When Seattle bartender—and native Canadian—Jamie Boudreau first discovered the Toronto, a classic whiskey drink laced with Fernet-Branca, he almost passed it by.
“I first came across it whilst plumbing the infinite resource of receipts known as Jones’ Complete Barguide,” he recalls, citing a 1977 recipe book by Stan Jones. “It wasn’t for another year or so that I saw it in some of the older cocktail books.”
That was in the early aughts, a time when, Boudreau notes, he had not quite warmed to the bracing profile of Fernet-Branca, a product that was not yet widely available in Canada. “At the time, I was not a fan of Fernet, so I had bookmarked [the drink] as something more aggressive for those who were looking for such a thing,” he says. It wasn’t until he moved from Vancouver to the U.S. in 2006 that he reexamined the recipe, as he sought to include cocktails that had Canadian origins on a drink menu.
“It is rather ironic that I had to leave Canada for the United States to discover the Toronto cocktail,” he wrote on his website, an influential blog followed by the bartending community, where he published his take on the drink in 2006.
His recipe, made with rye, Fernet-Branca, simple syrup and Angostura bitters didn’t veer far from existing specs. Though the Toronto didn’t appear under that particular name until 1948 in David Embury’s The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, similar cocktails were recorded under different names in the preceding years. In 1916, Hugo Ensslin published the recipe for his King Cole cocktail, made with bourbon, a few dashes of Fernet and simple syrup, and in 1922 Robert Vermeire recorded the Fernet cocktail with equal parts rye and/or Cognac and Fernet, plus Angostura bitters.
Looking back, Boudreau says he found inspiration in the Vermeire version, which called for serving the drink up, rather than on the rocks, though he maintained the ratios of the 1977 Jones iteration. Boudreau’s changes were subtle, including upping the Angostura quotient and swapping the orange slice garnish for a flamed peel.
However, the mild Canadian ryes available in the mid-aughts didn’t have the body to stand up to Fernet’s “aggressive flavor profile,” Boudreau remembers. The big game-changer came “when I stopped trying to make a Canadian rye work and realized a big, bold, American-style whiskey just works better in this drink,” he says. More recently, he evolved the base spirit to an equal split of “bold rye,” such as James E. Pepper, for spice and “bold bourbon,” such as Pure Kentucky XO, for body.
Boudreau has made a couple of other nuanced—but important—adjustments to his current version of the Toronto, which is available at his Seattle bar, Canon. First, the simple syrup is now a rich version made from a mix of Demerara, muscovado and white sugars, which adds complexity to the sweetener. Second, he adds an orange peel to the mixing glass, a technique known as the “regal stir,” which helps “round out or soften” the drink. “The oils do wonders taming Fernet’s roar,” he explains. Finally, the drink is accented with a flamed orange garnish. The preparation offers a more layered orange flavor: “I do flamed, as we already have the bright notes from the swath added at the beginning of the build,” he notes.
The result is a “simple drink with a ton of complexity,” which Boudreau describes as “a great way to introduce people to Fernet without abusing their palates.”
Today, thanks to his tinkering over the years, Boudreau is the bartender most associated with the Toronto, and he isn’t mad that the classic is considered one of his signatures. “As a Canadian, I’m quite pleased that my championing of the drink so many years ago has brought it new life,” he says. For his next act, he’d like to do the same for the Hotel Georgia—a floral gin sour from the same era, named for a historic hotel in Boudreau’s hometown of Vancouver.