The Bartenders Chemist

CH3CH2OH or as the rest of the world knows it – alcohol. The chemistry of building a cocktail is a Rubik’s cube of complex flavours and nuances that can challenge the palate and create a sense of occasion to even the most average of days. I’m a bourbon girl, it makes me feel like a badass and helps me walk like one too. For Sir Peter Johansonthough gin is not his favourite spirit best complements his British swagger and hospitality.

Raised on the outskirts of Newcastle, England, Pete had a simple childhood. He attended Catholic school and attended church on Sundays followed by a family meal at his grandparents’. His family were not particularly large drinkers and for Pete there was no hanging out at the local pub to catch up with the boys; everything was done as a family with the occasional outing to a restaurant for some quality time together. All of this changed for young Pete at the age of thirteen with the death of his grandfather. For the most part it was just Pete and his mum not really ever knowing his father – his grandfather was the prominent father figure in his life. As Peter moved on to university living in student accommodation, he remained close to his mother and family but far enough to live life his way.

Peter studied Forensic Chemistry at university, with the hope to work in a lab doing blood analysis. Throughout school, science and math were his strong suit. “I was terrible at English, actually horrendous at English”, he laughs. He enjoyed the puzzles and the problems. Pete could tell you the different compounds in your blood or hair, if the paint matches the scene of a car crash. First year was a breeze for Pete, allowing him to be distracted by the other goings on of Uni life.

It came as a genuine surprise to Pete when his female classmates began to show romantic interest in him throughout his academic days – I wish you could have seen how big my eyes rolled when he mentioned this. In highschool Peter listened to everything from Enter Shikari to The Foo Fighters, he had a tendency to hang out with the “hippies” which, as he recalled, were the emo’s, scene kids, and everything in between. Pete started drinking alcohol at sixteen but didn’t ‘go out’ for the first time until his eighteenth birthday when his cousin thought it be fucking hilarious to take him to the local gay bar. “That was surreal, when you are an eighteen year old lad and you’re being hit on by a fifty year old guy in a sailor suit.”

As he got more familiar with his surroundings in University getting more into the partying lifestyle and working at the student union bar as a bartender, Pete had a lot of fun.  He liked drinking, girls liked him and he got involved in the Snowsports Society – life was good. I asked Pete what his lovely mother thought of him working at a bar slinging beers, making cosmos, whilst girls fight for his attention? He said that his mum lovingly referred to him once as a “slut”, proving you are never too old to be scolded by your mother.

After university Pete worked a stint of odd jobs in a hotel, working every position it had to offer: night attendant, cook, dishwasher, server and bartender. But he wanted to do more, he didn’t want to come in to work doing the same shit everyday. He needed to find that same fulfilment that he had felt working at the student bar. He came across your average restaurant with a bar that made the classic cocktails along with some house features. Pete looked over the cocktail list not knowing what half of them even were, and the curiosity ignited. He began to do his research. He looked into the history of the Negroni, a cocktail he absolutely hated when he first drank it and now loves ordering it in almost every bar without fail.

A Brief History of the Negroni:

“The most widely reported version of this drink’s origin is that it was invented at Caffe Casoni in Florence, Italy in 1919. Legend tells that Count Camillo Negroni asked his friend, bartender Forsco Scarselli, to strengthen his favourite cocktail – the Americano – by replacing the soda water with gin. Scarselli added an orange garnish, rather than the lemon you’d usually get with an Americano, and the drink took off. Before long, everyone was coming into the bar for a ‘Negroni.’

Camillo Negroni himself was an interesting figure. He travelled around America while in his twenties and lived the life of a cowboy for a period. He also lived in London, which, we like to think with its prevalent gin scene, led to him (perhaps inadvertently) creating one of the most iconic cocktails of all time.

The Negroni family was quick to take advantage of the cocktail’s success too, founding the Negroni Distillery in 1919, in Treviso, Italy, where they produced a ready-made version of the drink, sold as Antico Negroni. The distillery is still open today, under the ownership of a new family.” – Gin Foundry

He wanted to know everything: how to make an old fashioned properly, what sugar to use, what ice, the difference between shaking and stirring. He learned and practiced how to stir with patience and precision. In England being a bartender is something you do to get by – it’s not seen as a proper job. In North America he doesn’t get that same reaction. Here there is always a follow up question. “Oh, you’re a bartender? Where do you bartend?” Here there is genuine interest in bartending as a career. “In North America it is all in how you present yourself”, Pete says. “If you are rocking a dirty band t-shirt that you haven’t washed since high school slinging four dollar beers all day then you probably won’t be taken seriously. If you present yourself in a professional manner and you actually know what you are talking about then you can make a real career out of it.” Pete says if he was in the UK doing the same job he would be making half the money with half the respect. He loves his job and is genuinely excited about coming to work in a great environment all while getting paid to do it.

With every job, however, you have to deal with some bullshit. In this case the bullshit is people, which is a common theme here at BOH. We work with people everyday, and I will say it again: people are the fucking worst. Yet for some unknown masochistic reason we are eager to please and eager for approval. Having been so independent as a child, Pete now loves to take care of people, and to impress them. If you come and sit at Pete’s bar and you are having a bad day he will do everything in his power to make you smile. It is a great feeling for him, to make someone’s day better through a drink; he feels the instant appreciation, being the direct result of contributing to someone’s happiness. One of the reasons Pete is a bartender and not a server is because as a server you often have to rely on someone else to fix a problem. Servers go to the kitchen, the manager, the hostess to fix a problem; but as a bartender and manager he can have a direct relationship between the the guest and product, and if God forbid something does go wrong he can remedy it quickly.

Just as dessert is the last thing you remember of your dining experience, the cocktail is the first thing you will remember. The cocktail will be what sets the mood for your whole experience. So, when you are given a bad cocktail you have already started off the night badly; whereas if you start with a great cocktail it can set the tone for the entire meal. It all goes back to when he studied chemistry solving puzzles. If a guest has a particular taste or mood in mind, he matches or creates an original cocktail based on the information given. In everyone of his cocktails that is shaken, stirred, concocted, and developed there is love.

At the bar Pete is happy to be your psychiatrist and your entertainment; he knows everything that happens at his bar. If you don’t think the bartender can hear you even though you are on the other end of the bar you are wrong. He will hear you when you talk to your girlfriends about how cute the bartender is – and my apologies ladies, he does not give out his number while working. “I don’t do it, never! It weirds me out. I am shy as all hell when it comes to girls.” That just seems crazy to me! I do appreciate his professionalism as he is a bar manager now and he needs to remain demure.

Though he has had to sacrifice being away from his family, he has become a force behind the bar. He is not afraid to confront you if you are acting like a proper “twat” and he will do everything to make sure that everyone is enjoying their night. The bar scene is changing, with lower alcohol cocktails becoming more popular. Although Pete agrees there will always be a market for pure spirits and classic cocktails, a spritz or a mocktail is what people are gravitating towards. “People want something they can drink throughout the day without getting completely fucked.” People care less about the alcohol content and more about the flavour profile that it presents, and bartenders are adapting to the changing market.

From humble working class beginnings Pete is a prominent figure in the world of cocktails and service. He will continue to learn, continue to research, continue refining his craft.

Now it is time for a drink.

Me – “Okay Pete, what is the dream?”

Pete – “I have no fucking clue”

Don’t worry I am right there with you buddy, a constant work in progress.

Pete is currently awaiting confirmation of his Permanent Residency here in Canada, and he cannot wait to become a Crazy Canuck!

You can follow Pete on instagram @peterjohanson90

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