Since 2014, Toronto, Ontario’s Boxcar Social has excelled at being both a cafe and a wine bar. Known for their intensely curated stock of coffees, wines, craft beers, scotches, and whiskies, the owners—Alex Castellani, Chris Ioannou, Joe Papik, and John Baker—have put considerable time into providing their customers with a unique experience, and their efforts have been rewarded with a dedicated and loyal customer base: since opening in 2014, the group has quickly grown to include five spots. Unique among them is Clocktower Bar, a specialty cocktail bar next to the original Boxcar Social in Summerhill.
With a strong business in place next door and an expanding vision for the Boxcar Social family, the owners knew that the Summerhill neighbourhood would be a perfect testing ground for their newest venture. Castellani says that the opening came down to “a confluence of luck and brazen decision-making,” with Clocktower Bar taking over the second half of the Victorian-style building Boxcar Social is in this past May. To make Clocktower just as successful as the rest of the Boxcar spots, Castellani and team set out to find individuals who were just as passionate about cocktails, craft, and service as they themselves were about coffee, wine, whiskey, and beer. They found who they were looking for in head bartenders Ryan Macleod, formerly of Buca, and Kyle Hillman, ex of Handlebar, who make all infusions and tinctures in-house (bitters are purchased from outside sources).
Castellani explains that much of the Boxcar Social and Clocktown philosophy hinges on flavour profiles in coffees and cocktails, focusing specifically on the taste of ingredients to enhance the customer’s experience. “We have loved that model for Boxcar because it allows us to easily elaborate on the provenance of those offerings,” he says. Clocktower currently has two coffee-infused cocktails with a third in the works (plus two additional Boxcar-designed drinks, one starring Earl Grey-infused gin and the other a house-made chai syrup). Castellani worked alongside Macleod to develop the Cold Brew Negroni, which uses an Ethiopia from Phil and Sebastian called Assefa Cheleleketu. The challenge the pair faced while working through the recipe was preparing something that didn’t dilute the fresh espresso taste and also preserved the individual taste profile of the Assefa Cheleleketu. “Every coffee has its own aromatic, flavour, and structural profile that we’ve tried to balance out for the final aspects of the drink,” Castellani says.
Clocktower is not the first bar to experiment with the use of coffee in cocktails, but Castellani wants customers to leave feeling as if they got something a little more innovative than the usual such offerings. Case in point, the bar’s Straight Up, which features a Kenya espresso from Berlin’s Barn Coffee Roasters called Ngunguru AA in the form of a tincture, alongside cascara syrup, El Dorado 5-year-old rum, Armagnac, Bénédictine, Cointreau, and chocolate bitters. Castellani explains that their in-house espresso tincture and cascara syrup are built to express the character and balance in the beans in the cocktail.
This kind of balance—neither too sweet nor overpowering—is struck throughout the coffee cocktails on the menu. “If there’s something we’d like people to take away from our drinks,” says Castellani, “it’s that coffee can be used far outside the boundaries of an Irish coffee and espresso martini.”
Photos courtesy of Britney Townsend.