The matriarch of Montreal: how Kate Boushel became North America’s favourite bartender

Josh Ong - 11/04/2024

Kate Boushel has spent her life fighting for the underdog. With time in politics and PR under her belt, she’s now celebrated for her work spearheading a fairer, more representative bar sector. 50 Best meets the winner of the Altos Bartenders’ Bartender Award – the only peer-voted accolade in North America’s 50 Best Bars 2024

Kate Boushel always thought she was destined for the world of politics with an inherent desire to use her platform to fight for a better world. If she couldn’t be a politician, perhaps she could still fulfil her mission to drive the message of social equality through working in public relations. Being a bartender was never even on the cards.

Today, Boushel stands as the director of beverage and education for Montreal’s Barocco Group, the organisation behind Atwater Cocktail Club (No.32 in North America’s 50 Best Bars 2023) and five other beloved bars and restaurants across the city. Taking the same passion and drive she poured into her early career pursuits, this year’s winner of the Altos Bartenders’ Bartender Award has built a reputation for keeping politics in the bar.

Diving deeper into Boushel’s past, it’s perhaps not that surprising she found a home in the hospitality sector. Her appreciation for good food and drink was instilled in her from a young age by her parents while growing up in southern Saskatchewan. When it came time for Boushel to begin her undergraduate degree in political science at Montreal’s Concordia University, she dipped her toes into the world of professional hospitality by working part-time at a local restaurant. “It just made sense to me as my family always loved hosting, and I love talking,” Boushel laughs.

Watch the video with Boushel here:
Politics remained her focus throughout university, keeping part-time bar and restaurant jobs on the side. Her first foray behind the stick would come via a James Bond-themed bar called Pistol. The venue was an all-day casual watering hole serving small bites and – as to be expected of a bar inspired by the works of Ian Fleming in the early 2000s – every fruit-forward variation of the Martini imaginable. Unlike diamonds, however, this job wasn’t forever: Boushel’s astute political mind saw her elected to the university’s student union and her new paid position meant she had to leave her hospitality work behind.

True calling

After graduating, Boushel found herself disillusioned by the public sector and moved into PR. Five years into her newfound career, she was itching for a change. On the quest for her next opportunity, she took on a project for a friend who ran a cocktail competition across Quebec and immediately found that the sector had evolved leaps and bounds in her absence. “It was so creative now and people were doing such fun things,” she says. “I thought that maybe I should give this another go.”

Despite her parents’ initial misgivings, Boushel left PR and began working at the now-shuttered Decca77, a high-volume, casual bistro in Montreal. She immediately felt back in her element in hospitality: “It just grabbed me. I never should have left the pond.”
Boushel joined Montreal's Barocco Group in 2016 to launch Atwater Cocktail Club

After a few years working at restaurants and bars across the city, Boushel found herself gravitating fully towards mixology – any spare time she had she would use to take part in competitions, such as World Class and Speedrack, a charitable organisation dedicated to platforming women in bartending. It was at these events that she was forced to dig deeper into the craft, while also building a network of like-minded bartenders across Canada.

Boushel cemented her specialisation in cocktails at Le Mal Nécessaire, a high-volume bar known in the industry for its speed and efficiency. Boushel names it as the place that taught her the building blocks of craft bartending, including how to move with elegance around the counter, courtesy of a former ballet dancing colleague. In 2016, she joined the Barocco Group as a bartender for its newest venue: Atwater Cocktail Club and her now legendary reign in Canada’s cocktail scene began.

Making changes

Boushel’s career experience outside the hospitality bubble afforded her a broader global view and, while her desire to be a politician had passed, her dedication to represent and uplift those in need remained resolute.

“Within my political positions, we were always fighting for a seat at the table for those who weren’t fairly represented, whether French-speakers, people of colour, members of the LGBTQ+ community and beyond – and this was back in the 2000s!” she says. So, she posed a simple question: ‘If representation has always been a key point in political life, why didn’t it exist in the bar world?’
Boushel uses her experience in politics to improve the lives of her fellow bartenders

She wasted little time at Atwater in applying her learnings from politics and PR to her rediscovered calling. It started small: implementing minor changes that would help accommodate the individualised skill sets of employees around the bar. For a member of staff with dyscalculia, she realised their mind was better used outside of inventory; for the more timid members of staff, a place was found for them in a back of house role. Particularly for an industry that attracts a neurodivergent workforce, Boushel made it her mission to create a space where everyone had a place and purpose.

Boushel leads each of these venues by example, with her indomitable personality and infectious positivity providing the warmest hospitality, but she doesn’t pretend to know it all. “The biggest lesson I’ve learned growing older is that I learn far more by sitting back and listening,” she admits, adding that she enjoys seeing how her motivated staff go about solving problems.

Recent years have seen bars around the world start to create dedicated resources, education and codified regulations to protect those working behind its counter, not just those in front of it. “For me, these are non-negotiable,” Boushel says. “If you’re going to run a business, you need to understand how to talk to people and how your employee base is changing. You can’t just rule with an iron fist anymore.”

She recognises that this issue stems from the way the bar sector is structured. “Almost all bars are individual businesses who are just trying to survive. These places often don’t have the time or resources to invest into HR, but that’s why finding a community of like-minded people is so important, so we can all learn from each other’s strengths and weaknesses.”

Boushel has earned widespread respect for her initiatives, but she doesn’t personally see it as revolutionary: “People often talk about reinventing the wheel. In reality, the wheel probably already exists somewhere else. You just need to roll it to the new location.”

Queen of the North

When Boushel was informed that she was the winner of the Altos Bartenders’ Bartender Award 2024, as voted for by her industry peers, she was, to put it mildly, shocked... “It’s just so surreal. I know so many other bartenders who are far more deserving and well-known than me,” she says. But ask almost anyone behind a bar – whether in Montreal or across the whole of North America – and they’d tell you there’s no more deserving a candidate. In typical Boushel fashion, she sees her achievement as one shared with everyone from her home country.
Canada's close-knit cocktail community celebrated together at the 2023 ceremony of North America's 50 Best Bars

Historically, Canada – including its bar scene – has often sat in the shadow of its larger, more powerful neighbour. But flying somewhat under the radar has come with its benefits, according to Boushel. Despite being the second largest country on earth by landmass, Canada’s under-representation on a global level has meant that its domestic cocktail scene has grown with a genuine fellowship between its bars from coast to coast. “I love the community we have built,” she adds.

And it’s the growth of this thriving diverse community that is paying dividends, with Canada’s bar scene enjoying a rapid rise in international acclaim. Kate Boushel is leading that charge, albeit in her distinctively self-deprecating way, one cocktail at a time. 

Miss last year's ceremony? Watch the highlights here:

The list of North America’s 50 Best Bars 2024, sponsored by Perrier, will be revealed at a live awards ceremony at Rosewood San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, on Tuesday 23rd April 2024. Follow us on FacebookInstagramX and YouTube to stay up to date with all the news and announcements.