A soft spot for cocktails and vintage design turned into a retail success story for Toronto’s Kristen Voisey. Back in 2010, Voisey was working in the hotel industry and not finding it particularly inspiring. Now, cocktail and décor lovers from all ends of the city and globally hit her specialty cocktail and bar supply store Cocktail Emporium for the latest and greatest in the land of libations (minus the booze, that is).
Then called BYOB, Cocktail Emporium first opened up shop in 2011, right before Toronto’s cocktail culture began to step up its game like never before, and at a time when home cocktail-making was about to have a major (and lasting) moment. Filled with stylish and functional bar tools, bitters of all kinds, glassware, and more, the store was an immediate success.
Currently, the brand’s two storefront locations – at 972 Queen St. W. (the original location) and 20 Kensington Ave. – see a steady stream of cocktail-craving and cocktail-curious customers. A third location will open in early 2020 in the coveted real estate at Union Station Front Street Promenade. Customers around the globe are frequent users of the brand’s e-commerce business to get their hands on Cocktail Emporium’s carefully curated, high-quality inventory.
We caught up with Voisey to hear more about it…
Obviously, a love for cocktails inspired the brand. Do you remember where and how exactly the idea transpired?
“I went to LA to visit a friend and we went to this cool shop called Bar Keeper that sold vintage glassware and bar tools. It was like a light went off inside me. I realized wanted to be creative on my own terms and build something I could be proud of. It was 2010 and I already collected a large collection of vintage glassware (that I kept in my parents basement), so I had a bunch of cool pieces when I opened in 2011. Personally, I’ve always loved well-made cocktails and all things vintage so it just made sense to mix these things together and to open a store of my own (at the time named BYOB, now Cocktail Emporium, on Queen St West in Toronto in 2011). I also recently started my own line called Potion House because I wanted to design and curate a collection of beautiful bar tools and glassware that people would love as much as I did.”
What were the biggest learning experiences in launching the first store, and what do you think has contributed to your success during a challenging time for retail?
“The biggest challenge – well, I really didn’t know anything about operating a retail business when I opened my first store. I had to figure things out along the way, but it’s been an incredibly rewarding journey. I have learned so much. I think Cocktail Emporium continues to be successful and grow in the bricks and mortar retail space because our offerings have always been super focused and we have a lot that can’t be found anywhere else. I’ve always concentrated my efforts on finding special items related to all things libations (minus the booze), and staying up with the trends while listening to and watching what goes on in cocktail culture in our city and around the world.”
What, in your words, makes Cocktail Emporium unique?
“When I opened the first store, there was nothing else like it. And have remained the leading retailer for unique, innovative bar essentials, which is wonderful. All of our staff are knowledgeable about our products and cocktails – so they provide premium customer service. They help people find the right products and give expert recommendations. It’s a key part of our business. We are able to help everyone, from the home bartender to top professional bartenders. I also travel a lot to small independent bars, hotels, and stores around the world – so these visits inspire me to innovate and evolve. We source our products from all over the globe, so our collection stays fresh and unique.”
What inspired your recent rebrand?
“I never really built or designed a proper brand when I started – so it was time. We are growing as a business, and I know I needed to create a brand to reflect all of the properties – make them all be Cocktail Emporium. I also wanted our incredible and loyal customers to be able to identify that it was us. Revamping our e-comm store was also very important – making it more visual-based, informative and user-friendly was critical. For the re-brand I worked with the creative team from Kastor & Pollux. They are so talented, and really helped bring my vision to life.”
How do you think bartending has changed in the past decade?
“I think bartending now is much more of an artistic process, and I wanted to new Cocktail Emporium brand to reflect that. So much thought and detail goes into creating the best drinks. People both at home and behind the bar are paying attention to the presentation and quality of the drinks they make and using high-quality ingredients, tools, glassware, garnishes, etc. I’m consistently impressed at the level of detail and innovative in cocktail making these days. It’s true art!”
Why has cocktail making in the home surged in popularity?
“Cocktail culture in Toronto has grown so much over the last 5 years. There are extremely talented bartenders creating complex, beautiful, flavourful drinks all over the city. It makes sense that people want to recreate these drinks at home too. A lot of our customers will come in looking for the tools and ingredients to make a cocktail they had a certain bar. The trend of drinking better (not more) is also attributing to this popularity. Taking the time to create a beautiful, tasty drink makes it a special treat – plus making them is really fun.”
What’s next for the brand?
“Our third Cocktail Emporium location is opening in Toronto’s Union Station in early 2020, so that will be an exciting expansion. We are working with the wonderful designers at Iron & Ivory to create a truly beautiful space – and our offerings will focus more on gift-worthy and home bartender items. Online growth will be another focus for us, generating more awareness for the e-comm offerings. I love designing, so I will continue to grow and expand the Potion House line.”