We sat down with Joel Carleton of Bee’s Knees Bar Services to chat about his work, Canadian rye whisky, running a bar services company, and his drink for February’s Rye Not Canada? Box, the Let It Snow!
S&S: You’ve traveled and worked all over North America—what’s been your favorite scene so far?
JC: I really enjoyed New York City—visiting cocktail bars and seeing all of the beautiful people out and about for drinks on a busy Friday night. Usually I never travel on weekends—since it’s for bartender brand trips—but I happened to be there early and caught some of the energy!
S&S: So glad you enjoyed our home city! What’s been your favorite bartending competition of the ones you’ve participated in?
JC: Best Caesar in Canada was tons of fun; it took place in Toronto and I got to meet top bartenders and industry reps from all over Canada. These connections stay with me to this day and contribute to my success and accomplishments.
S&S: What’s one thing unique to Canada in terms of drinking culture that you’d want to export around the world?
JC: We actually make delicious whisky. America drinks a lot of it, but the upper-tier mixologists are still working through their own bourbon and the internationally-acclaimed Scotch whisky styles—they haven’t gotten around to really getting to know Canadian whisky yet. We have a lot of freedom in how we distill, age, and blend our whiskies, to create very unique products. I look forward to sharing more Canadian whisky with the world.
S&S: We’re excited to share it too, via this box! How would you characterize Canadian rye whisky relative to the many other types out there?
JC: Canadian whisky as a whole is blended to be a bit lighter and more straightforward to the general layperson’s palette, and is usually majority corn. But now we have majority rye products as well, and a variety of even more rare product lines that emphasize bigger, bolder flavors and more exciting creative uses of distillation, aging, and blending to bottle. I think Canadian whisky will show us a lot of exciting new products and techniques in the years to come.
S&S: To what would you attribute the upswing in Canadian whisky’s reputation over the last few years?
JC: Simple market statistics dictate that consumers are more and more interested in brown spirits over white spirits these days. I would probably attribute this to generational swings. Brown spirits were very popular in the mid-century amongst the GI Generation, then the Baby Boomers adopted white spirits like gin and vodka in the ’70s and ’80s (which themselves were more widely available in North America and were promoted in Hollywood movies). I think different generations reject what their parents drank and seek their own identity in alcohol beverage—so the Baby Boomers rebelled by pursuing white spirits and now we (their children) pursue the brown spirits all over again.
S&S: What types of cocktails and ingredients do you think a rye whiskey pairs well with overall?
JC: Rye grain in distillation for alcohol beverage will produce warm spices such as clove and cinnamon to the distillate. It will give a zestier, richer, darker, spicier, bigger flavor to the mash or blended product; therefore, any pairings that go well with those types of concepts and flavors would be great. Lemon, coffee, cream, sweet vermouth, Angostura bitters, black walnut, black pepper, ginger—many things pair with it.
S&S: Your Let It Snow! is a cozy and comforting cocktail for the season. What else do you drink to get through those Canadian winters?
JC: Great local craft beer. We take beer seriously up here.
S&S: Is there an ingredient or technique you’re currently fascinated with?
JC: Liquid nitrogen cocktails: we don’t have it cold enough up here yet. This space-age substance allows us to even make ice cream and sorbet for our guests! And they love the dense, low-lying fog effect. It lets us bring a touch of New York to the prairies!
S&S: Love it! Is there any specific food you would recommend pairing with the Let It Snow!?
JC: Your favorite dessert. Maybe tiramisu, chocolate ganache, white chocolate mousse, or lava cake.
S&S: Delicious! What music do you hope people are listening to as they mix and enjoy it at home?
JC: Harry Connick Jr’s classic winter time tunes. He actually has a song called “Let it Snow” as well.
S&S: What are some of the big differences in running a bar services company instead of one bar location?
JC: Operating a bar consulting and special events firm gives me liberties to be as creative as possible, with full control. I can take much better care of guests individually because I serve so few of them, relatively speaking, that they all get specialized attention and one-on-one attention. Our quality and execution of service constantly achieves excellence like very few brick and mortar locations can.
S&S: Do you do a lot of collaboration and customization according to venue or event?
JC: All of our events feature signature beverage programs carefully curated to that individual event, since every event is different. We can pair cocktails to the aroma of the bouquet at the wedding, or the color of the bridesmaid’s dress. Usually our recipes reflect the favorite flavors and preferences of the individuals who have hired us.
S&S: Are there any go-to, signature creations of the Bee’s Knees’ that you’ll always offer up?
JC: Kentucky Unicorn: bourbon, Cynar, roast peach syrup, Peychaud’s bitters, stirred, rocks, lemon peel.
S&S: We’ll take one of those! What’s the weirdest cocktail experiment you’ve ever attempted?
JC: I was a young man once and thought you could shake anything with vodka to make it a flavored vodka shot. I shook a french fry with vodka and then tasted the vodka. It just tasted like fryer oil. Not cool. Haha . . .
S&S: Ha! Guess you have to learn one way or another! What do you do when you’re not working?
JC: Sleep, shower, eat sometimes, occasionally watch Netflix. I try to play video games and play sports outside (riding bikes, paintball, camping, hiking, camping) to relax as well, but I am addicted to working and building businesses.
S&S: What’s your go-to drink order when trying out at a new place?
JC: If it’s a random bar we just walked into, I will quickly assess whether it is a real bar or not (is there vermouth on the backbar? Does their cocktail list not feature any acids or bitters?). If it is a real bar, I will check the menu and perhaps order one of their house cocktails, or an old fashioned to just relax in the space. If they’re a cheaper bar without a good program or proper components, beer is much safer.