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“One woman’s trash is another’s treasure” might be the tagline to Kelsey Ramage’s career.
She’s best known for her role as cofounder of Trash Tiki, a bar pop-up program that has famously recycled “trash” cast off by bars and restaurants into tiki drinks, but her career started in a more traditional vein. She spent 15 years working in bar management, restaurant management and sommelier roles before deciding that she “needed some new life breathed into my career.” In 2015, she sold everything she owned and moved to London.
After a few trial shifts, she landed a bartending gig at the now-shuttered Dandelyan, which was known for its forward-thinking drinks and sustainable operations. Eventually she moved up to head bartender. “That’s really where I developed my own style,” she says. “The team there was so creatively on point.”
She also realized that many of the drinks she created there pointed toward tiki, such as the Monkey’s Lunch (rum, passion fruit and egg white, plus coconut kefir and “grass infusion,” aka edible grass infused into a cordial) and the Velvet Brew (blanco tequila and mezcal, house-made tepache and orange bitters). “While they worked as contemporary modern drinks, they had these little tiki inspirations,” she says. She’s taken this same aesthetic and applied it to her current drinks, like the Old Scratch, which drops Craigellachie single malt Scotch into a seemingly incongruous tropical template.
During her year and half at Dandelyan, what would become Trash Tiki started to take shape, as Ramage and coconspirator Iain Griffiths (then at Dandelyan’s sister bar, White Lyan, which also closed) peered ever closer at the ideal of a zero-waste bar.
“We noticed a lot of waste going on, even in a bar that was a pioneer in the sustainable movement,” she recalls. “We said, ‘How are we going to make a difference?’” They deliberately chose to take on tiki, a genre defined by escapism and often-elaborate tropical drinks to illustrate how to implement waste-reduction initiatives. “It seemed like the most challenging [genre],” she says. “Tiki is over-the-top, has a shitload of garnishes; it uses six, seven, eight ingredients. How were we going to reinvent this style of drink?”
In April 2017, Ramage gave up her house in London for a nomadic lifestyle and began spreading the Trash Tiki gospel to bartenders and others. “We were constantly on the road; I was homeless from 2017 into 2018.”
In 2018, she relocated to Toronto to set down roots and start a new project. Her forthcoming bar will involve partnering with farmers and others to acquire local produce and other unique products, and figuring out how to use them in more than one way to reduce waste.
For example, she’s planning to work with a hazelnut producer she discovered in rural Ontario, so she can make a lemon-hazelnut syrup for a Whiskey Sour variation. But those nuts may also find their way into dried, fermented or preserved products. It’s the ultimate culmination of the techniques she accumulated during her Dandelyan and Trash Tiki tenures. “I’m looking to champion ingredients rather than just spirits,” she says.
While Ramage still has affection for tiki drinks, she describes her current drink-making style as “more refined, fewer garnishes, fewer ingredients than tiki drinks.” Instead, the drinks at her new venue will hew closer to the style she learned at Dandelyan. “They will be more modern and contemporary, still really beautiful but less tiki and over-the-top.” However, she adds, “No way will it be restrained.”