How Lauren Mote turned her travels into cocktails

In her most recent book, the acclaimed Canadian bartender shares some of her favourite memories and the recipes they inspired.

Do you remember where you were during that frosty polar vortex a few years ago? Lauren Mote can picture it exactly. It was January, and the Toronto-raised bartender was in Winnipeg, where temperatures felt like a cool -52°C. Still, not wanting to stay in for the night, she put on three layers of winter-appropriate clothing and stepped outside. In the few steps it took to get to her waiting taxi, her nostrils froze and the cold penetrated through her layers as if she weren’t even wearing them. On her way to a local bar, she wondered how people cope in such weather. Would anyone even be there?

Of course, when she arrived, she found the bar full of people drinking not just cocktails but iced cocktails. The heat was blasting, the windows were fogged over and winter layers had been shed in favour of T-shirts. “Nothing stops people in Winnipeg from having a great time,” she says. “It felt very quintessentially Canadian – dealing with whatever comes your way and making the best of the situation.”

A woman holds an amber drink with an evergreen garnish
The “Polar Vortex” whisky cocktail. Photography, Jonathan Chovancek

The experience stuck with Mote, so much so that she developed a cocktail based on it – fittingly called “Polar Vortex” – and it appears in her most recent book, A Bartender’s Guide to the World, which was co-authored by James O. Fraioli. In it, you’ll find 75 cocktails inspired by the unforgettable places Mote has travelled to, alongside the stories that helped bring each bevvy to life. “I envisioned the book as a journal of the different people, places and flavours we encounter in the industry,” says Mote. “It’s a celebration of the drinks industry, but it’s also a wonderful travel brochure for readers to jump into at home.”

There’s perhaps no one better equipped to share such knowledge in an approachable and accessible way than Mote, who has been in the industry for well over 20 years. She is a sought-after drinks consultant and has trained more than 15,000 bartenders and won multiple awards and honours, including World Class Canada’s Bartender of the Year (the first woman to claim the title) and an induction into the Tales of the Cocktail Foundation’s Dame Hall of Fame (the first Canadian).

For each recipe, Mote lists the “classic” drink her cocktail riffs on, hoping to offer an entry point or a spark of recognition for people with less cocktail-making experience. Don’t think that means the drinks are dumbed down in any way, however; the goal was to present challenges for people at any skill level, whether they’re a total novice, someone with a stocked bar cart or a pro who likes entertaining at home.

A cocktail is poured into a glass on top of a book
The Vesper-inspired “Smallage, Biggish” cocktail. Photography, Jonathan Chovancek

On her end, Mote’s aim was to capture the essence of a particular time and place in every recipe. That starts with the ingredients, all of which have a link to a location. Take the purple corn of Peru, for example, which is used to make a bold, tart non-alcoholic punch called Chicha Morada. Mote learned the recipe from a friend and played around with it to make an alcoholic version with Peruvian pisco and vermouth. Then there are more mainstream ingredients like grapes encounter and potatoes, which may have originated in one area but different varieties have taken on the distinct character of the various spots in which they now grow.

But how do you capture Canada in a glass – something Mote does a number of times throughout the book? That’s a little more complicated. “I’m married to a chef, and we have constant conversations about what the flavour identity of Canada is,” she says. “What makes Canada special is the mosaic of different cultures and flavours from around the world and how they then get interpreted with Canadian ingredients. So while you may have interesting international ingredients in Canada that are great to work with, you still end up using a lot of Canadian-made products to bring those flavours to life.”

A bright blue cocktail on a wooden table
The margarita-esque “Yonge Street” cocktail. Photography, Jonathan Chovancek

What’s even more complex and dynamic is how those local flavours vary across the country. There’s the Vieux Boréal, for instance, Mote’s B.C.-inspired take on a Vieux Carré. Her recipe calls for Canadian rye and Okanagan apple brandy. No one’s stopping you from making it with a brandy from elsewhere in the country, but it probably won’t have that same West Coast spirit Mote captured.

“We automatically talk about maple syrup, poutine and Caesars – which I reference in the book a couple of times – and I do think they’re important,” she says. “But there’s the stereotypical version of what Canada is, and then there’s the Canada [you find] when you peel back the layers.”