Updated: Apr 3, 2019
My first introduction to Andrew Toplack was meeting him at a small Bacardi tasting in a downtown Toronto bar. He immediately impressed me with his kindness, generosity, passion and overall spirits knowledge. I've seen him many times since and every time I'm in a bar with him, it is so obvious how much he is loved by people in the bar industry.
Time to get to know more about Andrew Toplack: Doctor by day, spirits importer and educator by night.
Can you please introduce yourself?
I’ve been a medical doctor for for over 40 years and my practice has been limited to psychotherapy for more than 35 years. I was born and raised in Chatham, Ontario, went to university at Western in London, interned at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal, and have lived in Toronto for most of my adult life.
Since 2003, I’ve had a strong and ongoing relationship with New Orleans, attending Tales of the Cocktail every year since 2008. I’ve also attended several times both London Cocktail Week and Manhattan Cocktail Classic (now defunct) and last year attended Berlin Bar Convent for the first, and hopefully not last, time.
You clearly have a passion for spirits and the bar industry in general. Where did that start?
During my childhood, both of my parents were into fine wine, so we all grew up with an appreciation for it. When I was in grade 7, I asked for a wine making kit and books on making wine for either Christmas or my birthday. Later that year, in grade 8, a friend and I made some wine using the kit and a recipe from one of the books. We were studying fermentation and distillation that year, so he & I brought the wine we’d made to class for the fermentation class, and we then distilled it at the back of the room for the class on distillation. Both the wine & the distillate tasted terrible!
When I was a teenager, my father (who came from a very modest background) wanted his children to learn to appreciate great food & wine. His idea of a vacation was to take his wife and all 5 of his kids several times a year to a big city, usually in the US, stay at a good hotel downtown and eat every night in the best restaurants. These cities included New York, Boston, Washington, Chicago, & San Francisco, but also Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver. At the time, those restaurants were full of adult couples and business people, so we were always the only kids there. My father would always ask for wine glasses for all of us (this started when we ranged from 11 to 19 years old) and about half the time we all got them (it helped that we knew how to dress and behave in a fine restaurant). When we didn’t get our own glasses, he and my mother would pass around theirs, so that we could all taste their wine. This went on for years.
In the 80’s, for family dinners like at Easter, Thanksgiving, & Christmas, my father would make daiquiris or margaritas for us all, always using fresh-squeezed lime juice (he was definitely ahead of the curve).
During medical school, I did a 2-month elective in Glasgow and experienced great malt whiskeys for the first time. I returned to Ontario, where we depressingly had only Glenfiddich and Glenlivet at the time. I watched over the next few years as the number and quality of Scottish malts exploded. So in the 90’s, when I encountered bars in the US & Mexico where one could sip wonderful 100% agave tequilas by the glass, I knew they would be coming to Ontario and I decided I wanted to be part of that movement.
In 1998, I twice went down to Jalisco, Mexico to meet with tequila producers to discuss importing their products into Canada. After the second trip, I’d signed up 3 tequila producers and started working with them. While I was in Mexico on one of the trips, one of Toronto’s great chefs, Chris McDonald, told Ron Cooper of Del Maguey that there was this guy in Toronto (me) who might be interested in importing his mezcal. So I returned to a phone message from Ron, which resulted in me being the first person to import Del Maguey into Canada. Needless to say, Ron hasn’t had to call anyone to import his mezcal for quite a number of years.
In the late 90’s, the vast majority of Ontarians knew nothing about fine tequila and mezcal. Pretty much all we had were mixtos from Sauza and Cuervo. So, as really good 100% agave products started to appear, a lot of education was necessary to create a market that didn’t really exist at the time.
I imported the products via private orders and sold them mostly to bars & restaurants, but spent a lot of my time leading tastings and educating customers, LCBO product consultants, and sommeliers-in-training. I did get Del Maguey Chichicapa and Minero into the Classics Catalogue (at $130 a bottle), which actually was a physical catalogue at the time. But it was too early, the market was slow to build, the cost of tequila soared due to one of the cyclical agave shortages, and I was a less-than-excellent businessman. So, after 3 or 4 years, I shut it down.
While importing the tequila, I really had to learn how to make a great margarita. And, during a visit to Cuba, I learned how to make a great mojito.
In 2003, I bought a timeshare in New Orleans from a friend for a ridiculously low price and started my yearly trips to that wonderful city. For the first 3 years, pre-Katrina, my total bar experience there consisted of going to the bar of the Rib Room at the Omni Hotel, where the legendary Martin Sawyer made his fabulous Ming Juleps. That’s how I learned to make a great Mint Julep.
When I was in New Orleans in May of 2008, I noticed a poster for Tales of the Cocktail and decided to return for it in July. At that time, there was a very small number of people from Toronto who went, so I essentially knew no one. From the very first, I was struck by the warm reception I received as a cocktail enthusiast, not a member of the “club”. Meeting & talking with so many of the top bartenders in the world blew me away. In any other industry, a person like myself would never get near those people. And the generosity of information shared in the seminars was overwhelming. With all of the cocktail conventions that have sprung up in the intervening years, it’s hard to realize how incredibly unique that was at the time. I was hooked and have returned every year since. A couple years ago, I got to give a seminar as part of a team that was led by Nick Kennedy and included Gary Regan!
On returning from Tales in those first years, of course I looked for bars here in Toronto that featured great cocktails and bartenders. There weren’t a lot of them at the time, but they were there. The Kindling put on periodically by Sandy De Almeida and Mike Webster played a big role for me then. And, of course, things have grown dramatically to the really enjoyable place we are today.
In 2013, a conversation with Jonathan Humphrey led to my doing a guest bartending gig in the Drake Lounge that went very well (as you can imagine, I put a lot of work into making sure it would). I was slammed for about 2 hours and got a lot of praise for how I did. That got me thinking about how bartenders do that for many hours every night without getting accolades; it’s just expected of them. Conversations with Jonathan about that led to the first of several "Bartender Appreciation Nights", where cocktail enthusiasts make cocktails for bartenders as a way of saying “Thank you for all the pleasure you’ve given us”. The money we raised went into another initiative, the "Bartenders Benevolent Fund", which was inspired by a comment Dushan Zaric made during the first “How To Open A Bar And Not Screw Up” seminar at Tales.
The Toplack Sessions are a clear example of your passion for spirits and the bar industry. They seem to be growing in popularity a lot. How did you come up with this idea and what’s the goal of the sessions?
The idea for The Toplack Sessions started with a conversation I had with Jonathan Humphrey & Gord Hannah in which I told them that I needed some practice making cocktails (I’d taken a bartending course and had passed the written but failed the practical). We thought of combining the cocktails I’d be making with a short talk by a bartender on a subject of interest to the bartending community. What is truly wonderful is that, in a very short time, the seminar became by far the main focus.
The generosity of the bartenders with their time, knowledge & experience, has been inspiring, and the quality of the presentations started off excellent and keeps going up. Over time, we’ve expanded the subject matter to include other aspects of life for the bar & hospitality industry and we want to keep doing that. Last May, Donnie Wheeler live-streamed a seminar by H and since then we’ve live-streamed most of them. We now have our own YouTube channel, thanks to Bev Wooding, which will make the seminars more widely-available.
You’ve been a spirits importer for a very long time. One of the products you import is Hamilton Rum from the US. Which ones do you import and can you describe how this came about?
I’m very proud to be bringing Hamilton rums into Ontario. Over a few years, I’d been picking up a bottle or 2 in New Orleans whenever I was down there at my favourite New Orleans wine & spirit store, Keife & Co. I started with the Jamaica Pot Still Gold and then a bottle of the St Lucia Hamilton rum. Then, a couple years ago, John Keife introduced me to the Hamilton Pimento Dram. My response was, “Holy Shit!”, or something like that. I immediately asked Chris McMillian for Ed Hamilton’s email and started corresponding with him. That led to a great telephone conversation and the rest is history. I’m bringing in the full range of Hamilton rums.
What do you think of the current rum scene in Toronto and what is needed to improve the perception of rum?
The rum scene in Toronto is really starting to take off. The rum knowledge & excitement is growing exponentially, largely through the tireless efforts of people like Robin Wynne, Alana Nogueda, Hamish Grant, and yourself Ivar. And we’ve had some exciting visits from top rum people: Richard and Gayle Seale, Kate Perry, Zan Kong, Ben Jones, and Jeff “Beachbum” Berry. We’re now able to get some wonderful Foursquare and Hamilton rums, mostly through private order. And hopefully more will be on the way.
That’s the one thing that’s holding us back right now: the limited variety of top products. We need Hamilton; we need Foursquare; we need Worthy Park; we need Clairin; we need Velier; and we desperately need Martinique rums! As we start to see those here on back bars and in people’s homes, and as we taste them more and more, the knowledge and excitement about how wonderful and varied rum can be will explode.