Aspen Times Weekly cover story: Meet Joshua-Peter Smith, the fixer of drinks
ASPEN – The 18th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, better known as Prohibition, led to the rise of organized crime and corruption within law enforcement agencies big and small, fomented a widespread disrespect for authority, heightened animosity between social classes and religious groups, and damaged various segments of the economy – even those that didn’t deal in liquor sales. On top of that, alcohol consumption increased from 1920 to 1933, the years Prohibition was in effect.To Joshua-Peter Smith, these were the lesser effects. Topping the list Prohibition’s sins was the decimation of America’s cocktail culture. What had been a respected and creative culture, a model for the world even, was erased and replaced ultimately by a booze industry that emphasized high quantities of strong, bland liquor.Smith is here to turn things around. He is a proud part of what he sees as America’s cocktail renaissance of the past decade. After spending a few hours with the 33-year-old, watching him prepare herbs and syrups, hearing him talk recipes and his respect for spirits-makers, listening to his opinions on flavored vodkas (in a word – Don’t!) and our nation’s drinking habits, I found it awkward to refer to Smith as a “bartender,” which in my mind is a guy who pours beer, talks sports and mixes drinks that date to time immemorial.In his current job, as director of the beverage program at Justice Snow’s, Smith refers to himself as a “cocktail mechanic” – which is a good setup for his one-liner: “I like to fix drinks.” But there’s a bigger aim there than just pouring a worthy libation. Smith is interested in restoring America’s cocktail culture to its former glory, which includes creating drinks that complement the country’s foodie surge and fostering a population of responsible, educated imbibers. “We had a serious, serious art in this country, pre-Prohibition – distillation, cocktail crafting,” Smith said at Justice Snow’s, whose bar recalls a Victorian-era saloon. “Everything was tried and true. They understood the breakdown – when to stir, when to shake, how to balance acids with sugars. Prohibition hits, and the industry collapses. The greats found another career or moved to Europe. Even now, you go to Paris and look at a great cocktail list, and there’s still a lot of American influence. After Prohibition, it’s just bathtub gin, people drinking to get smashed, drinking extremely high-proof alcohol. The culture crashed, and it’s never really come back.”In his aim to elevate the cocktail, Smith is serving up more than empty drunk talk. One morning last week, I found him prepping herbs – sage, thyme, lemongrass, cilantro, basil, mint. He wasn’t helping out the kitchen; the herbs are made into oils and essences to be used in his drinks. Justice Snow’s bar is stocked with 22 syrups, all made in-house; there is a line of bottles filled with bitters and tinctures. The restaurant’s cocktail menu includes 70 creations, some with an ingredient list 10 items long, but this hardly accounts for Smith’s entire repertoire. For each shift he works behind the bar, Smith’s goal is to create 20 or more new recipes. Smith can recite dates regarding Prohibition and talk about mahogany bars, the chemistry of sugar, alcohol as medicine and why vermouth imported from Europe has had a big boost in quality in recent years.And on this day, Smith was especially enthused about his upcoming purchase for the bar: an ice freezer that will make blocks of ice 3 feet long and a foot thick. These blocks will then be broken down into cylinders, squares and spheres to suit different-shaped glasses and different cocktails.Smith was about to get his in-house ice program, and he was psyched.
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Smith was raised in Holland, Mich., in a house that emphasized food and providing that food with one’s own hands. When Smith was 6, his father, who was a chef for 12 years before opening a concrete business, taught him how to gut a deer. The family hunted and kept bees; out back were apple, peach and walnut trees, berry bushes and a garden that Smith says “produced every pepper under the sun.” The family put the bounty to good use. “What you have for Thanksgiving dinner, that was us seven nights a week,” he said. “My friends always wanted to come over and eat. It was ridiculous.”Smith moved at a young age from his family’s kitchen to a professional one, at a local Italian spot called Fausti Pazool’s. One night a bartender failed to show for his shift, and the manager, knowing that Smith was out of high school and had just celebrated a birthday, put Smith behind the bar. But Smith had turned 17, not 18, and so he got an early start on his mixing career.His drinking habits, though, developed relatively late. Being fitness-minded in his early adulthood meant passing on cocktails. At the University of Montana, Smith focused on acting and dancing, earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. He co-founded a theater company in Butte, the Buttenik Ensemble, that did only original plays. He studied at California’s Dell’Arte International, a feeder school for Cirque du Soleil.In 2006 Smith took a job at the Keg, a steakhouse in Lakewood, and became uncommonly serious about tending bar. “People usually use it as a stepping stone, a way to get through college,” he said. “That’s how it’s seen in the U.S. – and that’s a dirty, dirty shame. In Europe, if you’re a server, a mixer, an expediter, it’s seen as respected.”At Le Rouge, which was at one time Denver’s highest-grossing bar, Smith put together a martini list that included 50 varieties and won a statewide cocktail competition. “I thought I might have a knack here,” he said.He moved on to Twelve restaurant, which became his critical learning experience. “Quality ingredients, perfect executions, perfect pairings – and that’s it. Simple as can be,” Smith said. “You want to taste all the aspects of something; you don’t need to doctor it up, load it up with a bunch of spices. I love to over-complicate, and you can do that – with cocktails, I want it to hit you in six different places. But you’ll fail if you don’t know what you’re doing.”At Twelve, Chef Jeff Osaka comes up with a new menu of 12 items – six starters, six main courses – for each month of the year. Smith’s job was arguably more challenging: He had to come up with 12 new cocktails each month – but they had to match the chef’s menu, which often meant coming up with the drink recipes in just a few days. While at Twelve, Smith also helped create the beverage program at Tag, a Larimer Square spot focused on fresh, seasonal ingredients, and worked at Williams & Graham booksellers, a 1920s-style speakeasy where the bar was located through a bookstore front.Late last year, Matt Duncan, a Carbondale native, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based designer and a lover of cocktails, was in Aspen, working on the interiors of Justice Snow’s, which was set to open in the Wheeler Opera House building. Duncan went to Denver to scout out ideas for the Justice Snow’s bar and took a stool at Tag. He ordered a rum cocktail, and Smith, behind the bar that evening, mixed one of his specialties – a One More Hour, made of aged rum and Jamaican rum, Drambuie, Irish whiskey and orange bitters. Duncan called Kiley, one of the Justice Snow’s owners, and said, “If you don’t get this guy, don’t bother opening. I just had the best cocktail I’ve ever had.”Kiley and her partner, Marco Cingolani, decided to drive to Denver on the spot. They brought with them Scott Whitcomb, who was set to head the drinks program at Justice Snow’s. After 21/2 hours at the bar at Tag, Whitcomb, an experienced bartender, said he would be happy to be Smith’s second in command.”People always talk about the front, center and back palate – tasting wine with different parts of your tongue – which I always thought was bogus,” said Cingolani, a longtime wine dealer. “Until I drank a cocktail of Joshua-Peter’s, which hit me in five different ways. It changed the way I had ideas about things.”Smith aims to hit people in very personal ways. Given enough time while behind the bar, he will get a customer’s personal profile – not only what spirits they prefer and what tastes they like but the meaning of their name, the last place they went on vacation, a childhood story and their favorite color.”That gets my gears turning, puts me in a place I’ve never been before,” he said. “I take everything into consideration, then look at the back bar. That excites people. They’ve never had that done before – a cocktail based on who they are.” A few nights earlier, Smith had made a cocktail for a woman from Hawaii; the drink, he said, brought her to literal tears. “It was really reminiscent for her,” he said. “She was really feeling it. It’s about making a human connection – something that means something, not just random bullshit.””Random bullshit” can be a variety of things to Smith: people drinking to get drunk, a government that bans booze altogether, shaking a drink that should be stirred. But he reserves his top B.S. shelf for crummy drinks: Tuaca, a vanilla-citrus liqueur; the German digestif Jgermeister; Rumple Minze peppermint schnapps; Grey Goose vodka. All are popular brands; none is available at Justice Snow’s.A customer came in to Justice Snow’s recently and ordered a Grey Goose. Smith told him he didn’t serve it and steered him to another brand – something that was distilled just once and wasn’t flavored. Something that tasted like vodka. The customer didn’t like it. “He said, ‘You can taste this – yeech. You’re not supposed to taste the vodka,'” Smith recalled. “That’s where it’s gone – people want sugar bombs and vodka so they don’t have to taste the drink. With vodka, you’re not tasting the rye, the wheat, the potato. You’ve distilled the heart and soul out of it.”As for Jger, Tuaca and the like, Smith chalks up their popularity to the misguided tastes and socialization of drinkers, especially young drinkers who seek to get hammered in as efficient a manner as possible. He believes the job of cocktail enthusiasts like himself is to educate customers away from such habits – even when that means selling fewer drinks, which some bartenders would consider the essence of their job.”Cocktail bars want to teach people how to drink better,” he said. “Drink better, slower. Wake up feeling better. And drink less. I don’t want people to have five drinks at my bar. I want them to have two drinks and come back the next day and do it again.”Smith gets particularly agitated over the subject of DUIs. On the one hand, he believes the legal limit of blood alcohol is too low. “Point-oh-eight – we’ve all been there. Every judge and cop, too,” he said. But he also takes DUIs most seriously – partly because getting shitfaced is a poor way to use alcohol and partly because each DUI takes one potential customer away.”If there are eight or 10 DUIs in a night in Aspen, that’s another eight or 10 people who aren’t going to be back in my bar for six months,” he said.Smith sees barstools like the theater seats from his days as a stage actor – to be filled by people seeking a connection, an uplifting experience, something that will change your way of being.”A standing ovation, or silence, or seeing people crying in the front row – that’s what it’s all about,” he said. “It’s about moving people. If you’re having the best day of your life or the worst day of your life, people have always relied on libation as the medicine it’s supposed to be. The bar is the greatest stage on earth.”firstname.lastname@example.org
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