This is Dave Mitton, from Toronto.
Summing up the career path of this industry legend is quite a challenge. I even thought about writing something along the lines of “Dave: very nice guy, lots of experience and loves rye”. Jokes aside, I’ll obviously go deeper than that, but bear with me if this article is a little longer than usual. One cannot summarize Dave Mitton shortly.
Dave is 44 years old and is originally from Albert County in New Brunswick. Growing up in the countryside, as soon as he finished high school he decided to go explore and see the world. He left his small town and found himself working in bars and restaurants as a way to support himself through his travels. He fell in love with the industry somewhere along the way.
Dave started as a bathroom attendant in Los Angeles in the mid-90’s. That lasted about a week before the general manager gave him a shot at the door. Eventually, Dave was part of the security team. But he would be watching the bar team, seeing how much fun they were having and how much money they were making, and thinking to himself that that’s where he wanted to be. Of course, he managed to get there. Overall, LA was one hell of a party and was pretty much how Dave fell into our industry. If his original plan was to become an actor, things turned out differently and young Dave went on traveling the world for a few years.
When he came back to Canada, he got a job in Halifax at one of Canada’s best bars of the time. Once again, he started as being part of the security team, but deep down wanted to work behind the bar. In time, he became a bar back for people such as Gord Hannah and eventually got a shot as a bartender. This led him to open Bitter End, one of Halifax’s first cocktail bars. Of course, cocktails at the time generally meant sweet and colorful concoctions served in martini glasses. But it was nonetheless how Dave started to really dive into the cocktail world.
Eventually, he found himself in Toronto for what was supposed to be a short trip to visit some friends. That was back in the early 2000s and simply put, Dave never really left the city since then. Originally, he wanted to give becoming an actor another shot and was studying at an acting school. After some time, one of his friends came to him with a great idea: they would open a restaurant together. Dave would invest some money, open the place, keep studying at the acting school, and work a few nights a week behind the bar. Maybe they would even get rich. Great plan. Obviously, it is not exactly how it all happened. Dave gave his heart and soul to open the place, which took him and his partner two years and a half. After the opening, the restaurant was getting nice reviews and all, but things got complicated with the investors and in the end, Dave walked out and lost everything. He told himself that he would never open another restaurant again. Of course, we know how this turned out.
One day, his best friend invites him for lunch at a random Mexican restaurant up on Harbord St. They look around the place, order some food and his friend asks him what he thinks of the place. Dave says it has potential. And his friend says that’s great because he wants them to buy it. That place turned into the Harbord Room and would become an institution in Toronto. That was back in 2007. It was at a time when the only city in Canada that was surfing the cocktail wave was Vancouver. Opening the Harbord Room, Dave saw an opportunity to develop a solid cocktail program and contribute to bringing to life the cocktail scene in Toronto. No need to say, it sure worked. The restaurant was a total success.
Dave would often go to New York City and Chicago to learn more about cocktails since there were no mentors in Canada back then. While the cocktail scene was picking up in Toronto, there was nothing that resembled what could be called a cocktail community. On a specific night in NYC, listening to Sam Ross saying that many other bars started to sell Penicillins down the street (that was before the whole world was doing it), Dave was amazed to hear how bartenders would share recipes and knowledge and decided it was time that they started doing the same in Toronto. When he came back from his NYC trip, he convinced his associates to close the restaurant for one night. He handed out 30 invitations to the most prominent cocktail professionals of the city, asked them to bring a bottle, and bought pizza for everyone. That night, they got together and talked about how to build a community.
This says a lot about both the notoriety of the Harbord Room and the involvement of Dave in our industry. As you know, the community grew stronger and stronger. Dave had the pleasure to represent Canada on different occasions and a lot of attention was drawn to him and his restaurant. Eventually, he was approached by Corby and Pernod-Ricard to become their brand ambassador for Canadian Whisky. He took the challenge, a challenge that was much bigger than he expected. A few years later, he and his associates decided it was time to close the Harbord Room, even if the restaurant was still busy and had been successful for the past decade. From that moment on, Dave’s role went from national to global brand ambassador.
Today, Dave is famous for wearing double denim and drinking rye. If he clearly succeeded at sharing Canadian whisky with the world, he believes that there is still a lot of work to do in terms of educating people on what he refers to as the most misunderstood spirits category. Furthermore, Dave has one of these careers that have inspired and continues to inspire many other younger professionals. If his many work achievements could put him on a pedestal, one thing that strikes us is how approachable Dave makes himself for people that seek his advice.
A little bit more about Dave...
The three words that describe him best: Honest – foolish – loyal
The most magical place he’s been to: Fogo Island. He was able to take five bartenders across Canada to Fogo Island in Northern Newfoundland. It’s an incredible little rock island up in the Arctic where this woman built this amazingly beautiful inn. They had the most incredible time, creating cocktails and exploring the island up in the Northern lights.
How does he make his Old Fashioned: He’s more on the bitter side and old-school raw sugar cube with a spike of water. And instead of 3 to 4 dashes, he will usually go for 5 to 7. He likes orange and lemon zest.
What he likes most about being a global brand ambassador: His traveling cocktail adventures. Getting to meet all the gals and the guys around the world, learning about their past and how they came to be in their expressions and where they’re from and their ways of the world.
A piece of advice for people that want to become brand ambassadors: You need to be used to grueling hours and to being alone. Because as much as every night, your position is to be the life of the party, whether it’s a big night or a small night, when you go back to your hotel you are alone and you’re alone at the airport and on the plane and you have to be very mentally prepared for this. Also, the concept of a 40 hours a week schedule doesn’t exist. It’s 40 hours a week of traveling and then there’s your job on top of that.