few months at fire-fighting school, so his bartending skills may be a little unpracticed. We tell him that he's set the bar high. As Kirkland is draining the bottom of his glass, a Queen song comes on and I'm given the pleasure of hearing his unfortunate vocal rendition. One Wombat in and it might be hitting the old editor already.

 

BAR #2: O'SHEA'S

A quick trot across the street and we're at O'shea's. Outside, scattered in several heaping piles, is an absurd amount of freshly laid feces. I am shocked by the quantity (if it wasn’t a horse it had to have been a seriously huge dog), so I take my phone out and take a picture (yup, that’s how I roll).

We find two seats at the bar and make our wombat request. The first bartender looks a little lost by the task, deferring to his coworker, a chipper young man named Dasey, who seems excited to tackle the project. He quickly produces two tallish, whitish drinks — the antithesis of our first Wombat. Kirkland and I clink our glasses together and try Wombat number two. The ingredients:

1/2 ounce salted caramel vodka, 1/2 ounce Malibu, cola, milk.

Like a white Russian, with a bit of a twist. It’s not bad at all, although not as surprisingly excellent as John’s creation at Congress. Luckily, Dasey, with his friendly interest in our experiment, paints an enjoyable atmosphere over the whole thing, making the drink itself, even for a couple non-milk lovers, perfectly tolerable. Kirkland points out some of the positives — it tastes like a creamsicle in a glass, and would be good for those with a calcium deficiency.

 

BAR #3: THE ROOK AND RAVEN

Inside The Rook I find an old friend of mine, tall and lanky Nolan, tending the bar. Kirkland explains the experiment, assuring Nolan with a grin that he won't be too harshly judged. Nolan laughs and gets to work. In rapid fashion, he produces two bubbly yellow pints. Kirkland, a professional beer-drinker, gives a quick seal of approval. Much like our bartender himself, our drinks are tall and skinny, bubbly yet subtly bitter:

2/3 pint of Rebellion blonde beer, 1 ounce of vodka, 3 ounces of lemonade, and a dash of peach bitters, over ice.

Kirkland and I have no problems putting the pints away quickly. “Bonus points for using local beer,” he says. The two gab for a while about the influx of great micro-breweries in Saskatchewan (Rebellion, Prairie Sun, Nokomis, Black Bridge) while I spin around on my stool, trying to remember the last time I cleaned my ears. The alcohol is getting to you, idiot. Better get moving. Nolan gives us a friendly salute and we’re out.

 

BAR #4: FLINT

Inside Flint, another tall and skinny kid is tending bar — Brennan, a friendly dude with a backwards hat. We pitch him the wombat experiment, and he tackles the assignment enthusiastically, bouncing around the bar and concentrating intently on the task. After a moment, two martini glasses with bright red liquid and a floating basil leaf appear. “Your tasty wombats!”, he says. It's the best-looking wombat so far, and after a sip, perhaps the best-tasting as well. The ingredients:

1-1/4 ounces Saskatoon berry gin, 3/4 ounce Disaronno, 1 ounce lemon-lime syrup, a squeeze of lemon, dash of simple syrup, and a basil leaf to garnish.

But wait! Brennan’s going for context points as well! “You want to know why I chose this stuff?” he asks. I laugh and agree. Brennan shifts the beak of his hat from backwards to front and begins: “Okay. Wombats are a rodent in Australia right? They live in the forest. In the forest there are trees, like Juniper trees, which have juniper berries, and wombats eat the berries. Following me? So instead of using juniper berries, we got Saskatoon berry gin — and gin is made from juniper. Next is nuts. Wombats probably eat nuts, so we got Disaronno for some nuttiness. Then for some green, because wombats live in the forest, we have a basil leaf. And voilà.”

He grins and lets us enjoy his creation. The cocky bastard, he knows his drink, along with his goofy story, is actually pretty great. He asks, rather rhetorically, how the drink is. I want to quell his confidence a bit so I say, “It's good, but you've got competition.” He just smiles.

 

BAR #5: AMIGOS

After a stroll (stumble?) up to Broadway, Amigos is our busiest stop yet, but we find a couple stools near the far end of the bar. Over comes our bartender, Michael — a veritable grizzly with a long thicket of man-beard. He and Kirkland are clearly practiced drinking buddies, and after some joking, Kirkland starts on the wombat explanation. He can barely get halfway through before Michael says “Yep, done,” and takes off from behind the bar.

Upon his return a few minutes later, Kirkland spots Michael and says, “Um, I think he has an egg.” I wince. “No no,” I tell Kirkland, “I can't do raw eggs.” To make matters worse, as we wait for our drinks Kirkland tells me an old drinking story of when he almost killed Michael by smashing a wooden mallet over his head, a mallet Kirkland insists he assumed was plastic. The story only reaffirms my fear that Michael is trying to kill us. Michael brings over the two drinks. “Please tell me there's no raw egg in this,” I plead. Michael smiles. “Just try it.” I take a sip and it’s actually pretty good — and Kirkland is loving it. Reluctantly, I ask for the ingredients of the Amigos wombat:

1 ounce Irish whisky, 1/2 an egg white, 3 ounces of ginger beer, 1/4 ounce of simple syrup, garnish with a lime and cherry.

Then I hear, “How is it?” I look up and a patron in a beige hat/shirt combo has evidently been watching the entire proceedings. “It's... strange,” I say. “That's gotta be the weirdest concoction I ever saw,” he says and goes happily off with his pint of beer. I admit I’m a bit jealous of his pint, but Michael’s wombat effort is definitely a lot better than what I feared when I first heard mention of eggs.

 

BAR #6: DUCK DUCK GOOSE

Our next stop is only a few loopy strides down the block to Duck Duck Goose, which is just opening for the evening. We get a hello from the first bartender as we sit down, and he asks us what we'd like, so Kirkland and I tag-team the wombat story. The bartender looks at his co-worker, a young lady at the other end of the bar. She looks back at him. They both look at us. Kirkland and I look at each other. What's going on?

Finally, Kirkland breaks the silence by saying, “You guys just take your time and we'll talk amongst ourselves.” The young lady, Rebecca, starts up a drink while Kirkland and I find some important matters to discuss: The value of a good mirror, frequency of shoehorn use, the well-documented tenderness of MMA fighters. Eventually Rebecca places two bright orange drinks in front of us. We eagerly dive in and discover that after all of the apprehension, she ultimately produced a pretty delicious drink. The Duck Duck wombat:

1 ounce gin, 1/2 ounce Aperol, 1/2 ounce St. Germain, 1/2 squeezed fresh lime, 2 vials of homemade rhubarb bitters, orange garnish.

Rebecca seems relieved that we actually like it, but she shouldn’t have worried — it was great.

 

BAR #7: THE YARD AND FLAGGON

Back into the streets, where it's still looking like some kind of smoke-washed, post-apocalyptic horror scene. We stumble our way down the block and across the street to the Yard. At our last stop, the experiment now nearly behind us, I begin thinking of wombats and what we’re doing — if we’re creating some kind of chimera, or if a little bit of wombat truly resides in us all, as a creature contemplative, ever changing and capable of infinite possibilities, yet reserved and restrained, making it something more beautiful, a kind of cloistral fervour in the midst of the mad restlessness of this ever-clamorous world.

And I'm still not even sure what a wombat is.

It’s nearing 6 pm and the Yard, by far, presents the busiest place we've visited. We find two of the only vacant seats at the bar beside a row of rowdy tradesmen, and Kirkland gives the bartenders the wombat spiel. The bartenders have a full house, but they put everything on hold and collaborate on a drink. Considering the busyness of the place, their enthusiasm is impressive. Eventually they slide down two drinks that look they came from a pool-side all-inclusive Mexican resort — a tall drink in a stemmed glass, the concoction a combination of yellow, red, and orange. The Yard team explains their choices:

1 ounce ginger lime whisky, 1/2 ounce sloe gin, a glug or two pineapple juice, squirt of soda and bar lime, garnished with an orange and lime.

We chug back the tropical drink. The bartenders themselves seem a bit humoured by the entire thing and decide to make one for themselves. Even more interested are our neighbours, who are full of commentary and questions: “What's it called again?” “Can I get one?” “Do you have to pay?” “This thing could be the next paralyzer!” “You might have to patent that.” Indeed!

 

THE RESULTS

MOST TOPICAL DRINK: CONGRESS
Smoky and summery, it felt oddly appropriate considering the current state of our forests, and gave us pause to think about more serious things than silly wombat drinks.

BEST USE OF LACTOSE: O'SHEA'S
Who needs calcium supplements when you've got a Wombat Russian waiting for you at O'Shea's?!

BEST USE OF BEER, BEST QUANTITY: THE ROOK AND RAVEN
Of the couple places that infused their drink with some kind of beer product, the Rook made the most ingenious use out of their beer.

MOST THOUGHTFUL DRINK: FLINT
Flint is known for their original and inventive drinks. They didn't let us down, coming up with something totally menu-worthy on the spot.

BEST USE OF EGG: AMIGOS
The boldness of putting egg in a stranger's drink has to be applauded. I'm still not convinced there's not a trip to the hospital in my near future though...

BEST DEER IN THE HEADLIGHTS DRINK: DUCK DUCK GOOSE
From the start, expectations were admittedly a little low, but Rebecca at DDG totally pulled off an interesting, super tasty drink.

MOST ACCOMMODATING / MOST MAGIC CARPET RIDE FOR MY MOUTH: THE YARD
Not only did these guys take time to invent a drink during a heavy dinner / drink rush, but they totally shed their pint-pouring personas and whipped up an excellent tropical drink.

TASTY WOMBAT AWARD FOR BEST OVERALL WOMBAT
Tough decision! The drinks were diverse, and they’re pretty much all ones I'm eager to try again. But if we're being honest, it was more than just the drink's taste and appearance: when asking a bartender to come up with a new drink on the spot, it's as much about what happens before and after the drink hits your lips. And on that score, everyone wins — not one place refused us, and they all embraced the wombat. Thanks folks!

Still, there apparently has to be a winner — so for reasons of juniper berries, nuttiness, foliage and “Australian” rodents, the most thoughtful, and ultimately tastiest, wombat goes to Flint. Congratulations — you won a sort-of contest you didn't know you were in. Now put that thing on your menu!

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