“Understanding the history of alcohol is akin to understanding history,” said mixologist Joe Dietrich of one of his biggest lessons learned during his time studying the culture and history of alcoholic spirits and the craft of mixology.
Dietrich is currently the manager and one of the prime bartenders at Bellevue’s Civility & Unrest, a bar owned by James Beard award-winning chef Jason Wilson. Dietrich has been bartending at Civility & Unrest since it opened in 2017.
Currently, the venue is a cocktail-centric affair, elegantly decorated and dimly lit, but Dietrich said it was not always that way. It used to have a DJ booth and would bring in dancing crowds, an environment that Dietrich was familiar with as a bartender for 15 years now.
He began working behind a bar-top at a bar and music venue his father owned in Tempe, Arizona. He began serving drinks around the age of 19, when it was legal to do so in Arizona.
Early on, most of his experiences were at music venues and neighborhood dive bars, venues that focused on high-volume and fast-paced service with little to no focus on the crafted cocktails or any drink not coming from a well or a can.
Eventually, Dietrich had an “aha moment” when he realized that there was a craft to be practiced — and a means of cultural appreciation and history that could be conveyed by the creation of a cocktail.
He realized a cocktail could be used to highlight alcoholic spirits that captured the terroir from the region they originated, and that by tasting these spirits, one was experiencing a product and a craft as old as civilization itself.
“This can be a profession,” he realized.
He decided to educate himself by enrolling in a wine and spirits course. He taught himself about the history and culture behind regional spirits. He went to Japan and watched how meticulous Japanese bartenders were when they prepared cocktails that were so intentionally designed — with not an ingredient or technique out of place. He realized they were trying to do more than just create a beverage. They were creating an experience.
He became interested in molecular gastronomy and the chemistry behind the cocktail. He now practices techniques that utilize liquid-nitrogen to freeze herbs so they lock in the freshness of their cells and prevent oxidation when muddling, or centrifuges, which separate the solids from fresh fruit juices, allowing them to be carbonated.
Dietrich said Civility & Unrest felt like a mismatch at first, with its DJ booth and multiple spaces. But as he began to take a leadership role at the venue, the focus shifted away from being a dancing venue to one that emphasized elevated service and cocktails.
He joked that he didn’t want to make someone a well thought out and executed high-end cocktail just to have it bumped out of their hand by someone dancing to the DJ’s music.
Dietrich was largely handed the reins to Civility & Unrest by Jason Wilson, whom he said did not drink and therefore found sense in trusting the bar’s direction to Dietrich, a now accomplished bartender.
Dietrich said it was important for him to maintain the James Beard award-winning standard that Wilson had met with his other ventures. He has tried to do so by also paving his own way with his influences, cultural knowledge and appreciation for the craft.
More likely than not, if a guest shows up to Civility & Unrest on any given night, Dietrich will be there to make them a cocktail, and he can do so just by asking what kind of flavors you are interested in and what kind of spirit you would like.
He said the bar is currently menu-less, and bartenders might “invent” or compose 40-50 unique cocktails during a night of service.
Dietrich compares this approach to the way he prefers to order sushi. He said ordering the “chef’s choice” allows an experienced and skilled sushi chef to decide what you will receive based on what he knows is the freshest, best quality and most well-representing dishes available in their kitchen. This is what Dietrich hopes to offer his guests with the spirits in his bar.
That’s the spirit
He said he wanted to showcase some less traditional and non-standard alcoholic spirits. He pointed out his large collection of aromatic Italian-style bitters — and the fact that he only has a variety or two of actual tequila — and instead includes a variety of mezcal spirits.
“All tequila is mezcal, but not all mezcal is tequila,” said Dietrich.
He said tequila is from a specific region in Mexico and it is made from a specific variety of agave grown in that region. The popularity of tequila, he explained, has caused that variety of agave to go into high demand, forcing less sustainable farming practices and early harvesting of agave plants that take up to 10 years to fully mature.
Dietrich said the mezcal varieties he has on his shelf are often made in smaller batches and are very regionalized to specific parts of Mexico. He said these spirits can help tell the story of the villages in which they have been made the same way for generations. It allows for an exploration of the flavors and terroir of the region of its origin. Dietrich said he can tell the difference in taste between mezcals made with agave that was grown in low altitudes versus those that were grown in the highlands.
This idea, of storytelling and teaching through the artisan cocktails and spirits, is the goal that Dietrich has had in mind with his direction of Civility & Unrest. However, he will not try and force it on his guests, though they exist whether people are interested or not.
“If someone wants a Tito’s and soda, I will make them one,” Dietrich conceded. “But it may have a hand-cut piece of ice in it.”
This attention to detail, the preparation, the execution and the respect for the craft is how Dietrich is trying to make Civility & Unrest a special experience for its guests, and he says he won’t quit until the bar is one of the 50 best in the world.
“That’s the goal,” he said.