Jeffrey Van Horne brings an old-school touch of class to drinking in the city through his posts at The Bicycle Thief and Untitled Eats. by Melissa Buote
With his Lindberg-era under-cut and Hercule Poirot-meets-handlebar moustache, rower-turned-bartender Jeffrey Van Horne looks like he fell out of a photo of the Paris Crew and into a lithograph in "Professor" Jerry Thomas' The Bon Vivant's Companion before landing behind the bar at The Bicycle Thief.
It's only been five years since 27-year-old Van Horne, who just won both the judges' panel and people's choice prizes at the Halifax Made With Love competition, slid behind the wood. He got his start as a busser at The Thirsty Duck, "running up and down the stairs to the patio" for a hot summer, before moving onto the bar. "I slowly learned and caught the cocktail-making bug," he says, thinking about the drinks he was making at the time: "'80s-style cocktails where the colour was the best thing about them."
It's a far cry from the perfectly crafted Manhattans, Gimlets and Negronis he's cranking out every weekend behind the bustling bar at The Bicycle Thief and at his weekly Untitled Eats cocktail night at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. Not that he's a snob about it. "Wine, rum and cokes, beer, whatever: I'm not totally fixed on making cocktails. I just like to take care of people," he says.
"At The Bicycle Thief the amount of people who come through the door is really exciting. Though I do have a great cocktail list there, it doesn't make sense for me to make a bunch of cocktails that I personally think are awesome and that are really pushing the envelope. The majority of the customers want a Lemon Drop or Cosmopolitan. And I will make you the best Cosmopolitan I can: it's an awesome drink when made well."
Wednesday night at Untitled Eats is a different story, more of an autobiography.
"Untitled is my space to offer someone something different---a higher cocktail experience," he says. "That's where I get to play around and get to try spirit-forward drinks that I think people will really enjoy and that people maybe haven't tasted before."
There is a modern corduroy-and-cardigan tempered Gatsby grandeur to Van Horne's Wednesday cocktail night. Drinks like the French 75 and Sidecar sit as standards on the menu. Experimentation and elegance are shaken or stirred in coupes and rocks glasses in a rotating roll call of specially selected feature drinks that echo the days of speakeasies and Tin Pan Alley.
"Cocktails are a lot more than what you're drinking in a glass," says Van Horne. "There's a little bit of history behind it which is fascinating, there are certain techniques, and it's great to watch a bartender make a cocktail and put on a show; that's fun for a lot of people."
It's also fun for him. "This is a way for me to express myself, my creativity. I've never really done that before, and this is my medium."
It pays off for Van Horne when a chit comes in at The Bicycle Thief for a Sazerac or a Vieux Carre---cocktails that he may have introduced to a returning customer.
"The goal is that down the road the person who had the Sazerac at The Bicycle Thief can go anywhere else in the city---there are tons of different places that are starting to have great cocktails---and say 'I want a Sazerac to go with my meal,' and get it properly made or at least close to what it should be," Van Horne says.
"It's about drinking better, not more."
Drink better with Jeff from Thursday through Saturday at the Bicycle Thief, every Wednesday at Untitled Eats and online at dashofdartmouth.tumblr.com.
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