Raise a glass: The Martini Club celebrates 20 years

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Before there were mixologists, housemade bitters and craft herbal tinctures, there was Michelle Hunt and Laura Panter.

Their goal was simple: to make the best drinks possible.

Back in 1996, the drink of the moment was the martini. So Michelle and Laura would throw a party once a week at a bar in Toronto and have the guests write down their address and phone number in a hardcover book. They would then call these same people the next week to say where they were going to be next.

Not only that, they would lug all of their own glassware to the gigs (because no one had martini glasses) as well as some of their own ingredients. "Bars didn't even have shakers then. They would use a Gibraltar glass with a tin cup upside down. So unhygenic," Laura says.

The Martini Club, as they deemed themselves back them, would create martini menus for each event. There were simple classics to more complex creations (The Malapeque Martini with a freshly shucked Malapeque oyster, homemade cocktail sauce and 2 oz. of frozen vodka; The Nutty Club Martini with pan-roasted pine nuts, Frangelico and chilled vodka).

Within six months, The Martini Club had 880 people following them around from bar to bar. "It became too much," Michelle says.

Both women had been bartending all of their lives (they were SIP Certified, because this was pre-Smart Serve, and trained using only fake spirits, fake ice cubes and coloured waters) and were simply in search of a great drink. Driving around in a 1975 Volkswagon van, they were making drinks more for the fun than money, as all they got for these extensive gigs were tips. They were so short on cash that when they got business cards printed, they got one with both their names on it instead of individual ones.

The Martini Club continued to be known for their martini menus and they started getting bigger gigs ­ (The Opera House, parties for foundations, fundraisers). "We had to hire other bartenders," Michelle says.

"We started behaving like a business," Laura says. They had no experience other than making fabulous cocktails and nothing even resembling a marketing plan. They wrote a book for Smirnoff (101 Martinis) and became experts in the field. They had their challengers, as there was very little innovation in the world of cocktails (there were only about 20 liqueurs in the LCBO at the time). But a shift came with the lounge movement, where drinking martinis became a a part of the lifestyle, along with smoking cigars, old Sinatra music playing and wearing elegant robes.

Laura coined the term "the liquid identity," which is basically: you are what you drink. When you drank martinis, your mannerisms changed, how you dressed changed. You acted more sophisticated. It transformed people.

"People's faces would light up. We would always introduce a menu, which delivered an elevated experience. The drinks would start out classic and finish with sweet. We had a chef's palate without knowing it," says Michelle. And everyone always behaved. It never got out of hand.

At the time, Michelle and Laura had no idea they'd brought the martini to the market, but have since been credited for it by a number of people and companies. They know the history, the folklore. They knew that if the drinks were good, the party would be the best party.

Today, Michelle and Laura are beverage alcohol experts that forecast trends for folks like the LCBO and liquor companies. They are knowledgable on not just current trends, but where they're going, what the next flavours are. They can tell you why Millennials are ordering Old Fashioneds by the truckloads (it makes them feel sophisticated) and that you pronounce the "t" in Moët.

The bar used to be a holding place until you got a real job and now we have craft cocktail makers and mixologists. Now there's interesting glasswarefun confectionary flavours (cupcake, bubblegum) and an emphasis on provenance and authenticity. People want to know where the ingredients are from, the process of how something is made. You can't just slap the word "craft"on your label without backing it up. The entire world of cocktails has changed not just since the nineties, but even just in the last few years.

A lot of their time now is spent designing cocktails (along with their "innovator guy," Wes Tiller) for bars and restaurants and brands, as well as training programs, curating events and teaching - Michelle and Laura created and developed the first of it's kind new program at George Brown College, the Advanced Wine and Beverage Business Management postgraduate program.

Twenty years later and nothing has slowed them down. Their passion, excitement and commitment to fantastic drinks is as strong as it was back then.

We can't wait to see what they do next.

p.s. To celebrate this year's 20th anniversary, The Martini Club is going to visit 20 bars in the city and bartend for free for the night (donations to charity will be accepted). Details to follow.