The cocktail scene in Calgary is growing, and with it so is the pool of talent behind the wood in our city’s top cocktail bars. But who are they and how did they get there?
In our first post in this series, we sat down with Mac Ouellette from the newly-opened NUPO in Calgary’s trendy East Village to learn about her foray into the world of cocktails and bartending. She was seconded into it by local vintners, stayed for the friends and healthy competition, and has been mentored by a community stretching from Vancouver to Calgary. This hard-working and blazingly creative cocktail connoisseur slings bevies in her busy bartender role. Still, she enthusiastically finds the time to test flavours in her mad lab at home and live life. In amidst the laughs over our Q & A session, she spilled more than a few memorable moments!
How did you get into hospitality and bartending?
I got into it when I was 18, basically to put myself through school. I needed an internship and got started with Vin Group. I had a couple of vintners that were like, “Nope! We’re going to make you do all of these things!” I ended up being like “Oh my god, I won! I like this entire industry.” And then, I switched programs and decided to go to SAIT for Hospitality Management. Basically, I just went from there. Normally, you go server then bartender. But they threw me in at the bar first, so it’s weird that I had to learn how to do both at the same time.
After I left Vin, I went to Charcut and that’s where I fell in love with cocktails. I was there for 3 years. Won a couple of awards and did Science of the Cocktails where that entire passion was like, “Oh my god!”
Tell me about the first cocktail you ever made.
A really shitty old fashioned! I had a guy in the restaurant, his old fashioneds were you, took an orange, threw it in a glass with bitters and muddled it with soda water. So that was what I thought an old fashioned was for a year and a half. And then I went to New York, and I was like, “What have I been doing?? I’ve been muddling oranges!”
After that was trial and error for the first year, some of the cocktails I made were so bad! There was like a thousand ingredients in this one cocktail.
What’s the weirdest ingredient you’ve ever used in a cocktail?
There have been a few. I think the weirdest was dehydrated egg yolks. I was in the Carribean and my aunt and uncle were hosting a dinner. You know how they have the weird island things, like between chicken feet and everything. This one guy showed up and he’s like “I have these, what can you do with it?” I ended up making it into a powder to put on top of a daiquiri and played with it so it had a really sweet finish.
What are some of your favourite things about Calgary’s cocktail scene?
That there’s a mentorship program. It’s like an unspoken truth. Having Nathan Head and Christina Mah and Franz Swinton, basically, mentor us. And there’s all this energy. People are coming from Saskatoon and Edmonton to see what we’re doing. And now we’re having new kids come in and dine and go up to the Savoy in London. It’s progress.
What do you wish there was more of here?
More of everything. I want it to be more like Vancouver or San Francisco or New York. We’re a decade behind everyone right now.
What is one of your favourite trends in cocktails in Calgary right now?
Sustainability. It’s cool to be able to research different parts of like a lime and figure out how to use every single part of it. It had been such a chef trend to use everything. When you’re serving brunch and you’re having egg whites, you save the yolks to make your carbonara. That trend is coming into the bartender world.
I have a funny story on rhubarb. I almost killed my entire bar team [when I worked with the King Eddy]. So, I didn’t know that the leaves of rhubarb are poisonous and I fermented them all together…you know, for sustainability. We were basically making the cocktail feature and my chef just happened to be behind me as I’m explaining it and I’m shaking the cocktail.
He stops me and asks, “Mac, what part of the rhubarb did you use?”
and I’m like “I used everything…”
“You can’t drink that, you will kill everyone here.” [laughter]
How much do you see other bars in the city catching on to the sustainability trend?
Who are some of your industry idols?
I’ve learned a lot working with Jeff Savage and Trevor Kallies. They’re just great. They pick your brain. And then Christopher Cho and Chad Coombs from Saskatoon, they’re amazing. They’ve seen me from when I was a little hostess all the way up and they’ve kept tabs on me as well. And Sam Casuga, who used to work at Native Tongues and who’s now at Dead Rabbit in NYC. We both started out at the same time.
What are some tips you would give to a budding home bartender?
There’s a book that I once read that’s called, “The Twelve Bottle Bar”. Basically, having those twelve bottles there you can play around with everything else. So, if you open my fridge there’s simple syrup, lemon syrup, honey syrup, lemon juice, lime juice, all the time. So then, whatever I feel like, I can make, I have all the stuff already.
My tip for experimenting all the time, and trying new stuff out: make sure you have those things nailed down so that you can add in new ingredients. Nail your classics and then build up.
What is one of your favourite spirits?
Tequila. You can smell and taste all of the ingredients. When you get a really good tequila you can drink it like a scotch. When you have a really shitty tequila, you’re like, no, this isn’t tequila. It’s all the fake sugar. They’re not using the right products, they’re just trying to get a crisp border.
What would say is your favourite bar in Calgary?
I go through phases, but Proof, Ten Foot Henry, Native Tongues are all the ones my friends hang out at. I like LuLu a lot. It’s great right now and Milk Tiger is one of my go-to’s if I’m trying to impress anyone.
Where do you see yourself going with bartending?
It’s like a tale of two cities. I love the management side, I love the idea of having my own place in 5 years. But that also means that my entire passion for beer, wine, and cocktails is kinda going head to head right now, being like, “What do I want to do? Do I want to go down Nathan Head’s path and be an amazing bartender forever? Or, do I want the recognition on the next level?” I don’t know yet.
Do you have a signature drink you’d like to share a recipe for?
Yeah, it’s a bit like an Arnold Palmer. First, you steep black tea, then kind of shake simple syrup and lemon juice together in a super tall glass and then you put it with Jamesons, then layer the black tea on top. It’s literally a lemonade that’s pressed in two layers. It’s the best thing ever!
Visit Mac and the team at NUPO in Calgary’s East Village at 631 Confluence Way SE. NUPO is open Sunday-Thursday from 4pm-10pm and Friday-Saturday from 4pm-midnight.