Q&A with Shaun Layton of L'Abattoir

cocktail qa

In Vancouver’s tony cocktail scene, Shaun Layton is widely known as one of the city's top cocktail creators. Hailed as a bartending wonderkind by the likes of Vancouver Magazine (which named him Bartender of the Year in 2010), Layton has been mixing it up since his early 20s, when he manned the bar at The Van Keg. Now he’s head barman at Gastown hot spot L’Abattoir, and make no mistake, the guy knows his drinks. Read on for Layton’s favourite cocktail-recipe iPhone app, the drink he’d order and the next big cocktail craze to hit Vancouver.


Q: How did you get started in the bartending biz?

Shaun Layton: My first job was at The Keg when I was in my early 20s. I just really enjoyed the bartending aspect of it, but I really got into spirits when I worked at the Ocean Club. Then I was at George for three years and started doing competitions around Vancouver. I’ve been to Toronto, France and London to compete. I’m actually headed to judge a competition right now.


Q: Do you have a signature drink?

SL: I like to do lot’s of different drinks. But we do have one at L’Abattoir called a Slaughterhouse -- which is what l’abattoir means in French -- with cognac, orange peel, sweet vermouth and Chartreuse. Chartreuse is really fragrant, so we put it in an atomizer and spray the inside of the glass.


Q: What’s the most fun to make?

SL: I like making Old Fashioneds, but they take some time. You have to soak a sugar cube in bitters and stir it until it dilutes. If we’re really busy and someone sitting at the bar orders an Old Fashioned, I always ask if they want a beer while they wait.


Q: Is there a quintessential B.C. drink of choice?

SL: There is a Van Cocktail. It was invented at the Sylvia Hotel in the 1960s. It’s a lot like a Martinez, with gin, sweet vermouth, orange oils and Benedictine liqueur.


Q: If you were sitting at the bar, what would you order?

SL: At the moment, I’m really into the Hanky Panky. It was developed at the Savoy Hotel in London in the 1930s and has gin, sweet vermouth and Fernet Branca [a bitter Italian spirit].


Q: You’ve just rattled off at least four different drinks. How many cocktails can you make from memory?

SL: Hundreds.


Q: So you never get stumped?

SL: Yeah, I get stumped all the time. I keep a few books behind the bar, just in case. And now there are some wonderful iPhone apps, like Cocktails+, which help me out.


Q: What happens if customers don’t know what they want?

SL: That happens a lot. I’ll start out by asking about their spirit of choice. Do they like gin, cognac, bourbon? Then I’ll ask if they’re in the mood for something sweet, strong, citrusy, bitter. From there you just follow the flavour profiles.


Q: Sounds like you use customers as guinea pigs.

SL: All the time. I’ll just look behind the bar and see what we have.


Q: What’s next for cocktails?

SL: When hand-crafted cocktails first started to get popular, about 10 years ago, bartenders were coming up with all of these new-agey concepts. They were all trying to do something out of the box. But that kind of died down, and now everyone is focusing on the details: the bar tools and technique. They’re giving the old classics a new-style twist. Shows like “Mad Men” and “Boardwalk Empire” also really raised awareness of classic drinks. We actually have a drink at L’Abattoir called the Donald Draper -- it’s a variation on a Manhattan, with bourbon, apricot liqueur, Peychaud’s bitters and absinthe. As far as what’s next, there’s a really cool trend now of barrel aging cocktails. Cocktails like Manhattans, Negronis, Martinez are put in a whiskey barrel for four to eight weeks. The barrel softens the flavor and gives the drink an oaky taste.


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