“I started looking around the area, and it’s full of Americans,” smirks Kevin Demers, the owner of Coldroom, a speakeasy-style bar in the touristy Vieux-Port neighbourhood of Montreal. It’s an incredibly historic part of the city—and of Canada—but over the past few decades it’s felt more like a gift shop than a cultural centre.
Enter El Pequeño, a Cuban-themed bar in the heart of Vieux-Port that, like Coldroom, its sister bar next door, is an experience unto itself as well as the smallest bar in Canada. Firmly established as a heavyweight in the Montreal cocktail scene, Demers found himself daydreaming about opening his next venture and spotted what was a gift shop at the time.
It’s hard to believe that was its former life when you step into the 150-square-foot space, though El Pequeño hasn’t entirely left the world of postcards behind. The establishment’s capacity is capped at 11 (including the bartender), giving the room an inviting intimacy. During the summer months, the bar takes advantage of the expansive cobblestone street outside and increases its capacity to around 30, with the addition of a second bartender to keep up with the demand for cocktails and Cubanos. Back inside, the exposed-brick walls, high ceiling with intricately restored crown moulding, and granite bar recall another time and place. So does the cocktail menu, modelled on a 1930s Cuban travel brochure.
Located steps away from the hidden entrance to Coldroom, El Pequeño is your first stop before stepping down into the speakeasy.
El Pequeño aims to take patrons to a time before the Cuban revolution and American sanctions. “I wanted to highlight the connection between Havana and Little Havana in Miami,” Demers explains. It’s a connection told through cocktails. Naturally the drinks are all rum-based, from classics (daiquiri, mojito, rum and Coke) to inventive signatures such as the Mystic, a refreshing, citrusy combination of Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva, Luxardo Maraschino, and orange and lime juice. There’s also the spirit-forward Tocororo, which pits Plantation Dark against Avuá Amburana cachaça, Legendario Elixir de Cuba, plum liqueur, and Angostura bitters.
Located steps away from the hidden entrance to Coldroom, El Pequeño is your first stop before stepping down into the speakeasy. “A lot of the classic cocktails, like daiquiris, come from Cuban culture. Those are the sorts of things I wanted to introduce to people before they walk downstairs to Coldroom, where it’s just cocktails in your face,” Demers explains. “A daiquiri is three ingredients, shaken. It’s super easy to do, but it’s really easy to mess up, depending on how fresh your lime juice is, your sugar content, and also the rum you’re using, which changes the profile immediately.”
With Coldroom, Demers envisioned a bar that would open patrons up to the subtleties of classic cocktails, appealing to tourists as well as informing locals about the thought and work that go into a $15 cocktail. “You have to introduce and educate your clientele, and it takes time. It’s happening now in Montreal with a lot of independent cocktail bars and restaurants,” Demers says. The small space in which the patrons imbibe evokes a sense of community as well as a singularity of an experience both premier and off the beaten path.
The El Pequeño space’s transformation from a gift shop into a niche cocktail bar is an appropriate metaphor for the way Vieux-Port is changing from tourist trap to culinary destination. Demers explains, “What Chuck Hughes did in a basement with Le Bremner six years ago is amazing. Things like that are challenging other businesses to actually step it up a notch—challenging themselves but also the city to be better.” Head over to the Old Port to delight in the ambiance of the smallest bar in Canada.
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