August 2013 Bartender of the Month: Justin Pike

Justin Pike, The Tasting KitchenName: Justin Pike

Establishment: Head Bartender, The Tasting Kitchen, Venice, CA

Recent Gigs: Bartender? Historian? Artist? Master of his own modern day apothecary? Some would say that Justin Pike is all of these. His dexterity and creativity behind the bar is the result not only of his thirst for knowledge and the history of what he pours and mixes, but also a belief in bartending being its own form of art and communication with patrons. Since his arrival at the Tasting Kitchen in 2009, Pike’s fully realized cocktails—which draw upon pre-Prohibition traditions to produce homemade bitters, unusual liqueurs, and other “medicinal” ingredients—have earned him high praise.

Pike’s journey to Venice, CA, and that moniker, began in Connecticut. Raised in what he calls the “cow town” of Coventry, Pike was drawn to the arts at an early age, and moved to Boston to study illustration and fine arts at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. In 2002, while he was still in school, Pike began working as a bartender at Cuchi Cuchi, a Prohibition-style bar in Cambridge that focused on classic cocktails and first inspired him to look a little more deeply at what he was putting into the glass. Further inspired by researching books such as Ted Haigh’s Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails, Pike discovered an affinity between making art and tending bar. Luckily, he got into a style of tending bar that also had some creativity to it. There he started learning about the historical aspects of bartending became hooked.

In 2006, Pike relocated to Portland, OR, and landed bartending jobs first at the highly regarded clarklewis, and then Clyde Common, where he worked with Executive Chef Casey Lane and Jeffrey Morganthaler.  In 2009, Pike moved to California to help launch The Tasting Kitchen, bringing with him his ever-growing repertoire of innovative cocktails and focusing on how they pair with Lane’s cuisine. “Part of the fun of The Tasting Kitchen is the interaction of food and drink,” Pike says. “We may have guests who want recommendations on which of my drinks to pair with a dish, or how to pair food with my cocktails.”

Since he stepped behind the bar at The Tasting Kitchen, Pike has been earning respect and rave reviews for his innovative approach, which includes utilizing obscure and underappreciated, as well as unique, handmade, ingredients.  “My newest project involves recreating some herbal liqueurs that you can’t find anymore,” Pike says. “I like the idea of unearthing these old formulas.”

 “I hope people learn something new, get a sense of the broad scope of cocktails that is possible. More importantly though, I hope people have a good time. It’s become my focus not to take things so seriously; this type of bartending can become very serious. I say, let’s relax and enjoy ourselves.”

What’s in the mixing glass or shaker:
A Goldrush Cocktail with Nikka 12 Year Japanese Single Malt, fresh lemon, and honey.

What are some hot trends:
People are getting away from trends, and starting to learn that every drink has its place.  Have a nice light cocktail to start, and move through to a Negroni to finish up a heavy meal.  Or drink according to the weather, have a Gin Gimlet if it’s warm, and a Manhattan in the winter.  If you're a place that makes a good cocktail, have a good cocktail.  If the bar has pool tables, have a shot and a beer.

What are you sipping and why:
I just got back from bowling. There, I was sipping a White Russian. 

What are you dancing to while mixing:
In a crowd, it has to be early 90's gangster rap.  But by myself, its 80's hits.  Nothing beats Africa by Toto, especially if the video happens to be playing in the background.  I think this worries my girlfriend...

Quirks and quotes you are known for:
If you ask me for a vodka cocktail because you hate gin. Therefore, I am most likely going to make you a gin cocktail, just to see if you notice.  Most likely you will love it, because gin is delicious in the right drink.

Final thoughts:
I tend bar because I love people.  People are fascinating.  Let's have a drink, get a buzz, and laugh a bit.   Andy Warhol said the best thing about Coca-Cola is that no matter who you are, the president or a bum on the street, you always get the same Coca-Cola.  That's why a bar is so special.  Where else can you have such a mix of people from different backgrounds all congregating together to share in the same experience?

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