Crafting a Toronto Sour is a good unto itself
The first time Sean Norris walked into the Fork and Flask at Nage, he knew he wanted to work there.
Norris saw the bar as a blank canvass, with an astounding diversity of high-end liquors that he could use to make good drinks better. Ever since his decision to work at becoming a great bartender, Norris paid close attention to everything with a professional eye.
His uncanny commitment to process which, he said, is where everything has to start. From the alcohol selection, to the layout, glassware, lighting, bar tools — everything has to be in service to elevating the experience of sitting at the bar.
“I see the bar kind of like a stage,” Norris said. “The way you move matters.”
It isn’t that he is the star of the show, but rather that he is a facet of a larger experience and has to hold together the perception of ease and purpose.
The difference between a better bar and a more common one is the perception that there is a natural flow. No one is harried, or at least no one appears to be. Everything happens as it should.
That doesn’t mean Norris is afraid to do a little showing off, shaking drinks extravagantly and pouring four or five bottles at once. But the flair is in service of the experience, little signs that he knows what he’s doing behind the bar that remind people there can be more to life than a shot and a beer.
Long before he got his first restaurant job, as the self-proclaimed worst waiter in the world at a Friendly’s, Norris developed his taste for better spirits.
New York sours (made with whiskey, simple syrup, lemon juice, egg whites and Shiraz) are among Nage bartender Sean Norris’ specialties. (Photo: Tony Russo photo)
From a young man’s perspective, whiskey was a gross experience to be endured if you wanted to get drunk, but that sentiment didn’t ring true for Norris.
“I said, ‘Why would people pay so much money for it if it was so awful?’ So I started trying it from that perspective,” he said. “I learned that you have to exercise your palate like you exercise your muscles.”
Becoming a kind of student of whiskey, at the time, was more for fun and personal growth than as part of a larger career goal, he said. But now that whiskey has hit and there are so many more educated consumers, the knowledge comes in pretty handy.
When he was trying to find his way after his stint at Friendly’s, he ended up at Applebee’s and, eventually, got a chance behind the bar. It was Mother’s Day and the place was packed.
“I remember I just was standing behind the bar not doing anything,” he said. “I just froze.”
He was inspired to try bartending by mob movies, like “Goodfellas.” The bartender is always the cool-headed guy behind the bar, he said. Whatever else is going on he just keeps it together and does his job.
As it turned out, playing it cool wasn’t as easy as it looked. Today, he jokes that as close as he must have been to being fired, he hung on and eventually found his groove behind the bar. After that, he threw himself into being better at it.
Norris is a musician by trade and at heart, performing with his twin brother Shannen as half of “Single Origin.” Tending bar, especially if you’re good at it, provides both the supplemental money and the relative freedom to be a working musician.
It wasn’t long after he started studying all aspects about liquor and bartending while working at Applebee’s that he improved enough to start getting gigs at higher end bars.
That’s one of the things about becoming a great bartender, you have to work at the kind of place that lets you hone and improve your skills and those places can be few and far between.
Nage, as did the restaurants at which Norris has worked over the past few years from Dover to the beach, has a commitment to an ample bar and cocktails made for people who appreciate them.
It’s no good to know how to make a New York sour if no one ever orders it.
New York sours are among Norris’ specialties. Made with bourbon or rye, simple syrup, lemon juice, egg whites for froth with a Shiraz floated between the froth and the rest of the drink, it is pretty to look at and even better to drink. The sour complements the bourbon and is supported by the wine’s depth for a rich, full, flavorful cocktail.
He makes them with care and a flourish, taking care to use a spoon to brush the foam over where the wine was poured so the drink is uniform. More than that, though, whenever he finishes one of his high-difficulty drinks, Norris sticks a straw in, covers the top with his finger and extracts a drop, which he then tastes.
“Why spend eight minutes making a drink and not know that it came out perfect?” he said. “If you’re not 100 percent sure, taste it.”
Taking your time to make a drink look fantastic and taste even better is central to being a bartender in a better restaurant. (Photo: Tony Russo photo)
Once he’s satisfied, Norris sends the drink out.
The entire time he spoke, he was checking in with the dozen or so patrons around the bar, picking up and dropping off bits of conversation, recommendations, refills and replacements, dinners and desserts. He loves the interaction as much as any other part of his job.
“Being a bartender is social. People don’t come into a restaurant and sit at the bar if they don’t want to be social,” he said. “People get a table for privacy, they sit at the bar to be a little more a part of things.”
Whenever he talks about operations, practices or policies, Norris demonstrates the amount of time he spends thinking about how to be better.
“You’re never going to be the best, there’s someone always better,” he said. “But if you have a little humility and the passion to keep studying, you always can be getting better.”
Originally published at www.delmarvanow.com on March 6, 2018.