Treating a hobby like a career with Matt Pietrek from Cocktail Wonk

Matt Pietrek is full of surprises. When you first meet him, you notice he is quiet and calm. He smiles and participates in conversations without ever trying to dominate or impose his ideas and opinions. This isn’t exactly what you picture when you realize this is the person in charge of Cocktail Wonk. The website is a series of very well written, informative and authoritative articles about liquor, cocktails and the production and history of both without ever taking it all too seriously.

The Cocktail Wonk took the time to talk with us about how he went about creating his website and making a life to be one that you want it to be, all while not abandoning a career that has been very good to you.

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Photo: Erin Hatch

Bartender Atlas: Usually we start these with the same two questions: In what year did you start bartending and what style of bartending were you doing? Despite the fact that you’ve never been an employee at a bar, let’s have the answers to those two questions anyway.
Cocktail Wonk: I first started seriously bartending at home in 2008 when our house renovation finished. There was an old service bar in our house when we bought it so we saved that in the renovation. We thought “Hey, this might be cool and under counter ice freezer, refrigerator, a sink, and bar cabinets.” I thought we were putting in a lot of cabinets. “We’ll never run out of space in there!” Hahaha. Of course we were wrong. That was 2008. While we were doing the renovation I was reading Jeff Beachbum Berry’s Sippin’ Safari so my head was full of ideas about all these rums and “why don’t I have them?” So as soon as the house was finished I came back and was ready to go.

BA: So you jumped head first into Tiki?
CW: Yeah. I am interested in the entire gamut of cocktails, except for vodka based shooters or whatever but Tiki is my first love. More often than not at my home bar you’ll get a tiki drink.

BA: How long have you been working on Cocktail Wonk?
CW: I started in 2013, so it’s coming up on 4 years. The idea was there before then. My wife kept saying “Quit telling me all this shit, go write it!” So I started but it took me a while to figure out what angle I was going to take. I started working on topics in my head. I didn’t want it to be a “two posts and I’m done” kind of thing. So it officially launched September 2013.

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BA: Your wife is also a part of Cocktail Wonk, what is the dynamic like when you two work together?
CW: Yeah, Mrs. Wonk, or Carrie is her real name. But Mrs. Wonk is a character that evolved after about the first year and a half or so. She used to be a writer as well. These days she is the director of interior design at an architecture firm. She has been an author and an editor. She wrote for some magazines and worked with a publishing house in New York etc. So yeah, I had written before and my copy is fairly clean, but it can always be cleaned up so she insisted on copy editing my stuff. I said “okay, please do”. Along the way she started inserting her own little editorial asides, which then developed into her own character which pops up from time to time. She actually ended up writing about half a post about Scotland and travelling and yeah so she’s a fun character and she gets to spout off a little.

BA: You work full-time as a tech manual writer for Microsoft, right? Forgive my ignorance about that industry.
CW: Well, not really, it’s complicated. I’ve worked in Tech itself for coming up on 30 years always as a software developer. In the early 90’s I started writing about Windows programming and software development. I started writing about Windows and reverse engineering it and basically how it worked. At one point I started writing not for Microsoft as a tech writer but as an author and contributor for their magazine. They had a magazine that was for developers and I started writing articles for it. At one point I ended up writing entire books about Microsoft Windows. While all this was going on I was employed full-time in software development and then in my spare time I was writing about Windows, so it was pretty much computers for me for every waking hour. I did that for about ten years or so then I went through a divorce in 2001 and thought “Okay, time to reset.” I needed to rediscover who I was, or who I am. So I spent some time not really writing anymore and trying to figure out, “Where is my Passion?” Then out of the blue, “Cocktails!” They are just so cool and so fun and you can really nerd out about Rum. It was only then that it dawned on me that I had written stuff before and that, you know, “I can do this!” once you are comfortable with being a subject matter expert, it’s not that hard to go write about it.

BA: Have you found some not so obvious correlations between your two careers?
CW: Well, one of the things I think I do really well is that I pick apart patterns. In software, you have algorithms and patterns and you can predict how something is going to work. Once you know the patterns, you there are only so many ways something can work out. The same thing applies to cocktails at the end of the day there are patterns. Some people call it “Mr. Potato Head” but I stick with “Patterns”. You have a Negroni Pattern, you’ve got a Tiki Patterns, you’ve got a Sour Pattern. You just need to know the pattern and need to know what to plug into it.

BA: While your writing is definitely in your voice, do you often find it difficult to be unbiased with your writing, especially when brands are picking up your tab?
CW: That’s a good question. People contact me and say “hey we’d like to send you a bottle of ‘this’, why don’t you check it out?” Obviously they aren’t sending it to me so that I can say something negative about it. I used to focus more on reviews to try to gain some credibility for the site so I knuckled down and made my own spin on reviews. I have sort of gotten away from those and now a lot of my writing is more long form pieces. Stuff like “Can Rum Survive It’s Moment In The Sun?” So I am doing stuff that has less of a product specific focus.

Obviously I get taken on trips, the Havana Club was one and the Martinique trip was another and they are showing you cool things and hoping you enjoy it and write about it. So far, I’ve never had a bad experience. Does that answer the question?

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BA: I think you got it there. Have you entertained the idea of a long form Cocktail Wonk book?
CW: There is definitely a book planned but we are still hunting around for a publisher. It would definitely revolve heavily around some of the content from Cocktail Wonk. It’s hard out there right now. I have connected with a well known spirits writer and we have a proposal together and it is being shopped around. I’m very patient and I can keep working on the book while it is being shopped around.

BA: How about opening a bar?
CW: No how, no way! That’s a question I get a lot. As much as I love spirits and cocktails I could not do that. I admire the hell out of you people who can do that. Work crazy hours and deal with customers. I have the utmost respect for bartenders, that’s why I go to bars. The reason I go to bars is for the hospitality, not the liquor. I have enough of that at home. I fully support you guys but I spend enough time with you guys that I know that it’s not the life for me.

BA: One last question, do you think that there is an album better than Appetite For Destruction?
CW: Oh lord! (long, thoughtful pause) I will have to say yes.

BA: Really? What? Because the last time we spoke you seemed really enamoured by it.
CW: Okay Appetite for Destruction is definitely way up there but for me, I’m going a little more old school, I’m going back to 1979 with Highway To Hell by AC/DC

BA: Great answer! You know would agree with you? Everyone that played on Appetite For Destruction.
CW: I think you’re right.

Cocktail Wonk | Bartender Atlas

Thanks to Matt for taking the time to chat with us.

Josh Lindley
Co-Creator at Bartender Atlas
Josh Lindley has been bartending in Toronto since 2007. Before working for Hendrick's Gin as a Brand Ambassador he was bar manager at Campagnolo and a hired gun at Bar Isabel before working at Chantecler, Le Phenix and Eataly. He has contributed to many magazines, tv shows and newspapers with his recipes and opinions. He recently put his diploma in Radio Broadcasting from Humber College to good use through The Blackbird audio documentary. Currently pouring at Civl Liberties and teaching cocktail classes for Evelyn Chick's Love of Cocktails, he enjoys being an ambassador to Toronto and talking about horror movies, punk rock and basketball.
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