The reviews for charcuterie Black Hoof have been glowing. The meats! The cheeses! The meats! The critics, however, have mostly neglected to mention a large part of the Hoof’s charm: the drinks co-owner Jen Agg serves nightly. In fact, sales for the restaurant are about evenly split between food and drink, something, she says, that was intended.
While Grant Van Gameren, Agg’s co-partner at Hoof, specializes in the cured meats (his resumé includes the preparation of thirty to forty different kinds), Agg brings experience to the restaurant’s drinks menu. She has worked over a dozen years behind a bar: she got her start at Little Italy institution Souz Dal in “the mid-’90s” before opening Cobalt down the street in 1998. She served cosmopolitans at the former before the drink became synonymous with Sex and the City and describes the cocktail menu at Cobalt as “novel-sized—it was twelve to fourteen pages.”
Agg says Cobalt was perfect for her 20s and now the Hoof is representative of her 30s. To her, it means making drinks that are more artisanal. The syrups and bitters are housemade, and the juices are freshly squeezed. She doesn’t stock many liqueurs, since they’re “sickly sweet, preserved, and I can make [syrups that are] better.” (She makes a sorrel syrup with hibiscus flowers that is pink, sweet, and sour. “You steep it in boiling water and honey, then strain. Easy, right?”)
At the Hoof, the extra attention given to drinks is obvious. The menu, for example, is separated into white and brown liquors to highlight their different characteristics. (Fans of lighter white liquors should try the gin smacker—gin, housemade wild cherry bitters, and blood orange juice—while the sazerac—rye, bitters, absinthe, and a sugar cube—is a winning drink made of brown liquor.) Agg says the inspiration for a drinks, such as the Delilah—made of muddled grapes, ice wine, chilled vodka, and tarragon, before a spritz of housemade vanilla syrup—comes from her passion for drinking and eating and lots of reading. She pours through magazines to “remind herself of flavours” to experiment with in drinks. (In our interview, she was especially excited about having found a way to use tarragon.)
Speaking with Agg, one wonders why a city so into local this and organic that hasn’t exploded in handcrafted cocktails. Imagine an espresso syrup made with beans from I Deal or one for sour apple distilled from organic Macintoshes. Agg says such a level of making drinks is common in London and New York (not to mention Boston and Philly), but Toronto has some catching up to do.
Toronto has steadily moved toward higher-quality beers and wines. When asked why cocktails haven’t progressed as quickly, Agg playfully offers up hipsters and their love of dive bars with comfy couches from Goodwill. More seriously, she thinks the image of cocktails as too “fancy or expensive” is part of the reticence. Although cocktails are normally associated with the snarky College or King Street scenes—not especially known for the patience or the palette for artisanal products—Agg believes the Black Hoof is an antidote to them: “At night, it gets convivial,” she says, “and we don’t have to move our tables to let you know that bar-time is starting.”
Photos by Ryan Coleman