Drinking Rum in Montréal
What did I expect to drink when I went on my first trip to Montréal this past December? Whiskey, certainly. Maybe a lot of beer. As I made the rounds of the city’s bars, though, I kept finding myself ordering rum. It was the novelty of being a New Yorker who could suddenly get a Dark and Stormy made with Havana Club and delicious housemade ginger beers, sure, but the bartenders also seemed to embrace the spirit with surprising gusto.
The former is a subterranean tiki bar that beckons you downstairs with a giant neon green pineapple, and the small space becomes a jarring yet welcome change from the outdoors (if you’re there in December, of course). Its location isn’t accidental; the drinks are perfect for enjoying with the Chinese food (wontons, dumplings, General Tso’s chicken) you can order from the upstairs restaurant.
One of the owners, Graham Warner, has been working behind a bar since the day after his 18th birthday (the legal drinking age in his native Alberta). Le Mal Necessaire — which translates to The Necessary Evil — opened in 2014 as a response to the popularity of speakeasies in the city. “We had about three or four speakeasy-style bars open all within two and a half years of each other,” he says. “Our goal was to put a big neon sign out and not be hidden. We just wanted to do something that didn’t feel like a theme bar and meant drinking could be fun and not necessarily a pursuit of knowledge.”
Ti-Agrikol's Ti Ponch, made with Rhum Barbancourt and served with limes, cane syrup and freshly squeezed sugarcane juice, is by far the most popular drink on the menu. This may come as a surprise at a bar in Canada. (Photo: Ti-Agrikol)
They achieve a balance of whimsy and intelligence, while also providing a respite, but Warner doesn’t think there are any particular challenges to creating rum cocktails in a city with a long winter. “I think our drinking habits probably are not too far off from what, in a very general sense, is going on in New York. What I mean by that is that 10 years ago vodka was king and now vodka doesn't have that much of the market,” he explains. “We're a tiki bar and yet still, because of the demand, we are obligated to have a big selection of whiskies and bourbon and Canadian whiskies. I don't think there's anything that the climate necessarily dictates.”
By way of explaining what tiki gives that everyone needs, regardless of the temperature, he brings up an adage: “Have you heard this? ‘Which came first: the pirate or the rum?’” he asks. “The last time that I went excessive with rum was actually on a trip to Cuba, and it feels like you’re a pirate.” For Warner, rum has the power to transport you in distinct ways.
Over at Ti-Agrikol — the sister bar to excellent next-door Haitian restaurant Agrikol — they have a similar perspective on rum-drinking in Canada. “The restaurant itself offers people an escape from the brutal weather, and has a wonderful Haitian atmosphere, so we keep drinks on the menu that suit that as well,” explains bar manager for the restaurant group Black Hoof David Greig, of which Ti-Agrikol is part. “As with most menus, balance is key, and we try to make sure there’s something for everyone.”
The demand for escape at Agrikol was so high that it inspired the opening of the bar so diners had somewhere to wait, and the Ti Ponch, made with Rhum Barbancourt and served with limes, cane syrup and freshly squeezed sugarcane juice, is by far the most popular drink order. “Montréal is unique among Canadian cities in that it has access to a great range of agricole rhum as a result of the French-speaking connection,” he explains. Greig does make some changes for the colder months, though: “We definitely tried to mix the menu up in the cold winters to include stiffer and more warming drinks, like our play on a Diamondback, the Damballa.”
Perhaps the moral of the story is never to go into a city with drinking expectations: Even when you’ve spent the day trudging through a blizzard, a well-made piña colada served in a coconut will never be an unwelcome companion.