THE LAST TIME I SAT ACROSS THE BAR FROM JEFF SAVAGE at Vancouver’s Botanist, he served me a Scotch fizz called World’s End and we chatted about existential dread. This was mid-February, and the mood was actually quite celebratory.
The cocktail—a nod to the West Coast, not the pending Coronapocalypse— contained several delightful ingredients harvested from local shores and forests: oak moss, fino sherry infused with candy cap mushrooms; reindeer lichen candied for garnish; and Vancouver Island smoked sea salt spiking the maple syrup.
World’s End was one of two cocktails that earned him second place in the Johnnie Walker challenge at the World Class Bartender of the Year finals in Scotland. Overall, he placed second.
The other was a canned Scotch and soda with cedar cordial called Breath of Trees. “My grandfather was a camp scout leader. Whenever I’d hear the trees rustling, he’d always say it’s just the trees breathing.”
When presenting that drink to the judges, he trotted them outside into the cold Glasgow night and sat them down on logs to talk about man’s futile attempts to tame nature. (And with a surname like Savage, can you blame the guy for stirring the primal side of the human psyche to his competitive advantage?)
It’s been a wild year for Savage, who was also voted Canada’s Bartender of the Year by our judges. Last summer, he and his Botanist colleagues, Grant Sceney and Max Curzon-Price, were crowned bar team of the year at Bols Around the World in Amsterdam. And he spent nearly half of the first six weeks of 2020 on the road.
Savage hasn’t really stopped moving since he left his hometown of Calgary at 19 and got his first bar job at a hostel in Thailand. After attending university in Edmonton, he worked under the table in New York, finished his degree in Turkey, went back to Edmonton, opened Proof in Calgary and was recruited to Botanist two years ago.
By mid-February, he was happy to hang up his competition hat. “I feel like I’ve accomplished what I needed to do.” He was jazzed about getting out on the water in his new sailboat, spending some quality time with his partner and their new rescue dog from Mexico, and staying put for a while.
Be careful what you wish for.
“So true, and unfortunately so apt,” he said later, by phone—after six weeks of forced isolation.
“I’m not really invested in making cocktails right now,” he told me. Like everyone else, he’d been cooking and caring for loved ones, connecting with friends, reading.
“I keep turning back to Hemingway’s A Clean, Well-Lighted Place. It’s such a beautiful story, a conversation between two waiters late at night.”
Indeed, James Joyce called it one of the best short stories ever written. Though most people interpret the well-lighted café as a fairly bleak symbol of man’s attempt to hold darkness at bay, Savage sees its bright side. “
As bartenders, our main job has never been to create menus or build unique cocktails or nerd out about spirits. It has always been, first and foremost, about hospitality. We’re in the people business. The most rewarding part about my job is the human connection, the engagement, the value of providing a clean, well-lighted place.”
And there’s probably a winning cocktail in that sentiment just waiting to be mixed when the lights come back on.