Toronto’s Legend-in-the-making channels her competitive spirit.
Jess Mili hasn’t won every competition she’s entered, but the Toronto mixologist being touted by our judges as Canadian legend-in-the-making remarks that no one seems to remember her losses, only her victories— which include Bols Around the World, Speed Rack Canada and Monkey Shoulder Canada’s Ultimate Bartender Championship.
“I got into competing because I was nervous on stage and I wanted to be a better public speaker,” says Mili. She seems to have succeeded, judging by the con dent demeanour and an easy smile she displays behind the bar at Toronto’s Civil Liberties, where she’s been wowing customers for three years with, in the words of one judge, her “intoxicating energy, first-rate command over favour and dazzling technique.”
Since Civil Liberties doesn’t have a cocktail menu, Mili will read a customer’s cues to come up with a unique concoction, using its vast supply of liquors, syrups, tonics and tinctures. “It’s asking the right questions, but a lot is based on a feeling,” she explains. “If Mili created a “work of art” called Still Life to win Bols Around the World 2017 in Amsterdam, where the judges praised her hospitality as well as her artistry. “In cocktail competitions, you have to charm the judges and really understand the liquids you’re working with. It’s very layered,” she muses over a non-alcoholic Americano. “I prefer speed competitions because they’re objective: you either made the drink well or you didn’t in a certain amount of time.”
Still, she says the best part about winning Speed Rack—an all-female competition that raises funds for breast cancer research—is that she won’t have to do it again. “It’s nerve-wracking,” she says. “You have a minute to set up your bar and then make four cocktails the best and the fastest.”
Mili grew up in Toronto and experienced her eureka moment watching Oliver Stern, later her boss at Bar Begonia, at the Toronto Temperance Society one night. “I’d just started bartending— and by bartending I mean pouring pints and vodka sodas at a strip club by the airport,” she recalls with an eye roll. “I remember being enchanted by the way Oliver moved behind the bar. He was preparing for a competition, and every time he made something he’d give us a taste. I’d never realized you could have such an adventure with flavours in liquid form.”
She began devouring cocktail books and honed her skills at several bars before setting her sights on Civil Liberties. “I went there for a year before I convinced them to give me a job,” she says with a laugh. “I’m so lucky now: I get to meet people and have different conversations every night. And it’s a bartender’s dream to have this kind of creative freedom.”
— MARY DICKIE