The Pete of Martini Pete’s in Grafton likens successful cocktail making to the work of an expert chef
It’s that time of year for comfort and joy, and if plans include ringing in the new year with a cocktail or two, Pete Olds has some great tidings for you.
Whether you’re looking to wow your guests with whiskey, blow them away with brandy or listen as they rave about your rum, the owner of Martini Pete’s in downtown Grafton and North 48 in Cedarburg has some advice.
A few keys make craft cocktails go down easily with impeccable flavor.
First, include the best ingredients.
“You can’t make a good cocktail without good booze,” Olds said, plus “fresh fruit, freshly squeezed juices and fresh herbs.”
It’s much like that cliche about a chain and its weakest link.
“A cocktail’s only as good as its weakest ingredient,” Olds said.
Simplicity is also important.
“I try to limit the total number of ingredients in any one cocktail,” he said. “to make it a little quicker and with the right ingredients you don’t need 35 ingredients to make a cocktail. Less is more.”
Olds said nearly every drink he makes has five ingredients or fewer. A couple of drinks have six.
“Once it gets too complex you start to lose the discernment of the flavor,” he said.
The menu at Martini Pete’s? That’s another story. Olds has about 40 drinks on his list and a healthy stack of slips of paper with concoctions he has yet to try, some from customers who ask for drinks they’ve tried in other parts of the country.
Last summer, a woman requested a drink she had in Florida that included Sriracha sauce, fresh strawberries and raspberry vodka.
Olds said he’ll feature new drinks as cocktail of the week to test their popularity and will often rotate his menu.
“We try to start with things that are familiar flavors and expand on that,” he said.
Often, he tries to turn food into drinks, such as coconut key lime pie.
“Let’s make a cocktail version of that,” he said. “Mixing drinks is like making food. You’ve got to have flavor profiles.”
Olds said he doesn’t prefer the term mixologist, but he does say, “We’re the chefs of the front of the house.”
Those chefs follow the trends of the season. In summer, the light and fruity drinks like mojitos, piña coladas and cucumber mint are popular. In winter, it’s the heavier drinks like bourbon, whiskeys and brandies.
“We sell tons of old fashioneds right now,” Olds said.
Believe it or not, the old fashioneds most Wisconsinites regularly drink are not the traditional recipe.
“The old fashioned in Wisconsin is not the true old fashioned,” Olds said. “It’s modified.”
An original old fashioned, the second-oldest American cocktail behind the Sazerac, calls for sugar, Engel sweet bitters, a splash of water, rye whiskey and an orange twist.
Olds said he mixes both the traditional and the dairy state’s version, which includes brandy or whiskey, sugar, water, Angostura bitters, an orange slice and maraschino cherry.
“You have to have that. We’re Wisconsin,” he said.
Like fashion, cocktails go through trends.
“One of the trends now is using different kinds of bitters. It’s the bitters movement, for better or worse,” Olds said.
Tools for his inspiration arrive right at his door. Vendors deliver different liquors all the time.
“There are so many new liquors right now it’s crazy,” Olds said.
That allows for more experimenting.
“I try to be the trendsetter, be a little outside of the box,” he said.
Olds makes his own syrups, does his own flavorings and infusions, and makes his own batter for hot buttered rum.
“If I’m doing cocktails, I want to do it the right way,” he said. “That only comes with handmade cocktails.”
Olds said his favorite drink is cucumber mint or a mai tai.
“I’m a rum drinker,” he said.
An authentic mai tai may be different than what people are used to, he said. It includes light rum, dark rum, cointreau (an orange liquor), almond syrup and freshly squeezed lime juice.
Regardless of the drink, Olds said he does a little history research before breaking open bottles to start mixing.
“We try to go back and find the oldest recipe,” he said.
A Grafton native, Olds grew up in the restaurant business as his family owned and operated restaurants for years. Now, they run PJ Piper’s in Cedarburg, Breaking Bread in Sheboygan and Judi’s Place in Oostburg. They used to run the Pied Piper Pancake House in the 1970s and ‘80s.
Olds said he taught himself to bartend at Breaking Bread, and worked as a bartender at various places in Downtown Milwaukee and Grafton. He opened Martini Pete’s a year and a half ago and North 48 four months ago.
“After I realized I knew how to run the front of the house and the back of the house, I didn’t think there was a reason to work for someone else,” he said.
He already plans to expand Martini Pete’s for more seating while maintaining a comfortable atmosphere.
“Half the game in this is the atmosphere,” he said.
But it all comes back to the ingredients.
“Good quality liquor - it does make a big difference,” he said.
Pete Olds, owner of Martini Pete’s in downtown Grafton, said the key to making good cocktails is the quality of the ingredients, from good liquor to fresh fruit and herbs.