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The Toronto Temperance Society: College Street’s “secret” speakeasy

Members only: the interior of the Toronto Temperance Society (Image: Jon Sufrin)

There may be no decoy phone booth in the vein of New York’s secret bar, Please Don’t Tell, but a door on College Street betrays no hint of the Toronto Temperance Society (TTS), a newly renovated space above Sidecar where some of the city’s best cocktails are painstakingly crafted for members only. TTS just opened on Thursday, and it’s the kind of place where martinis are always stirred (sorry, Bond) and where bartenders—quite dapper in their suspenders and bow ties—get a kick out of procuring hard-to-find bitters.

TTS has the look and feel of a speakeasy: the staff hand-cracks ice for cocktails and pours concoctions through super-fine strainers while Louis Armstrong plays in the background. Drinks are made according to a stringent pre-1920s tradition that was nearly lost in North America during the years of prohibition, says co-owner Christine Sismondo. Most cocktails on the menu were perfected over generations by bartenders of yore, with the recipes preserved in venerable bartender handbooks. The resurrection comes with a fee, though: $285 for a year-long membership, along with adherence to a set of house rules.

Gin, whiskey, rum and tequila are the big guns here, forming the base of such bevvies as the Toronto Temperance ($10), a classic cocktail named after our city but, ironically, not available here until now. The gin and tonic ($11) sounds simple enough, but the tonic is meticulously house-brewed with chinona bark, allspice and other ingredients.

For those who aren’t feeling cocktail-minded, the TTS has an all-Canadian beer menu carefully thought out by the dude who wrote Cheers! A History of Beer in Canada (Nicholas Pashley). Food items are prepared downstairs in Sidecar’s kitchen, but owners want to keep the focus on good music, good company and, of course, top-notch hooch. “Try to think of us as your spirit guides,” the menu says—a suggestion much easier to follow after your first cocktail.

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  • Expat

    Great, one of Toronto’s first serious cocktail bars is knocking off the most played out and lamest gimmicks of the past seven or eight years of the cocktail revival. The rules and membership concepts are straight out plagiarized from Milk & Honey in NYC (where the membership may be lame but is at least, arguably, necessary), and the prohibition theme and secret entrance are stolen from there and everywhere else that has opened on the east coast in the past decade. I was really hoping that Toronto’s first generation of serious cocktail bars would skip these played out trends, turn down the pretension, and focus instead on a dedication to craft. Oh well. The Toronto is a great cocktail, however (it’s a rye Manhattan made with Fernet Branca, for who don’t want to bother with the the silliness).

  • Mike

    That sounds amazing, I’m going to have to try that place. Great article, thanks for sharing.

  • Lelli

    Agree with Expat. It seems silly and over-the-top considering we lack good cocktail bars in the city. I yearn for a place where a bartender doesn’t think I’m pretentious for ordering a proper martini, well, the PROPER way. And I don’t want to add to the pretentiousness by paying to be a member at a bar.

  • Dan

    Completely agree with Expat. Both the article and the bar reveal Toronto’s insecurity of not being New York by having to do the same things, albeit several years after things are trendy there and then proclaiming them the coolest thing out there. Plus, if you are going to refer to the speakeasy style bars in New York, at least get the details right. The unmarked door and the bartenders in garters and bow-ties are all hallmarks of Sasha Petraske’s bars, not just PDT. Furthermore, nobody calls it Please Don’t Tell – it’s PDT – and it is not secret at all, but is well know to be attached to Crif Dogs – in fact, you can order their hot dogs in PDT itself.

    However, any serious addition to the Toronto cocktail scene is tremendously welcome. But are they only using LCBO products? Namely, do they have REAL vermouths there (Caprano Antica, Dolin, etc.), or Maraschino liqueur (discontinued by the LCBO just when I wanted an Avaiation!)? That will be the real test of their quality, not the played out vibe.

  • Japhet

    Can’t speak to the vermouths (they did have Lillet though) or the maraschino liqueur and it was hard to see every bottle they had behind the bar but they’ve got a great selection so far.

    The vibe was definitely quiet but it was hardly pretentious.

  • honeydijonay

    Just wondering if there are any other bars with a serious attitude towards the cocktail besides BarChef and now TTS?
    Any good websites I might have missed too?

  • Bolesie

    You can visit and have drink at TTS even if you’re not a member or accompanied by a member. In these early days, there’s an “open house” attitude among the owners and members. I think you’ll find the place is as far from pretentious as it’s possible to get. I’ve been twice in the past week (I’m a member), and all you’re going to find if you do come visit us is a bunch of people who love booze almost as much as they like talking and laughing. The bartenders don’t wear garters and the drinks are sublime. The Toronto Temperance Society has the feel of a lively party attended by chatty and amusing people on their way to getting gently smashed. Please visit before you slam us.

  • Cats

    I also agree. The Temperance Society has completely ripped off the speakeasy trend that’s already done in London and NYC. Have they no shame!!
    They say they make the only ‘proper’ Sangrita in Toronto, what does that even mean? In Mexico every Cantina has their own signature recipe for Sangrita, there is No proper way. What a bunch of Pretentious Boneheads

  • H. Mayweather

    The membership was brought in not to ‘rip off’ NYC but rather to ensure that those who want to have a spot to drink are not accosted by frat boys and trend-hoppers. I bought one so that I could have a place to have a quiet drink, where the cocktails are serious and the people making the drinks really care about their product. I’ve yet to meet a pretentious staff member or member yet…Being in the restaurant industry, and working in some high-end places, there is a notable lack of focus on quality (for drinks) in this city, even in the best of restaurants. I had an ‘on the menu’ G&T and a McEwan restaurant called “THE CURE” I expected more than gin and out of the can tonic.

    Insofar as booze, if the LCBO dosne’t have it, and no one imports it THROUGH the LCBO, then bars (and drinkers) in toronto are out of luck. I have no idea if anyone imports those vermouths or Maraschino, but i’m sure if they do, the TTS owners will get it. (I have a bottle at home if anyone watns to come over!)

    Stop hating, and either join or clam up!

  • Justin Park

    What’s the dress code like??

  • abgiail

    i just went here this past saturday, and was completely impressed. sure, you’re paying to drink at a bar, but they have infinitely more knowledge than your average bartender. it’s worth it to me – and most people will spend far more than $285 per year on mediocre coffee. also, $10-12 for a drink that’s between 2 and 3 oz. is definitely worth it.

    the staff was so friendly, and knew the most insane details about the different liqueurs. they DO get non-LCBO spirits, beers and bitters. they take the time to make sure drinks are mixed perfectly, everything is house made, and it’s just….great.


  • Chimmy

    I am not a member and was invited this past weekend after making an online reservation. It was a charming and pleasant experience. There was no elitist attitude – The staff is very professional and down to earth. It was just proper drinks and an AFFORDABLE meal. TRY it before you post your opinion. Boneheads do the opposite.

  • Billy

    Went there the other week.

    Terrible place that takes itself too seriously.

  • Nat & Joe

    We Dined/Drank here on Friday – wasn’t expecting much but honestly you gotta try this place . . . If not only for the delicious cocktails, the guitarist/singer was unbelievable . . young English guy with a voice like velvet. Love the lighting & ambiance . . . AMAZING

  • Dini

    Let’s see: Premium drinks from the best (frequently house-made!) ingredients, fabulous food, great staff and service. No random drunks off the street. No drunken kids. Total win on every point.

  • Satawan Tanomsin

    After been searching for a perfect place for my Bachelorette party, I found this AMAZING BAR !! Originally book for dinner at Sidecar but instead they took us to the upstair which is TTS. It is such an incredible experience. The food we had was beyond Delicious. Cocktail and wine were fabulous. the best part was the live Jazz band !!!