Getting Brian Petro to talk about himself is like pulling teeth from a chicken. There have been many times that he has been working on a big project that not even his close friends knew about. He agreed to answer the questions for us, but flat out refused to write anything other than that. We bet we could make him regret that decision.
His bartending journey in Dayton started in 2002, when he was actually getting ready to move home. His first night behind the bar at Jokers Comedy Cafe was supposed to be a slow one; a Sunday night with a relatively little known comic. He was in the weeds before he knew it, and spent the entire evening digging his way out of it.
Yet he came back for the next shift. And the next one. And so on for the next decade. His inner geek took over; he had to learn everything he could about the spirits he was pouring, the way they were produced, the history of cocktails, and anything else he could get his hands on. Did you know that during the height of the gin craze in England, people would pay a dime to suck on the end of a gin-soaked rag? He does. He told us.
One thing led to another, and he started to write about cocktails, beers, and if he had to, wine, for Dayton Most Metro. He started to explore other aspects of the industry, interviewing people in the industry, writing about events, and generally continuing to stick his nose into every aspect of the cocktail culture he could. As he was writing, he was continuing to develop his craft at the Dayton Funny Bone and doing events on the side. He is still writing and exploring the Dayton bar scene, from the dive bars to emerging trends.
Being a restless sort, he left the Funny Bone to explore other opportunities. He has done event work, from large scale productions like Masquerage down to in-home cocktail parties and tastings. He worked for a while at Rue Dumaine, studying with some of the best culinary and bar talent in the city. There are rumors that cocktails classes are coming soon, but we will believe that when we seem them. While he is not bartending regularly anywhere at the moment, you can find him at events in the area like the Main Event, the Dayton Metro Library event for 1400+ people, see him periodically on Living Dayton, or read his work here and in the Alcohol Professor!
How did you get into bartending?
When the recession of 2002 hit, I found myself out of a job. I was planning on moving back to Cleveland, but a friend convinced me to stick it out here. I found a job, and a home, at Jokers Comedy Café. I started as a server and eventually worked my way behind the bar.
What is your favorite drink to make?
A classic Daiquiri or a Sidecar. Both are fantastic, classic cocktails.
Which drink makes you internally cringe?
I once made a chocolate martini with gin and winced pretty hard. Ordering an expensive bourbon or rum and drowning it with pop kills me a little every time. If that is the way you want to drink it, though, enjoy!
Do you have a favorite spirit you like to work with?
No, because I like to experiment. I would love to see brandy and rum make a return to cocktail menus. Both are incredible, flexible spirits. The fact that funkier rums, like what Stillwrights and Belle of Dayton have produced, are coming back into vogue make me happy. I would happily argue that rum is more American that bourbon.
When you go out for a drink in Dayton, where is your favorite place to go?
Lately, I have been haunting Flanagan’s in an unhealthy manner. Mainly for the bartenders, atmosphere, and proximity to my home. The patio at the Trolley Stop calls my name more often than not, and they usually have an outstanding beer selection. I seem to end up in dive bars a lot, too.
Who is the most famous person you have served?
Working in a comedy club exposed me to more famous people than average. Served a beverage to would be Dave Chappelle, though that is true for many others in the city. I have poured Jägermeister for Dave Attell, vodka and lemonade for Mitch Hedberg, and a weird variety of drinks for Bert Kreischer. I am going to say I worked with Chris Rock, too.
What do you do when you are not bartending?
Read about cocktail history. Read about Amari, bitters, liquors, wines, and other odd bits in liquor history. Write about all of the above. Help plan private events in the Dayton area. I also teach and work on my social media ninja guru wizard skills.
What are your favorite trends from the last year?
The arrival of tiki into the mainstream. Bartenders need to have fun, and those cocktails are just fun to make and to order. Yes, there are ten ingredients in each one, three of them being rums, but they have some flair and some flavor. Lagers coming to craft beer is also a good one. Making some crazy flavored ale is not nearly the same challenge as making a consistently produced lager. You can hide a ton under big flavors. There is nowhere to hide with a lager.
What trends do you see coming to Dayton over the next six months?
Someone is going to do a big tequila or rum bar. There is just too much variety not to. There is going to be more and more in house bitters, shrubs, and syrups seen in bars. The craftier places have been experimenting with these for a long time, but I think we are going to see a bump as palates expand and Dayton becomes better known for craft cocktails.
What advice do you want to give bartenders just getting into the business?
Learn the basics. I know that making Manhattan after Manhattan can be boring, but that is where you nail down the craft. Everyone wants to make cocktails with complex flavors and have a make an impact on the scene, but your customers will remember you for that dynamite Martini you make. THEN you can start to play.
What do you love most about Dayton?
The support that the community gives to local establishments. More and more people are spending their dollars at local bars, breweries, and restaurants. Even out-of-towners are choosing to hit the local spots, because they compete on quality with any place you can find in Cleveland, Columbus, or Cincinnati.
Most interesting thing you have seen from behind the bar?
I was not behind the bar per se, but I was working the bar at the time. It was a busy night, and I was running drinks to a table to help out. As I was returning to the back of the house, I happened to look over and see the male comic, at some point, has stripped down to just a frog thong. I nearly ran into the wall.
How has bartending changed in the time you have been in the industry?
People know more about everything, and demand that the staff knows it as well. Bartending lags a little behind the culinary world, mainly because it is not on television as much, but people want information. It used to be just people drinking wine asking where is was made, how it was made, and when it was made. Now we get that for tequila, whiskey, beer, even vodka.
Any interesting stories about having to deal with a difficult customer?
My favorite one was someone complaining they could not taste the liquor in their Martini. It was not an appletini or espresso martini or anything fancy like that. It was the standard vodka martini. Not sure what they were expecting, but they were fine with the second one I gave them.
What do you wish customers knew that helped you do your job?
If you do not like the cocktail, beer, or wine that is in front of you, get something else. Everyone in the industry wants you to have a good experience at their establishment and forcing down something you think tastes like a boot soaked in cough syrup is not doing it. I would love to make you a different cocktail or grab you a different beer. As long as you are smiling when you leave, I am happy.
If you were not a bartender, what career would you be pursuing?
Something in the creative fields. I am doing some of that now, but I would be much more involved. I am writing a ton and doing some design, so it is on my radar. But I am too in love with the hospitality industry to completely leave it.