It's often said that once you've been bit by the cocktail bug, spirit-ualistically, you're never the same. But this transformative phenomenon of cocktail transcendence doesn't just befall those who spend five nights mixing drinks as a certified professional. Cocktail culture permeates far beyond the walls of any bar, whether it’s a full time hobby, a family tradition or a personal happy place. The urge to create and share an experience that promotes camaraderie, celebration and that comfy-cozy feeling is innate to every human being. So it's no surprise to discover what could be called "cross-over" cocktail culture, where people from all walks of life become harbingers to their own respective niche, spreading what us noble dorks hold so dear.
P.J. Pesce is an accomplished film director and writer, responsible for such films as the award winning Western “The Desperate Trail”, as well as “Smokin’ Aces: Assassins’ Ball” and the Tarantino produced “from Dusk Till Dawn: The Hangman’s Daughter.” He is presently developing a show about an undercover detective in Phoenix, Arizona for HBO.
Growing up in a well-traveled Italian family, Pesce learned an appreciation for film and food that later blossomed into a career and a life-long love of the art of drink. While balancing the demands of Hollywood, a family and a full time cocktail hobby, Pesce still extends his reach in efforts to improve his community through not only his craft, but with good old-fashioned entertaining.
Film sets can be magical places; however a food chain exists, often with the crew landing at the bottom, while the producers, directors and A-list talent rise to the top. Cliques naturally form and not everyone gets to know one another. But not on Pesce's sets. He extends an open invitation for any party involved to join him in his trailer for a cocktail, personally mixed by himself, for each and every person. A Hollywood director mixing drinks for cast and crew? Unheard of. Talk about keeping your ego in check. This is not only a gesture of thanks for their efforts, but a timeless tradition of bringing people together, boosting morale and reminding them, hey, we're making magic happen, we're making a movie.
Lindsay: Which came first, filmmaking or cocktail making?
P.J.: Well, I started tending bar back in the eighties when I lived in London… but I had already been making movies as a kid. So I guess I’d have to say that I made movies before cocktails.
Lindsay: Where does your passion for spirits and cocktails come from?
P.J.: My mother and father are Italian, and they passed down an incredible love of food and community. My father was very much into that old fashioned Hemingway-esque booze culture from the 50’s, a sort of romantic, fun, masculine drinking world, and I always loved that.
L: I've noticed you have a discerning palate and excellent taste for quality spirits. Would you attribute this to self-education or did you have a mentor?
P.J.: Again, I think it all comes from my parents. When my siblings and I were growing up, our parents took us all over the world and encouraged us to try all sorts of food and wine. My sister is now a food writer and a member of the James Beard Society, and my passion is spirits and food, so it obviously had a great effect on us. The amazing thing is, they were pretty much self-taught: my father grew up in an orphanage, and my mother grew up the child of poor Italian immigrants, so they learned by doing, sort of the way Hemingway describes teaching himself about food and painting and bullfighting in “Death In The Afternoon.”
L: How many years have you been in the film industry?
P.J.: I made my first feature film for Roger Corman twenty years ago this August.
L: How did the idea to serve cocktails after shooting in your trailer come about?
P.J.: In the “Chinese Book of Changes,” the “I Ching,” it says that in order to lead, one must serve. And I simply follow that with… serve drinks!
That said, I feel it's important to show appreciation for the people who work for you. I genuinely believe that “I Ching” quote, and I feel by serving drinks I make my collaborators feel valued, as well as building trust and community amongst our group. As you know, a film crew is thrown together in this pressure cooker environment, with long hours and a lot of stress, so I think it makes for better work when we get to know one another socially. You become a family very quickly, and that cannot help but make for better work. It's a lot harder for the crew to grieve you or decide against going for that extra shot at the end of the day when you've served them margaritas in your trailer the Friday before. It's team building--after you've drank together, everyone is happy to go to war together.
I mix for the crew at the end of each week: I have a standing invitation to all crew and cast to join me in my trailer at the end of the week when we finish work. I usually mix my Saffron Margaritas for them.
L: What other drinks do you like to make for your crew?
P.J.: Aside from Margaritas, I’ve made Negronis, Manhattans, and a drink that David Wondrich created called a Wiffin.
L: What's your favorite drink to make?
P.J.: I’ve worked on perfecting my Mai Tai over the last few years. I make a very strong, powerfully almond tasting orgeat which I use, and I put some fresh mint and a tiny top slice of lime with a dash of Lemon Hart 151, which I light. I’ve gotten a lot of compliments on that one. It’s very balanced, not too sweet, a very clear clean taste of rum and orange and lime and almond.
L: What's your favorite drink to drink?
P.J.: Definitely that Mai Tai!
L: What are your favorite watering holes in Los Angeles?
P.J.: I love La Descarga —the fact that I can smoke a cigar as well as have perfectly constructed cocktails and see a show… I can’t think of anything I’d like better. I’ve brought many people from out of town there.
I’m also a fan of Roger Room, the Varnish, and Harvard & Stone.
L: Can we find any nods to cocktail culture within your films?
P.J.: Most definitely! In “Lost Boys: The Tribe,” I put in my recipe for the Saffron Margarita. One of the vampires describes how using saffron in a margarita is like the rug in The Big Lebowski, how it “ties the room together.” And of course, in “Smoking Aces: Assassins’ Ball,” all the main action takes place in a bar.
And one more thing: in “The Hangman’s Daughter,” we had the character of the civil war writer Ambrose Bierce. The original script had him asking for whiskey, but I love to do research, and my research yielded that he liked brandy, so that’s what I had him ask for. Of course, he was in Mexico in 1910, where there was no brandy, so he wound up drinking Tequila!
L: You hold charity events surrounding spirits education and cocktail development. Can you tell me more about this?
P.J.: Sure—I do a sort of cocktail symposium, like an introduction to the basic principles of mixology, as well as the history of the cocktail. It’s amazing how excited people get and how much they love to learn about this stuff. I guess it doesn’t hurt that I get so excited when I talk about it. I mix for them, and have them taste the difference between a Manhattan, a classic Martini, a Martinez, an Old Fashioned… and I’ve been getting raffled off for different groups, where people will pay between $50 and $150 a person. We always keep it small, so that people can get real personal attention, no more than ten or so people. It’s great fun, and I love turning people on to this stuff. They always leave with this new appreciation for cocktails, and inevitably I get emails from people who’ve attended who go home and start experimenting with mixing themselves, which I love.
L: Would like to open your own bar in the future?
P.J.: Yes. For years I’ve had this idea of opening a bar in the middle of Rome called M, that only serves five cocktails: the Manhattan, Martini, Mai Tai, Margarita, and Millionaire. Each drink will cost twenty-five euros, and there will only be twelve seats at the bar, so I can personally serve and speak with each customer.
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