Kaitlyn Stewart loves to learn.
If the Vancouver bartender sees a new technique or tries a drink that captures her interest, she wants to know how it works. "I'm like a sponge, I'm always trying to soak it up," she tells V.I.A over the phone.
She believes constantly learning is a testament to being a good bartender or even chef. It's also likely one of the traits that earned her the title Bartender of the Year at the World Class Competition in 2017.
"I'll pick up a book on fermentation and try to learn because that's a weak spot for me, or I'll pick up a book about brewing...I'm constantly on the lookout for different fun things," she says.
Stewart has been one of the world's best bartenders for several years now but her insatiable curiosity has come in handy with another of her claims to fame, TikTok stardom.
Cocktails akin to mad science
Stewart makes content five days a week for over 355,000 followers and says that staying in the loop, hopping on trends to learn as much as possible before they disappear has been really helpful. "It forces me to really brush up on all of my knowledge."
She's also aware that with a large audience comes a great deal of responsibility. Stewart is all too aware that someone could inadvertently harm themselves by incorrectly fermenting or trying to cut corners with certain techniques. If she doesn't know something she will do rigorous research so as not to disseminate false information, she also emphasizes the importance of being thorough, but sometimes she just won't demonstrate a technique on camera because she can't trust people not to make a mistake.
Depending on the complexity of the cocktail, a lot of study goes into mixology. Bartenders these days are a lot like mad scientists (a comparison that Stewart doesn't object to) and creativity abounds.
Stewart likes to play around with trends like fat washing and clarified punches because she can keep them in her fridge for a long time. She admits that even though she works with cocktails, she doesn't drink at her own bar very often. "I did a really fun Froot Loop Paloma," she says of her most-recent favourite drink. "I did a clarified Paloma-style cocktail but I used cereal milk to clarify it."
Clarification is a process where milk is added to a cocktail, curdled with citrus, and then filtered through muslin cloth leaving a clear liquid that feels silky to sip on and is packed with the fruity flavour of the original drink. Stewart soaked Froot Loops in whole milk for an hour and used the flavoured cereal milk to clarify her Paloma.
"I still have a small amount of that left in the fridge. I kind of sip on that sparingly because it's so tasty."
The crazy niche world of craft cocktails
Stewart got her start bartending in university, back when it was just a night job to pay for her education. When she realized that there were people who could make a career out of it, she dove headfirst into the world of craft cocktails.
She was on the opening team of Boulevard Kitchen & Oyster Bar at the Sutton Hotel when Justin Taylor took her under his wing.
"He was my first mentor, I guess you would say. And he really was amazing at teaching me the ways of craft cocktails, and how you could really have some fun with it and play around with classic recipes—figuring out your own style," she recalls.
Taylor was also the person who entered Stewart into her first bartending competition.
"I had no idea that that world existed," she says. "He said, 'Hey, you're doing this' and I said, 'Oh, okay.' And never really looked back after that."
At the time, Stewart didn't know many bartenders in Vancouver but getting into competitions opened up the "crazy world of cocktail bartending."
Every subsequent competition she went to she would meet more people and form relationships until, on her nights of, she was sitting at their bars and enjoying their cocktails. "It really started to open up that sense of community," she says. "I wasn't just a person who was associated with a bar, I was more looked at as a bartender."
The community continued to grow as she reached national and then international acclaim but Stewart says that the scene is actually a lot smaller than you'd expect. Stewart has been recognized in Taipei and, most recently, at a whisky distillery in Scotland, something she says is one of the most surreal moments of her career and it was TikTok that really pushed that recognizability over the edge.
She turned to TikTok videos when COVID hit to help her continue to connect with people and keep that part of the industry that she loved so much like alive. "I couldn't really be behind a bar and interact with the guests coming in who would sit directly in front of me, it was a way to kind of continue that but obviously at a safe distance," she says.