Interview with Justin Pike of the Tasting Kitchen

Justin Pike
Justin Pike

Today we chat with Justin Pike of the Tasting Kitchen. The Tasting Kitchen opened in 2009.

What first drew you to become a bartender and ultimately create your own cocktails?

I went to art school, graduated, then studied abroad in Italy. When I returned that summer, I stayed unemployed for as long as possible until eventually I was dead broke and needed a job. I tried being a dog walker but that sucked because they gave me all the weirdo animals. I had a diabetic cat and dog that was 16 and deaf, blind, and couldn’t barely walk. Then I was a valet at a crappy hotel working with high school thugs, but that lasted about six hours before I walked off the job. I finally got a normal gig as a barback at a cocktail place when cocktails were just starting to be popular as “fresh fruit muddled martinis”. The short hours and days free allowed me time to paint. From there, I got trained as a bartender and began reading about these old bitters that were no longer around. I guess that’s where I really became interested in cocktails; the history stuff, and all the old ways that had been forgotten.

What is your approach to the Menu at the Tasting Kitchen?
Well you have to have variety, not only in spirits, but in complexity and maturity. Our first drink on the menu is the simplest, the beginner drink, “the baby bird” as the name implies. Of course, it’s a vodka drink. And we go on from there.

What makes our menu really interesting though is the simplicity in description that we have. It’s immensely understated, because we only use a few words per drink to describe each cocktail. For example, the “Coco Joe’s Punch (a sort of plantar’s punch style drink) reads “rum, cardamom, citrus”. We neglect to mention it’s Appleton Estate Rum, lemon, lime, housemade cardamom dram, housemade falernum (which uses smith and cross as the base), and cherry heering, all roll shaken with large format ice that we make to preserve texture, and strained with a mint sprig garnish.

This format does two things: it weeds out the bad questions and the timidity in ordering something because it has obscure ingredients, but it also encourages conversation and dialogue with people who are curious about what we are doing. That way, we are not forcing anything on anyone.

What do you use for inspiration in creating cocktails? For example is it food, music, a mood?
Well it usually starts with wanting to use something. Or filling a gap on the menu. I can’t help but think of music when I make cocktails. I grew up playing the piano. I read a lot of classical music in my life. I see cocktails as having crescendos and meter and length and sound. So I don’t necessarily use music as inspiration, but more as a way to translate what I taste into a form that I can understand. If I see a gap in taste in the mid- palette, then I think about what “instrument” I can use to fill the gap. What spirit can I use to bridge the taste so that it sings?

What are 2 of the most interesting or obscure syrups that you have created?

Damiana tonic and kola nut syrup.

Damiana I found fascinating and researched, using a basic tonic recipe. I then added another ancient tonic from Europe called elecampane. Its really earthy and tastes like dirt (though what tonic additive doesn’t taste like dirt). It was so odd when I finished, I added it to a gin and pineapple drink and it gave a beautiful complexity underneath some very bright and happy flavors.

With kola, it was a simpler story. I have always loved soda. I grew up in new England, and drank plenty of sarsaparilla (wow that word is a rough spelling bee word) and birch beer. So when I researched cola, I found kola. It gives drinks such a wonderful rich sweetness and depth.

What inspired you to create the Tipperary Fizz?
A mistake. A big mistake. I, like everyone, grabbed onto the barrel aging bandwagon, not really understanding at first that just because you barrel age a drink does mean its going to taste better. In fact, sometimes the drink gets bland or flat. Think of the musical phrase when the instruments sound muddy. So when I finished barrel aging the tipperary, I had five cases of flat stirred cocktail made from equal parts jameson, carpano, and green chartreuse.

I avoided shaken drinks at first because of that big rule, “don’t shake vermouth”. But finally I tinkered and found that the texture seemed softer than normal because of the vermouth. So I went further and tried an egg white drink, and found that it was a most beautiful egg white sour. The texture was softer, the bubbles smaller. I topped it with soda and that’s the tipperary fizz.

Irish whiskey is not often seen in cocktails so what led you to choosing it?
Well the original tipperary is with irish whiskey. It’s like a whiskey version of a bijou.

What kind of barrel did you use for the aging and how did your choice of barrel affect the creation of the cocktail?
I used a Hudson rye barrel. As I mentioned, the barrel aging concentrated the sugars in the vermouth and it helps give the egg white even more texture in the final product.

Can you offer an original recipe for our audience that uses an interesting process or syrup?
My favorite syrups are ones that take forever to go bad, if ever. That way you can make it and not worry about wasting a whole bunch of time and money on something that you can only enjoy in a few weeks. So I make drams, syrups where the base is booze.

I heart Wray and Nephew so it became base for the Fennel dram which, I use in the English garden, really simple shaken gimlet with cucumber.
½ cup fennel seed mortared (or ground in a grinder)
1 3/4 cups wray and nephew
Combine the rum and fennel seed and allow to infuse at room temperature for 10 days then strain. Combine with 3 3/4cups of 2:1 simple syrup.

English Garden
2 oz. gin
1 oz. lime
¾ oz. fennel dram
2 cucumber
shake strain on large rocks, add sliced cucumbers into drink

The Tasting Kitchen
1633 Abbot Kinney Boulevard, Venice, CA 90291


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