We often hear the same names of local hospitality titans in the media. For years we’ve worked up thirsts and appetites following their exploits but we seldom consider the individuals who toil in relative anonymity alongside them, and we’re often late in introducing those destined to join them in their starry pantheon. This series of short interviews looks to introduce our readers to this new breed, one blossoming talent at a time.
There’s no other way to put it but this: Sean McGuigan loves to tend bar. I’ve come to know him rather well this past year and his passion is endless for everything three feet of wood. It’s been a treat to watch someone this spirited about hospitality close up. His career began a few years back as a server at a (gulp!)…Kelsey’s. He’s since gone on to work under some talented mentors, most notably Vancouver legends Jay Jones and Josh Pape as well as his current boss, Grant Sceney. In that time he’s also won himself a few competition and developed an unabashed fetish for Rum and Amaro (his current count of both is now well over the 100+ bottle mark). Given his new role as Head Bartender at The Lobby Lounge, one gets the sense that his path to greatness has only just begun. Say hello to Sean…
Where are you from? North Vancouver.
Why did you become a Bartender? Originally, because it seemed like a cool job and a good way to make money while going to school. It’s been several years since I finished my degree and I can’t imagine not bartending. What keeps me going is a love for spirits, cocktails, and hospitality. I can’t think of another career that affords the opportunity to be as creative, travel as often, and engage with people on a such a personal level as bartending.
Did you ever have ambitions to do anything else? Advertising Creative, Graphic and Web Designer, Photographer, Filmmaker.
Where did you learn? Do you have any formal training? For the most part, I learned on the job, with the guidance of peers and mentors. I also learned a great deal from reading cocktail books and blogs, going to tastings, and certainly from travelling to cocktail competitions and interacting with people from around the world who share my passion for spirits and cocktails. But mainly, bartending is something you have to learn by doing.
What was your first restaurant/bar job and how long did it last? I worked as a server for one month at a Kelsey’s in North Vancouver before the restaurant went under. No small wonder; it was like a real-life version of ‘Shenanigans’ from the movie Waiting.
Ok, now name every restaurant/bar you’ve ever worked in. Kelsey’s, Steamworks, Clough Club, UVA, Pourhouse, Supermarine, Grapes and Soda, The Lobby Lounge at The Fairmont Pacific Rim.
“My first love was bourbon, which led me to a love for cocktails, which led me to my current career. Thank God for bourbon.”
Have you competed in any cocktail competitions? Many. My first competition was the Cocktail Jockey at the Deighton Cup in 2013. Jay Jones asked me to enter the night before the competition, and much to my surprise, I won. A major highlight for me was the Havana Club International Cocktail Grand Prix in 2014, which really opened my eyes to the international bartending community. This year has been particularly good to me with respect to cocktail competitions. I was fortunate to travel to Puerto Rico and Miami for the Bacardi Legacy Canadian National Finals, and to Aruba for the Diplomatico World Tournament North American Finals.
If you could be a Bartender for a week in one Vancouver restaurant/bar, which one would it be? The Keefer Bar. Since the beginning of my career, I have always looked up to those guys (Dani, Gez, Navin, Keenan). They have always made fascinating, delicious drinks, very quickly and with a great deal of style. There is an air of mystery to that place, even now after I have something of an idea of what’s in all those bottles. The chance to work alongside Amber Bruce would also be a treat.
If you could be a Bartender for a week in any restaurant/bar outside Vancouver, which one would it be? Tough question. There are so many amazing bars around the world that I would love to experience from the inside. For me, it boils down to the people I’d get to learn from and the products I’d get to play with. For the people, I’d like to work with Pam Wiznitzer at Seamstress in New York, Erik Lorincz at the American Bar at the Savoy in London, and Kevin Beary at Three Dots and a Dash in Chicago. For a wealth of obscure and amazing products, Canon and Rumba in Seattle, and Amor y Amargo in New York.
What is the single most important lesson you have learned from your current boss? How to work with an Australian.
Who have been some of your most impactful mentors? Jay Jones at Clough Club, who fostered my creativity and passion for cocktails; Christopher Flett at Pourhouse, who taught me how to truly balance a drink; Josh Pape at Supermarine, who introduced me to true hospitality; Grant Sceney and the entire bar team of the Lobby Lounge, for I have never worked alongside such a depth of talent and wisdom.
Describe a spirit that you’re most sentimental about. Where did you get it? What’s the story? At the Havana Club Grand Prix in Cuba, a bottle of rum was left in the hotel room of each competitor, as a gift. Like an idiot, I cracked into it on the first night. The moment it crossed my palate I knew I’d made a mistake. It was breathtaking; the product of the only collaboration between all six of the Havana Club Maestros Roneros, their favourite rums blended into a single bottle, never to be sold, only to be gifted. I have spent the intervening years enjoying it one teaspoon at a time until it was sadly depleted a few months ago.
Let’s say you had an unlimited budget to open the bar of your dreams. Really, the sky’s the limit. What would the concept be? Hire me as a consultant and we can talk about it.
With the launch of the new restaurant Botanist just up the stairs from you, will the Lobby Lounge cocktail list compliment or look to be different from what Botanist is doing? Botanist has such as distinct identity. It’s hyper-local Pacific Northwest, taking inspiration and ingredients from the mountains, forests and sea. We in the Lobby Lounge will, of course, look to be different. The focus of our program is more global and somewhat more approachable, but with the same underlying level of craft and attention to detail. We are fortunate to have one of the city’s best sushi bars nestled within our lounge. We draw a great deal of inspiration from our chefs, so our cocktail program is certainly influenced by Japanese food and culture.
Do you have a method in creating a cocktail? If so, what do you do? Generally, I start with a spirit, profile, or classic cocktail and look for connections to interesting stories or flavours, and work at creating a compelling and internally consistent concept. Other times I’ll begin with a really great name or story and attempt to work that into liquid form using whatever spirits and ingredients work best. The Lobby Lounge cocktail program is the first I’ve been able to really get my hands into. It’s an exciting prospect and I expect my process will change and improve as I learn and grow into this new role.
Ok, now name the weirdest ingredient you’ve used in a cocktail. What’s the story? Probably wasabi, currently featured on the Lobby Lounge cocktail menu in the deliciously refreshing “Kaiju” — a mash-up between a Daiquiri and a Green Beast Punch using Cuban rum, lime, wasabi syrup, cucumber and absinthe.
What current cocktail trend are you already sick of? I’m not really opposed to cocktail trends. If something is novel and it gets more people excited about drinking interesting cocktails made with quality ingredients, that’s fine by me. I’m sick of people addressing their bartender as “boss”.
“I’m in the wonderful position of stepping up to the helm of a well-oiled machine, with the support of an extraordinarily talented group of bartenders.”
Do you have any ambition to open a bar of your own one day? Perhaps, although it is a daunting prospect. Ask me again in 5 years.
Two guests have just sat down at your bar, what’s your process? After the all-important hospitality boxes are checked – welcome, waters, menus, bar snack, a bit of friendly chat – and it’s been established that my guests are in the mood for cocktails, I will ask a few questions to get a sense of where they want to go with their drinks. Choosing one cocktail from dozens or hundreds of options can be intimidating, so unpacking their options is a good place to start. Are they looking for something light and refreshing or spirit-forward and intense? Are they craving any particular spirits or are there some they would like to avoid? From here I may decide to recommend a cocktail from the menu, but if time allows, I like to start with a classic, preferably one the guest has not tried or one that they may have previously overlooked. Helping a guest to discover a new favourite classic cocktail that can be ordered at any decent bar around the world is a wonderful gift indeed.
Have you always loved cocktails or was there a drink specifically that sold you? My first love was bourbon, which led me to a love for cocktails, which led me to my current career. Thank God for bourbon.
What is your favourite type of wine, beer and spirit to drink? Lately, I’ve been drinking a lot of dry rosé and big, old world reds. My go-to beer (beyond the occasional Guinness) is Talisman Pale Ale from Strange Fellows. As for spirits, that’s an expansive question that I could spend all day on. From my liquor cabinet, my current favourites are Diplomatico Ambassador Rum and Nikka Coffey Malt Whisky.
What are your thoughts on the BC bar industry? Unfortunately, BC government policy severely limits the variety of products we can offer in our bars; we have access to a tiny fraction of what’s available south of the border in terms of Tequila, Rum, Amaro, Mezcal – you name it. But if this is a hand tied behind our back, I think we are doing very well in spite of it. Vancouver has been leading the way on the Canadian cocktail scene for a long time. There are some world-class bartending talents in this city, doing amazing things locally and on the world stage. That said, Toronto is catching up. They are a bigger city with more people drinking cocktails. We’ll have to work extra hard if we want to stay ahead. I’m excited to do my part.
Any favourite BC spirit producers? Spirit production is relatively new to BC, so there is still a lot of room for growth. Having said that, The Woods Spirit Company out of North Vancouver makes an interesting amaro that I have enjoyed experimenting with. I am also a big fan of Sheringham and Long Table gins.
Have you visited many distilleries, wineries or breweries and if so, what’s been your favourite? I had the opportunity to visit the Bacardi distillery in Puerto Rico this February as part of the Bacardi Legacy competition. The highlight was hanging out with the master blender for a few minutes in one of their enormous ageing warehouses, amongst literally tens of thousands of rum barrels. The air was so thick with evaporated rum that they wouldn’t even let us bring our cell phones inside for fear some tiny spark would set the place alight. The smell was heavenly. The maestro was this tiny old man with bottle cap glasses, an exuberant, captivating personality and a limitless passion for rum. It was certainly a career highlight.
Where do you see yourself – career-wise – in five years? I would like to find a creative role within the drinks industry, potentially as a consultant that would allow me to work with different brands, people, and ideas – and still get behind the stick every now and again.
As the new Head Bartender of the Lobby Lounge, how will you look to lead and improve your team moving forward? I’m in the wonderful position of stepping up to the helm of a well-oiled machine, with the support of an extraordinarily talented group of bartenders. I think the challenge will be to push for better and better, in terms of our service, hospitality, systems, and of course, our cocktails.
Name your all-time favourite three spirits. George T. Stagg Bourbon, Nardini Amaro, Diplomatico Ambassador Rum.
If you could recommend just one cocktail book for any aspiring Bartender, what would it be? The Bar Book by Jeffrey Morgenthaler is a great place to start for the foundations of cocktail technique. If history is your thing, definitely pick up a copy of Imbibe by David Wondrich. Once you’ve picked up the basics, Liquid Intelligence by Dave Arnold is an excellent resource for advanced theory on everything from shaking ice to instructions for using a rotary evaporator.
What’s the most rewarding thing about being a Bartender these days? Creating a cocktail you are proud to share, and watching as it makes people happy.
You’ve just clocked out and you’re thirsty. Where are you going and what are you drinking? After a night shift, most likely the Butcher and Bullock for two pints of Guinness at last call. Every now and again, I’ll take the team back to my place to crack into my growing collection of rum.
Outside of Bartending, what are some of your other passions? Travel and food. When I travel it’s mostly about the food. I’m also a big fan of Formula One racing.
What’s the most enjoyable part of your job? Getting to work with a talented and supportive team, and having the opportunity to interact with guests from all over the world.