This might be the coolest bar and bartender in Toronto

HAVING A COCKTAIL CRAFTED by James Grant is like taking a sip of a chapter of a deliciously intricate novel. Grant, who is the Director of Beverage at Toronto’s Fairmont Royal York Hotel, mixes up his menu like a table of contents, taking the “reader” (or in this case, me, the sipper), through a tale of cocktails. Like any good novel, or any great bar, for that matter, the story is key. “This menu really suits this bar,” Grant tells me, when I meet him at Library Bar, the hotel’s cosy and sexy cocktail den.

Mixologist James Grant. Photo by Rick O'Brien/Fairmont Royal York

Director of Beverage, James Grant. Photo by Rick O’Brien/Fairmont Royal York

The Alberta native, who was named World Class Global Bartender of the Year 2021 and Canada’s 100 Best Bartender of the Year 2022, has broken down his cocktail offerings for Library Bar into literary genres; take for example, the Southern Reach in the Science Fiction section; or the Gunslinger or Little Seeds in the Folklore section. “It’s built off how the previous menu was structured,” he adds, divided into genres, but a very loose idea. More like romance, history, fantasy.

“A library is a room of stories, whether it’s the stories that bartenders are telling or the stories that play out here, over the years,” says Grant.

“I pushed the bartenders here a little to start with a story, one that’s important to them.” He tells me the Sacred Beast was inspired by a quote from the creator of Godzilla, the original film. “Charred, smokey, bright, everything in the cocktail is meant to sort of look and feel like what a city might look like in Godzilla’s wake,” Grant says. He describes it as in between an old fashioned, a margarita and a whisky sour, “you’ve got the habanero and mezcal, but also lapsang souchong smoked green tea, and cinnamon, yet the charred habanero doesn’t impart any spice because we distil them, and get the pepper flavour without the heat.” It’s also a reflection of Grant’s sense of humour, paired with his trademark dandy sartorial style and arresting, slightly mischievous smile he sports while shaking and stirring.

sacred beast cocktail library bar

The “Sacred Beast” cocktail: Bright, vegetal and smoky, it features Michter’s Bourbon Whiskey, charred habanero, mezcal, verjus, lapsang souchong and cinnamon explosion.

Little Seeds, with its totally edible, candied pinecone garnish is up next. To my palette, it’s not woodsy, but more like a Spanish olive and a piece of fruit in each bite. Turns out it’s a white pine cone, harvested when still young. “Little Seeds is inspired by Toronto and my favourite novel about Toronto, Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion; I wanted to do something about the woods that are around city where the novel takes place, so we have spruce-tip distillate that we make in house, Botanist gin, a bit of Canadian whisky distilled here in Ontario, some cypress and a little bit of maple syrup. It’s been such a wonderful experience living here now and seeing that the places in the book are real.” Turns out Grant is a student of language. “I am putting my English degree to work. This is my baby. Each bar has its own identity, Clockwork is the lobby bar, it’s approachable, it’s bright, it’s the lighter spirit, it creates that moment of celebration after a day of travelling; Library Bar is very much a classic cocktail bar.”

Little Seeds cocktail library bar

“Inspired by one of the most beautiful novels about Toronto ever written – In the Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje: Botanist Gin, Lot 40 Whiskey, spruce tip, Benedictine Liqueur, Fino Sherry, cypress, soda and candied pine cone.

Grant’s ultimate goal, he adds, was to create a menu that elevates and pushes the bar into the future, with a nod to the past. “So these are all wild takes on classic cocktails, at their heart they’re still classics, and that has to be really important, the history here being rooted in stories that focus on that connection between guests and hosts.”

I finish with the Divine Comedy from the Poetry section of the menu – eucalyptus, Dillon’s melon gin, prosciutto. Yes, prosciutto and melon! An appetiser in a glass, inspired, says Grant, by all of the Divine Comedy, not just Inferno, but also Paradiso. “So it goes from this spicy, meaty, savoury and dark element in its flavour profile to a light, cooling and refreshing element in the melon gin, all served on crushed ice.” Paradiso, indeed.

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