Bartender Ilissa Jestadt Knows the Cocktails That Bring the World Home


With much of travel at a standstill and many bars closed, people are keeping spirits high by channelling their inner mixologist. For some intel about drinks that travel – and the lowdown on Canadian cocktail culture right now – we sought the advice of Ilissa Jestadt, head mixologist at Toronto’s Northwood (Mulberry’s* sister bar). Jestadt was deemed best bartender by NOW Magazine readers in 2019. We asked her where she finds inspo for her signature recipes, and how to turn the contents of your fridge into concoctions that can transport you to a tropical beach hangout or a canal–side café in Venice.

*Ranked second on our list of Canada’s Best New Bars in 2018.

July 17, 2020

enRoute Several bars – including Northwood and Mulberry – have been closed for months now. What do you miss most about bartending?

Ilissa Jestadt When Northwood closed, I quickly started missing the craftier part of my job – finding peoples’ flavours and making cocktails accordingly. While I was fantasizing about what I’d do as soon as businesses reopened, I made a point of encouraging local bars by trying their bottled cocktails and seeking inspiration from those. What I’m mostly longing for today though is the daily interaction with clients. I love the social aspect of bartending – talking to strangers and regulars and sharing a moment with them, so I’m excited that we’re working on reopening Mulberry.

Ilissa Jestadt holding a glass of The Witchcraft
Ilissa Jestadt pouring egg whites into a cocktail shaker
Ilissa’s Witchcraft is a new modern classic inspired by the Last Word and the Paper Plane.
Egg whites give cocktails a soft, pillowy texture and a beautiful foamy cap.

ER What makes a good bartender?

IJ It’s all about service and the ability to listen and ask the right questions. Before deciding what to make for clients, I go through a mental list of questions to find out whether they’re looking for something boozier, like a martini, or more refreshing, like a Spritz. I ask what their preferred spirit is, what kind of wine or beer they usually drink, or what their favourite non–alcoholic beverage is. I ask if they want bitter, sweet, sour, fruity, herbal or floral. I take joy in finding people’s flavours because when you get them right, it’s a magical experience between the client and me.

ER What are the golden rules of a good cocktail?

IJ Balance is the number one thing. A cocktail can be ruined if it has too much acidity or sweetness. But when the acidity, sweetness, sourness, potency and bitterness are all in balance and flavours work together, you have people going “wow, what is that?” The spirit is what provides a drink’s backbone – and triggers what notes will complement the alcohol. Knowing your flavours is important – agave tastes sweeter than syrup or honey for instance. My rule of thumb is whatever grows together, goes together, so I think about the notion of terroir when I’m making a cocktail – ingredients that grow alongside those from which the spirit is derived, like Jamaican rum and jerk spices, are usually going to be great pairings. And like anything, making good cocktails takes some experimenting, but the best mixes come when you don’t think too hard.

ER And mocktails?

IJ What’s fun about mocktails is that the starting point isn’t the booze. There’s more freedom to mixing non–alcoholic flavours, because you are starting from scratch. It’s like making a fun salad – you study how flavours work individually and how they react with each other. I go through the same list of questions when a client orders a mocktail. You don’t need booze to enjoy a drink.

Ilissa Jestadt pouring gin into a cocktail shaker
Several Northwood cocktails are made with Dillon’s gins, distilled in Niagara.

ER What’s your signature cocktail?

IJ I have a few that change with the seasonal availability of ingredients. Right now, I’m doing rum, pineapple, Aperol and allspice. My thing lately has been mixing cocktails that honour rum and the places where sugar cane is grown. Rum is a beautiful spirit that I really started enjoying after travelling to Belize a few times to visit some friends and trying fresh sugar cane straight from the stalk – so sweet! That something so clean, warm and sweet in flavour could change so much with fermentation and distillation was just amazing to me. Caribbean flavours are so vibrant, I’ve been playing with spices and tropical ingredients, like banana, which a lot of people are afraid of putting in a cocktail, but it often binds other flavours together in a similar way to vanilla. Also: guava, jackfruit, coconut milk, star anise, cinnamon and hot pepper. Find out where your spirit is from and go to a local grocery store that has ingredients from that country.

ER You mentioned becoming a good bartender takes lots of experimenting and playing with ingredients. What about researching the history of the produce and flavours you work with?

IJ It’s important to acknowledge the history of the beverages you choose to drink. Take rum for example: It is not widely known that many brands are named after the colonizers that brought sugar cane to the Caribbean, along with African slaves. It’s just about knowing where things come from, how they’re made and how they fit in a larger socio–political context. I find it helps to understand flavour. I’m still learning every day and I encourage other bartenders and imbibers to become familiar with the history and traditions as well.

ER What’s specific to Canada’s cocktail culture, and why do you think Northwood is a leading force behind it?

IJ Canada is a fairly young country, and its cocktail culture is also young. Northwood takes a lot from Paris cocktail bars, where several classic drinks were invented, but we’re taking what Europe started and elevating it using the great wines and spirits we make locally, and treating cocktails like fine dining. I think it’s great that Canada’s cocktail culture is highlighting local craft and being appreciative of other cultures when creating cocktails as well.

A Lady Grey Sour cocktail
A top view of Ilissa Jestadt mixing a cocktail at the bar
Northwood’s signature Lady Grey Sour.
In mixology, the rule that supersedes all others, is that balance is everything.

ER What are special ways to enjoy cocktails at home? 

IJ Keep things simple. Even the simplest drink has the ability to change your mood like a magic potion. If you’re feeling festive, try making a cocktail using champagne or bubbly. If you’ve had a long day, try something a little boozier, like a Negroni or a wet martini that has more vermouth. If you have a sweet tooth, pair a chocolate brownie with a tiny glass of banana frappé (crushed ice with a little bit of flavoured liqueur), or a strawberry tart with an herbal frappé made of Strega (a famous Italian liqueur made from 70 different herbs and spices). On a mellow evening, add a few drops of chartreuse to your camomile tea to make a fancy tisane. The possibilities are endless. You can pretty much turn whatever is in your fridge into a drink. If you have lemons, you can make a compote; fresh herbs can be boiled down into a syrup or used as garnish (slap a few sprigs of rosemary or thyme on the back of your wrist to release the oils before nestling in your drink like a bouquet); cucumbers can be muddled straight into the glass, jam can be a nice addition to a champagne cocktail or used to make syrup; and hot sauce can easily boost a Caesar. I made a cocktail a while ago using tequila, orange juice, hot sauce and balsamic vinegar, and it was delicious.

ER We’re all eager to start flying again. How can we explore the world through cocktails in the meantime?

IJ Recreating international flavours can bring us back in time and place in a sip. Reminisce a tropical beach hangout by making a boozy fruit smoothie with rum or tequila, along with coconut water, milk, vanilla and jerk spices. Return to a Venice café overlooking the Grand Canal by fixing yourself an Aperol Spritz with muddled berries. Revisit a night of dancing in Havana by topping rum with sparkling soda and a fruit purée – or add an ounce of Calvados to your hot cider and you will suddenly be reading by a fireplace in the French countryside.

Ilissa Jestadt pouring a cocktail through a strainer
Northwood’s White Lodge is a spin on a Pimm’s Cup made with cucumber, ginger, lemon and cava.

Ilissa’s champagne cocktail

“This simple yet sophisticated free–pour 1800s classic is one of my go–to drinks for an old–world glamour night in and makes the perfect pre–dinner aperitif.”


  • 1 sugar cube

  • A few dashes aromatic bitters

  • 5 or 6 oz dry sparkling wine (champagne, crémant or cava)

  • Lemon or orange peel



  1. Lay a square cocktail napkin on top of your chilled champagne flute or wineglass and place the single sugar cube on the napkin.

  2. Pour a few dashes of bitters directly on the sugar cube until soaked enough to lightly saturate the sugar. (You could use orange or lemon bitters for a brighter version of the cocktail.) The napkin will absorb any excess liquid and prevent it from falling into the glass.

  3. Use the cocktail napkin to create a slide for the sugar cube to fall to the bottom of the glass. Discard the napkin.

  4. Slowly fill the glass with sparkling wine.

  5. Using a peeler, cut out a thin and wide peel of lemon or orange. (Avoid cutting into the bitter white fleshy pit). With the outer skin facing down, gently crease the peel in half to bring out natural oils. Wipe any excess citrus oils over the rim and outside the glass. Thinly slice straight down the middle and perch the peel on the side of the glass.

Pro tip: If it’s too sweet for your taste in the end, it can always be fixed with a squeeze of lemon, and voilà, an amazing cocktail.