The Award-Winning Vancouver Bartender Who Once Dreamed of Being an Astronaut

We often hear the same names of Vancouver hospitality titans in local media. They do very well to represent and have done so for years. We work up thirsts and appetites following their exploits and look forward to trying whatever it is they come up with next, 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.

For this edition of The New Breed, we are grateful to award-winning Botanist bar manager Jeff Savage who was able to find some time between victories to answer all our questions about his tastes, his career trajectory and his recent title win as the Diageo World Class Canadian Champion

So where are you from?

I was born in Calgary, Alberta

Why did you become a Bartender?

I was working in academia for the few years leading up to my entry into the Hospitality world, and quite frankly, I got so fatigued with the long hours working at a desk with minimal pay. I’m very proud of the work I did, but at the end of the day, I know my quality of life wouldn’t be at the level I’d want it to be if I stayed in that field. At that time there was a place that I saw on my walk to work every day, that was slowly being built. I watched, week after week as these three guys shaped this small little pizza joint into a modern cocktail bar and kitchen. One day I walked in and asked for a job, and after talking about motorcycles, the GM hired me onto their opening team. That place became Three Boars, and I worked there for three formative years.

Bartending is composed of a really unique combination of things – being a bartender means knowing stories and facts about everything you serve. It means opening your heart to the people that sit at your bar. It gives you a unique opportunity to be creative every couple of minutes throughout your day. It’s also the only job I can really think of that combines the ability to work with your hands and create, while at the same time being able to converse and engage with people around you. More than anything else, I think that combination is what drew me in, and what keeps me here.

Did you ever have ambitions to do anything else?

Aside from the aforementioned academic career, when I was a kid I was obsessed with the idea of one day becoming an astronaut. Then I read about black holes at a really young age, and immediately decided that I’d no longer be pursuing a space career.

Where did you learn? Do you have any formal training?

A few different cities and bars, mostly behind the pine. I’ve always spent a lot of time at home reading and researching – when I started in the industry I set aside one hour a day to learn something new about the hospitality industry. I do have my CSS, my Barsmarts, and have had the pleasure of attending Tales of the Cocktail four times and learning from some of our industry’s giants, but nothing can beat the education you receive when the chit printer is spewing out orders and you’ve got to get it done.

What was your first restaurant/bar job and how long did it last?

I worked a Stampede at Ranchman’s when I was 18 as a porter/barback.

Ok, now name every restaurant/bar you’ve ever worked in.

Ranchman’s, The Armchair, Wok Box, Doan’s, Wunderbar, Three Boars Eatery, Table, Tavern 1903, Woodwork, Proof, Deane House, and Botanist.

If you could work for a week in one Vancouver restaurant/bar, which one would it be?

Honestly, more than anything I’d like to work for a week in that Chevron gas station on the water in coal harbour. I just want to know all of its secrets. Do people stop there for munchies? Is there a bathroom? Do people hang out there? What’s their gum selection like? One week is all I need.

If you could work for a week in any restaurant/bar outside Vancouver, which one would it be?

I’ve always taken so much inspiration from the kitchen team anywhere I’ve worked. I’d love to take a week at Faviken before they close their doors for good.

What is the single most important lesson you have learned from your current boss, (Fairmont Pacific Rim Creative Beverage Director and 2014 Diageo World Class Canada Winner) Grant Sceney?

My job at the Pac Rim is the first job I’ve taken in a company so large and with such a comprehensive corporate structure. I cannot emphasize enough how different things look in a corporate environment when you are used to small businesses and independent spaces. Grant was the person who was there to really soften my landing in Vancouver and to show me the inner workings of our hotel, and to ensure that I was there to thrive in my position. I’m blessed that Grant and I see eye to eye on almost everything that we are faced with at Botanist. Through his time there, Grant has of course seen massive success and has positioned himself as one of the most successful bartenders in our country, and through it all, he has remained humble, honest, true to himself, and perpetually hospitable. Of all the things I have learned in our time together, I think this is the most important: no matter who you are, where you work, what successes or challenges you face, or what working culture you’re existing in, stay true to yourself, be humble and always strive to improve.

Who have been some of your most impactful mentors?

Gosh, so many. Of course my parents and my older brother will always be my most impactful mentors. My father was a mechanic and a small business owner, who put his life into making a comfortable home for us – often being at work for 13-14 hours a day. Something you don’t think about when your dad comes home at 7 or 8 at night is just how much of his love for you he puts into the hustle. My mother has a warmth and softness about her that makes her one of the most hospitable-minded people I know – I’ll always pale in comparison to her in that regard. My brother raised a child on his own in his early 20’s, and I can never show him how much I respect his devotion and commitment. Family is so important to us. You’re only as strong as the base that you’re building on.

In our industry there is no shortage of people to look to for inspiration and mentorship – both behind the bar and in the kitchen. I’ve taken massive steps in my career thanks to people such as Lauren Mote, Chuck Elves, Shawn Soole, James Grant, Brayden Kozak, Shaun Hicks, Chad Rivard and our very own Grant Sceney. Of course our team at Botanist and the Pac Rim teach me something every day, I’m forever humbled to work with what we can now describe as the “World’s Best Bar Team.”

Let’s say you had an unlimited budget to open the restaurant/bar of your dreams. Really, the sky’s the limit. What would the concept be?

Hear me out – a Zeppelin. Literally a flying bar, with a series of different spaces to enjoy a cocktail in. Imagine boarding a Zeppelin in Vancouver and flying down the coast to San Francisco, all while having drinks through the journey that mimic the world you’re flying over. Crossing open water? You probably need a wet martini. Headed into Seattle for the night? Have a Murray Stenson style Last Word. Flying over the mountains probably calls for a bracing Scotch cocktail. Our kitchen would be decked out to host different restaurants from all over the world for each voyage, and our house band would be The Roots with occasional drop ins by Anderson Paak. I’m thinking we’d work with distilleries to see how barrel aging would work 5000 M up. Oh, and we’d have the best selection of Port Ellen in the world. Hey, you literally said sky’s the limit…

What current restaurant/bar trend are you already sick of?

The Speakeasy. Literally they should only exist in places that actually operated as a speakeasy – that’s different. That’s a piece of history, and is super fun to be able to visit. The modern bar that’s in an odd sub-basement that doesn’t really work as a bar, and wants to create an air of exclusivity? That’s not a speakeasy, that’s just uninspired.

Do you have any ambition to open a restaurant/bar of your own one day?

I go back and forth on this regularly. I really like the opportunities and the capacity that operating in a hotel environment gives us. To be able to have a centrifuge, a rotary evaporator, a clear ice program, and to have bottles on the backbar worth thousands – it’s something that I’ve really come to love and appreciate about working in a place that is not my own. It has definitely grown my practice as a bartender.

That being said, I’m always open to entertaining investment offers for my Zeppelin cocktail bar…

You were just crowned the Diageo World Class Canadian Champion for 2019. What was that experience like?

Literally breathtaking. This year’s National Finals were such a special thing. As someone living in Vancouver, I’ve spent time in Whistler, but it’s never been anything like that. To be there with 9 other amazing bartenders and compete on the literal top of the world is something that I will never forget. Watching my fellow competitors pour everything they have into the challenges and to see the camaraderie between everyone was very humbling. In my eyes it could have just as easily gone to 9 other people. Being the one who came out on top is a really massive honour, and being able to become a member of the World Class Canada family is something that’s truly special.

This was my third time participating in World Class, and it’s such a challenging and all-consuming thing. It’s taught me the merits of perseverance, professionalism, humility, earnestness, and determination. I’d like to say that I’ve gotten over the feeling of elation that I felt when Chris announced my name, but I’m not even close. My partner Nateish finds a way to bring it up every so often out of the blue, and I have to say, I’m still smiling.

When and where is the Diageo World Class Global Final?

This year it’s from the 24th -26th of September, and starts in Schiedam at the Ketel One Distillery, then moves on to the Isle of Skye and finishes up in Glasgow.

How are you feeling with regards to this event, how will you prepare?

I’m equal parts excited and anxious. We got the package a couple of days ago, and I’ve been sitting with it and digesting. I’m writing this as I prepare for a week long trip into the BC wilderness. I’m bringing a copy of the challenge package to fully go through and think about while beside a fire and taking in some inspiration. When I get back, I’m going to go through it with the WC Canada team and others, and get a really strong idea of what I’m going to do. At the end of the day all I want to do is make Canada proud. We are a family of cold hands and warm hearts, people who are good at what we do but humble enough not to ever admit it – I just hope I can do you all proud.

What is your favourite type of wine, beer and spirit to drink?

Wine is a Chablis, Riesling, or Nebbiolo, Beer is a Saison, and Spirit is Peated Whisky or Blanco Tequila

What are your thoughts on the current state of BC’s restaurant/bar industry?

When it comes to the talent here – I’m constantly impressed. Bar, wine and food minds are a really special commodity that, for one reason or another, Vancouver has managed to cultivate and import at an impressive rate. It’s no surprise to me that we’ve seen a lot of success in the last few years on global competition stages. I think we are also very blessed with the demographic makeup of our city. One way that cultures start to build bridges and connect to each other is through food, and I think that Vancouver is a prime example of different ethnic groups making a strong and important impact on the city’s culinary and cultural fabric. Additionally, having this crazy natural bounty around us is so special. The availability of ingredients like Spot Prawn, Uni, fresh stone fruit, Salmon, and the wild herbs around us makes my mind whirl.

However, the price, availability, and government control of spirits and wine can be a challenge. For a city that is growing its name on the world stage, I still find it hard to get access to things like Yellow Chartreuse and Fino Sherry on the regular, not to mention the fact that there is zero rhum agricole in our market.

Name some of your favourite Vancouver restaurants?

Original Guu on Thurlow (our first Vancouver date spot), Danbo, Di Beppe, Tojo’s, Ask For Luigi, Lobby Lounge Raw Bar (Taka is a G), Peppino’s, Dinesty AND Dynasty. Also, I don’t know if it counts, but our diet has a heavy dose of Oyama in it too

Where do you see yourself, career-wise, in five years?

I always have such a hard time answering these questions. Does “no clue” suffice? If I was told that 5 years ago I’d be in the position I’m in now, I certainly wouldn’t have believed it. My goal is to work hard and strive to do better for myself, my team, and the people around me. That mantra has worked well for me so far – I intend to continue doing exactly that.

Now, again that being said, maybe I’ll be running that Zeppelin cocktail bar… so, somewhere above the High Sierras?

What are your three all-time favourite spirits?

Scotch Whisky, Agave Spirits, Rum Agricole

Describe the different challenges you sometimes face in running the Botanist Bar program?

Botanist Bar is open from 9 am to last call, which depending on the day can go as late as 1am. Of course, we are also the team that executes cocktail service for our lovely restaurant that serves breakfast, lunch, dinner, and brunch on the weekend, and Botanist Bar is also open 365 days a year. The bar is constantly busy, and cocktail service in the restaurant is increasing rapidly. On our busiest times, we will have 5 or 6 bartenders on to execute the vision. I mention this purely to show what a beast our program truly is. I rely on my team to execute all of these different points of service at a very high level. Volumes and the length of time we are open is certainly a challenge, as so much of our program relies on bespoke and often quite technical ingredients. It’s a good challenge to be able to confront, don’t get me wrong – we are certainly happy about it.

My bartenders are very talented and proficient at their jobs – I cannot reiterate enough that they are never a challenge, but rather the muscle, bone and sinew that keeps Botanist together. It is my goal to be able to give back to them as much as I have the opportunity to: be that training, time away, a meaningful work/life balance, or direction and input into where we are going and how we are growing. The challenge now is to make the time and space to grow, to see where we can go from here and to take time to reflect on how to get there.

If you could recommend just one bar book for any aspiring bartender, what would it be?

If you’re an aspiring bartender, I am sure you’ve already got an extensive list of books to read. Instead, might I suggest reading Ernest Hemingway’s short story, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.” At the end of the day, as important as a cocktail is, it is substantially more important to create a space filled with warmth and hospitality. This story will give you a good opportunity to reflect on that.

What’s the most rewarding thing about being a Manager these days?

As a manager your strive to create a team that can not only execute your vision, but can complement and add to it while building a space for each other to thrive. I can say that we’ve got a team that complements each other very well. There’s a lot of love there. I think that one of the most rewarding things is when your team mates cheer on each other, yearn for each other’s success, and teach each other specific techniques or facts about cocktails and spirits. Creating an environment for your team to flourish, to love one another, and to push one another, thats the task we as managers are given, and it’s certainly rewarding when that comes to fruition.

You’ve just clocked out and you’re thirsty. Where are you going and what are you drinking?

It’s either home to have a glass of wine on the patio with my love, or its to Butcher and Bullock to have a Negroni and a Beer, Very Cool Very Chill on the side with a game of shuffleboard – seriously, come at me with your shuffleboard game.

Outside of running the bar at Botanist, what are some of your other passions?

I own a heavily modified 1978 Honda GL 1000 named Littlewing that has been a major part of my life for several years now. We’ve been a ton of different places together, and we’ve seen each other through a lot of tough times. Is it cliche to say that travel is a passion of mine? Probably, but it really is. One of the things I love about this job is that I am able to travel and see so much of the world with it. I left home and travelled Asia when I was 19, and it’s definitely been an important part of my life ever since. My aim is to visit at least 3 places I’ve never been each year, and I’ve been able to do that the last several years. As with everyone who lives in Vancouver, I love nature, hiking, climbing, camping, etc., and I absolutely love going to the art galleries of the world.

What’s the most enjoyable part of your job?

It’s always that look of surprise and excitement when someone tastes a really great drink you’ve made for them. Everyone has their own way of showing it, even if they don’t want to. That eyebrow raise, the chat to their friend about how good a drink is – its usually something small. That’s the best part. That’s how I know I’ve done my job well.


There are 2 comments

The GM of Pepino’s Spaghetti House Dishes on Hospitality, Broken Bones and More

Scout recently met with the industry veteran to pick his brain about his life in restaurants and how he got to where he is now.

The GM at One of Canada’s Best Restaurants Dishes on Ambition, Mentors and More

Scout recently met with the dancer at heart to pick her brain on the trajectory of her career and all things hospitality.

The Making of an Indispensable GM, From Aussie Rules to Running Vancouver’s Top Restaurants

In this edition of The New Breed, we chat with the busy GM of Bao Bei and Kissa Tanto about how he came to live among us.

Talking Dreams, Lessons and Weird Ingredients With Botanist Barman Max Curzon-Price

Our 'New Breed' hospitality interview series continues with a young and dedicated bartender imported from the United Kingdom.