Zac Kvas is a man at the top of his game, doing what he loves. Now he’s had the pleasure of being recognized as such, having been designated by the Ontario Hostelry Institute as among the Top 30 Under 30 for 2019.
The tall, bearded hipster is a mixologist at Wayne Gretzky Estates Winery & Distillery in Niagara-on-the-Lake, staffing the outdoor whisky bar overlooking the rink or pool, depending on the time of year.
A shelf behind him features a chemist’s lineup of jars containing mysterious concoctions with colourful shapes and forms within. These are his mixtures, tinctures and infusions, used to create the cocktails for which he is now famous.
Kvas’s inspiration for his inventions? “My mom was a clean-out-the-fridge cook, and that’s how I bartend,” he says. “What’s a flavour I like? Nutella, for example. I like to use ingredients people have in their cupboards or their fridge.”
He also focuses on natural, real ingredients. “Don’t use grapefruit essence, or grapefruit liqueur: use real grapefruit,” he says with passion. He believes a good mixologist needs to know the way around a kitchen. “I love to cook, love it, love it,” he says. “I make a little bit of this, a little bit of that. Soups are like hot cocktails.”
But the Niagara Falls native says there’s one key ingredient in everything he does: “The biggest thing in mixology — the heart of bartending — is people.”
He says he loves to ask, “What do you like? What do you like to eat? What can I make for you?” His gregariousness has found a great outlet in service. “My mom and I are the same person. She taught me everything I know about hospitality. If I overdid it, she would tell me,” he says.
Cathy Kvas was the manager at the opening of Peller Estates. His sister Rachel does research and development for Arterra Wines Canada, and is also a former winner of the Top 30 Under 30 award.
Kvas’s wife Amy could also be credited for at least some of his success. “She has the best palate I’ve ever known. I think you’re born with that,” he says.
Their relationship is based very much on mutual respect. “It works so well because we’re two sides of a coin. We have very different skills, we’re so opposite, so it works out perfectly,” says Zac.
Both Amy and Zac were born in Niagara to hardworking parents. “We got some of that old-rooted hard-work ethic,” says Zac with as much pride as gratitude. “We’re lucky we both love our jobs and our parents.”
Both found their careers veering steadily into the service industry. After a brief stint at SportChek when he was 13 years old (“I was tall, so I looked older,” says Zac), all his other career choices have been in food and beverage — restaurants, wineries, vineyards — with one distinct exception.
At around the time he was awarded the position as mixologist at Backhouse restaurant in NOTL, he also interviewed for another dream job: archaeological field technician. Like many other positions in his varied career, that job was secured not by experience, but by enthusiasm. “The interview was at the Ridgeway Tim Hortons,” recalls Zac, a history and Indiana Jones fanatic. “I was wearing a Pirates of the Caribbean necklace, and the guy said ‘I’ll take you on.’ I worked 96 days straight: Archaeology in the days, Backhouse at night.”
He recalls one dig behind the Starbucks in town, where they found the remnants of an entire horse. “This was very rare — horses were normally used for glue or some other purpose, so this must have been a family pet.”
Ultimately the call of spirits was stronger than that of the past. “I loved archaeology, but it would have been a very quiet experience, and I’m super-extroverted,” says Zac. “I talked about booze all the time, so my coworker told me I really needed to do the mixology thing.”
When the owners of Backhouse saw the mixology trend growing, they brought in a master to train Zac. This gave him a strong foundation — and a great desire to expand. “I always say the best way to go to school is to work,” he says. “I just took it, and just kept going and going,” taking the basics of the discipline one step further each time.
“Then I saw Gretzky’s was opening, and I went for it.” Zac says, “The goal is to be able to say that every single thing in the glass was made on-site. Spirits, shrubs, syrups, garnishes, all of it.” He knew that couldn’t happen at Backhouse, where they wouldn’t be making spirits. So he moved on. “We’ve even made our own cola and root beer,” he says.
Amy’s work history started on her family’s vineyard in St. Catharines, where she picked fruit from the age of 14. Her first “real job” was at a local dog kennel. “My other passion is dogs,” says the petite woman. “I got the job by writing a letter about my love of dogs. It wasn’t glamorous, but I stayed there for two or three years.”
Her introduction to the service industry was at a Dairy Queen, and she stayed mostly in food and beverage from then on.
Aside from her time in university where she achieved a degree in global studies (with her thesis taking her to Africa for hands-on experience with coffee farmers), Amy has graced some of the finer institutions in Niagara.
From The Good Earth bistro, she moved on to front-of-house at Dillon’s Distillery, then took the wine program at Niagara College, which led to work in the cellars at Stratus Vineyards. She has now been at The Exchange Brewery for three years, where she is a manager — and from where she will be taking some time off to raise the couple’s first child, expected at the end of May.
Stratus will always hold a special place in Amy’s heart, as much for the things she learned there as for the people she met — including Zac’s sister. “She was always talking about this Zac guy,” says Amy. “I thought ‘Uh, you’re a bit obsessed with your brother.’ But then I agreed to let her set us up on a date, and Zac showed up with fresh, homemade cookies.”
She was smitten — but he still had to achieve one more approval: Amy’s dog. “Myrtle doesn’t like many dogs or men, so the first real test was going to be how she reacted to Zac and his dog Cooper,” says Amy. “She loved them both.”
With so much experience in the culinary world, it’s hardly surprising the pair would evolve to develop their own creation. Kvas Fine Beverage Company was destined to be — but nothing could have predicted its enormous success.
“When we started thinking about developing a product, everyone was talking about shrubs — so we pulled a looky-loo and, seeing that everyone was going left, we decided to go right,” says Zac. Currently the business features three proprietary simple syrups: Ginger Wildflower, Northern Maple Old-Fashioned, and Lavender Jasmine.
“We were so nervous when we started up,” says Amy, “but we sold out of the first run within days.”
“We now do 60 cases once or twice a month. It’s an amazing success story,” Zac says, with a charming combination of surprise and pride.
They explain that 90 per cent of their stock goes to retailers such as Dillon’s Distillery, Niagara College, Craft Arts Market, The Yellow Pear restaurant, and SRC Vinyl in Virgil. They also create private label syrups for various wineries. “Peller is our best customer ever,” says Zac.
Every goal set for the company has been smashed, and more are being made and achieved every day. And with proof that no bridges have been burned in the process, their graphic designer is the wife of the head archeologist for whom Zac once worked. “We drew it on a napkin at a brewery. She knew us well, so she was able to really capture us. We love the finished product,” he says.
They said they will be facing another challenge soon: Keeping all of these spinning plates — or cocktail shakers — in the air when the baby comes.