Joe Petch is a Versatile Bartender for a Versatile Spirit

source: Joe Petch

Text Alfonso Gomez

Reyka Vodka is seeking to change your perception of the spirit, arguably the most versatile in the world. What better ambassador could they have attained than the very (very) multihyphenate Joe Petch? Having been educated in photography, art, and English, as well as having involved himself in the creative field as a DJ-producer whose festival oeuvre includes Glastonbury 2010 and Secret Garden Party (for four consecutive years, to boot), you’d think Joe had to focus on one or the other at a time. You’d be wrong. Joe’s been bartending since 18, and it’s been a balancing act since. JUICE speaks to the man during his quick stopover in Kuala Lumpur and attempts to find a connection between DJing to a crowd and mixing drinks for the afterhour patrons, among other topics of conversation.

Having studied photography, art, and English, then dabbling with music production and DJing later on, you obviously came from a creative background. How and when did you transition to bartending and the bar industry?
I wouldn’t say I transitioned, I’d say I’ve done both those things. So, I had always loved music – my dad had one of the biggest record collections ever, [he was] always playing vinyl all the time, always playing live music, and all sorts of different things. Then I bought some turntables and started playing various different genres of music, not one specific. We played lots of different things depending on the atmosphere. When I started working in bars, we started to look at music [in terms of] what effects it had on the crowd and what types of evening we wanted, and depending on the music we played, what sort of crowd we’d have in. We were looking at all these things. There’s lot of history when it comes to music and bars and drinking styles – they just go hand-in-hand, really. They are both my biggest passions. If I ever get a tattoo, it’d be a mixture between a turntable and a cocktail bar – I’m looking for the right design though, that’s just my idea. We’ve done lots of work at festivals (musically) and also lots of cocktails at festivals.

You still actively DJ even now as a Reyka brand ambassador?
Yeah, I played at Glastonbury in 2010, which was amazing. Every year for the last four years we’ve done a festival in England called The Secret Garden Party where we built a sound system that we drive around and play to people. We take lots of Reyka [bottles] with us to share with people (laughs).

Red Bull does something similar to that…
… so they copied me? (Laughs)

Possibly. With DJing, there’s an obvious need to gauge the crowd for their reaction, is it similar to bartending that way?
I don’t know. I guess they go hand-in-hand because when you’re bartending, you do have a crowd, and both the crowd when you’re DJing and bartending want something from you, y’know? Good drink and good music. You could make some kind of analogy about mixing drinks and mixing music together to create a good time – or something like that.

We’ve spoken to another William Grant & Sons ambassador, Zachary Connor de Git, and he mentioned that he preferred to be known as a bartender as opposed to a mixologist. In Malaysia and other developing countries, they don’t seem too fond of the term bartender. What do you make of that phenomenon?
I prefer to be called [a bartender] as well. I think it’s interesting because I like the bartender term – that’s what we are; we tend bars – some people in the world have turned this idea of mixology into another meaning. It’s not really too important. I think lots of people look down at bartending in the world whereas in some parts of the world it’s a profession, and very kind of respected, and people like it. It depends on where in the world you are – how is it viewed here? Is it bartender or mixologist?

Depends on the bar. We’ve only recently gotten speakeasy bars here and for some of them, they prefer mixologist over bartender.
I heard it’s all quite new. I guess it’s a good thing in a way, because it actually differentiates the people who are doing something more than just making some pints. Some people put that much more effort and have a lot more passion and knowledge to make these creative drinks, like the ones we had at Hyde the other night.

You were at Hyde? What do you make of all these speakeasy bars popping up in Kuala Lumpur?
I love it. I moved to London about six years ago and I made it my mission to find all the secret bars. So now, whenever anyone comes to London, I’m like “We’re gonna go here, [then] we’re gonna go here.” (Laughs) I think they are really good because not only they are secret and private, but also because everybody in that place will be in there for the same reason. There won’t just be a passing crowd. It’s a lot friendlier and everyone is there to appreciate good drinks.

Definitely, but they aren’t real speakeasy’s now, are they? You can actually tell from the façade of the building that it’s obviously a bar…
(Laughs) That’s true. It depends on how you want to do it – if you’re in the bar and you feel like you’re away from things, that’s what the idea is. I like those kind of bars where you can be anywhere in the world; if you go to a basement bar in London, you could be anywhere and you wouldn’t know. It’s quite nice to get away from the hustle and bustle of the busier places.

Curiously, how does one end up being the brand ambassador of a drink?
It’s different for different people. I was bartending for a long time – I bartended from when I was 18 years old, I started making pints in a very, very bad bar long time ago. That’s how most people start. Then I found more and more interest in creating more and more complex cocktails, and I got into making fairly unusual ones – I did things differently from tradition. William Grant & Sons asked me to work with them about five to six years ago when I moved to London, and then it evolved from there. I became more knowledgeable and appreciative, I fell in love with their brands and how they do things. When Reyka came about, they asked if I wanted to look after Reyka. It happened naturally just through the style of bartending that I was doing and what I was doing them previously.

In terms of Reyka’s branding, did you get to personalise what you wanted to do with it?
The thing is I quite like the fact that we have lots of freedom to kind of go out and be the brand and do things that are the brand. We don’t have tick boxes anywhere. We know what the brand is. When you visit Iceland, when you visit the distillery, when you spend time with Icelandic people, you’d kinda understand it’s all about being resourceful and inventive. Half the time, I could turn around to my boss and say “I got an idea,” and he’d say, “How much do you need?” He won’t ask what it is (laughs). You’re given a lot of freedom to express the brand through your projects. Like this (points to his wrist). It’s a customised watch that I really like that I think suits the brand. It’s from a small company in America, a startup company, it’s called MVMT. When we have more ambassadors, I want all of them to have one of these because we don’t have a uniform. I just want them to have something that everyone would immediately know that they’re with Reyka. A uniform without having to wear a badge, that sort of thing.

When we think of Sailor Jerry, we think of tattoos, rock’n’roll, very subcultural. What’s the immediate association for Reyka?
It’s for people that don’t mind trying something new. They’re creative, professional, inventive and looking for something of quality, but not extravagant or pretentious. Something very honest and different.

source: Reyka

What’s the recommended way to drink Reyka?
How do you normally drink vodka?

With Red Bull…
(Laughs) That’s not how I’d recommend drinking vodka. The thing is I’d recommend you drink anything how you want to drink it – it’s a personal thing – but I can tell you how I drink it. One of the biggest ways I enjoy it over the last few years is simply Reyka with tonic and ice, and then some red grapefruit, a big slice, put on top. That’s a really nice, refreshing drink that anyone can enjoy.

You also train other bartenders on a massive scale for festivals and such.
Yeah, I do quite a lot of training, there are always new bartenders, there’s always new passion, there are always new ideas coming from [them]. It’s always good to share new ideas and methods, things like that. I do a lot of training on the production of Reyka, and also, we get together – bartenders – where we hold groups and just make drinks. We document them.

How does one come up with new drinks? How do you gauge the taste and such?
There are no rules, really. I mean, I could be walking down the street and I could smell something and be like, “What’s that?” Then I’d find out what the smell is and go, “Oh, that would go well with this.” You’re always thinking about it. That’s why I love coming to different countries; you can try new things, you can smell new things. Even if you go to a market and see an interesting piece of fruit that most people just walked past by, I could look at that and discover it. You could relate it to things, and you could build a map in your head. It’s very similar to cooking food.

Talking to you and other bartenders, it seems like the one constant is that people who bartend and mix drinks seriously come from creative fields and/or are professionals, and not a F&B background. Why is that?
I think it’s heavily featured in being creative and being social. And they’re socially creative with one another, it’s always good to share ideas over a drink. Also, bars are like a social hub, that’s very attractive to younger people, especially when you’re studying. Lots of people choose to bartend because they are in a new town and bartending is a way to meet new people, and some people fall in love with it and stay with it for a long time, such as myself.

You need to be social to bartend.
I think it helps.

For someone who’s very introvert, could they attempt to bartend?
Maybe it might help them. You throw them into the deep end and off you go – it might help.

It’s interesting that as a cook you don’t have to socialise with your customers…
… you just have to shout at your staff (laughs). But I like it when the chef comes out and talks about the food, because they don’t get the opportunity to do that a lot. I really like it when that happens, it’s a nice touch because they put so much work into but [usually] they have to rely on the waiters to talk about the food.

As a brand ambassador for Reyka, other than talking to journalists such as ourselves about the brand, what else do you have to do work-wise?
I could bore you with spreadsheets and PowerPoint slides (laughs), but essentially the idea is to change the perception of how people think about vodka. With a different kind of spirit like Reyka, we need to change that thought process, making people appreciate vodka in a different way just like gin has been changed over the last 50 years. Even whisky, with Monkey Shoulder changing the idea behind what a single malt is. Generally speaking, coming up with drinks, engaging ideas with press and bartenders alike, and just have some fun, I guess.

Prior to becoming an ambassador, had you had any interest in the production of vodka?
I think I was interested in all spirits. I was working in a very nice bar in my local town and we had maybe 150 different bottles – when you walk in and you look at that as a newbie, it’s just too much information. But you go through it over the years and you learn more; you pick up new skills and knowledge, you learn more about the production process. It all becomes more and more interesting the more you learn about the history.

What’s the one perception of vodka that you want to change?
The fact that it’s just to drink to get drunk, that’s the main one. Vodka is the most versatile spirit in the world, you can mix it with anything. There are lots of different drinks that you can make.

What’s your favourite JUICE?
I’ve started over the last year to get really crazy about Bloody Mary’s. So at the moment, it’s probably tomato juice because of the Bloody Mary’s that I’ve been producing. Bloody Mary is interesting because some people like them, some people don’t, but I think there’s a Bloody Mary for everyone. I’ve been using yellow tomato juice at home, which is quite cool.

A bottle of Reyka retails at approximately RM228.