Words by: Ian Cameron
He's the jazz pianist-turned-sommelier-turned-bartender who swapped the blue skies of the O.C. for the grey skies of the U.K. - and became the face of Grey Goose along the way.
We've come to meet Joe McCanta at Shoreditch House. He's there on time, I'm late; he's fresh-faced and tanned, I'm puffing and sweaty. Dressed in a smart suit, with trousers deliberately too short and stripey socks showing, he's the picture of trendy east London, the area he now calls home.
This southern Californian is also the epitome of the modern brand ambassador: charismatic, articulate, well-informed and all-smiles - small wonder why he's been promoted to Global Brand Ambassador for a spirit looking to uphold a reputation as one of the world's most premium brands.
Few bartenders' career paths are predictable. Many start out on one trajectory only to get a part-time bartending job to pay the bills - and then find they prefer that to their original idea. Joe was no exception. He was all set to become a musician, having played the piano since he was five, spent two years at the University of Southern California's Thornton School of Music Jazz programme and two years at Boston's illustrious music college, the New England Conservatory, under acclaimed jazz pianist Fred Hersch. (He was later a founding member of a band called Semi-Precious-Weapons (on keyboards) and, after he left, they went on to open around the world for Lady Gaga. "So I blew that one," he says.)
Perhaps it was prescient, but in any case Joe needed to pay his way through school and in 2000 scored a job at a local wine shop in Boston. His parents back in Yorba Linda, Los Angeles might have been big oenophiles but Joe knew little about wine. Lucky for him, the shop, Best Cellars, was run by Joshua Wesson, once named Best Sommelier in French Wines & Spirits in the U.S. and later recognised one of the top five sommeliers in the world. He took Joe under his wing and gave him the confidence that, when he moved to New York after graduating, he turned again to wine to make the rent while he continued to pursue his musical dreams.
After a false start at a tiki-meets-Malaysian restaurant on the Upper West Side, he became head sommelier at Counter, an east village vegetarian hang-out, presiding over an all-organic, biodynamic list, though it was here that his interests now turned to mixology. Upstairs, Counter had its own rooftop garden, pioneering an early urban-eco strategy that gave Joe the idea for his own line of produce-oriented infusions. "I knew most sommeliers had no interest in cocktails, and vice versa, but I never understood that," he says. "At Counter I began to become as passionate about spirits as I had studied wine and I found people far more willing to share in the world of mixology than in wine."
He scored a publicity coup when his cocktail creations were featured in the New York Times. "We got on the back page of the food section - it put us on the map as a serious bar." At the same time, he began frequenting what are now seen as the more established of the new generation of New York cocktail bars. "I was at Pegu Club on opening night, I'd go to Employees Only, PDT and just sit at the bar and watch."
But it was when he realised the economics of bartending were far more compelling than wine ("I figured that working three nights as a bartender I could make double what a full-time sommelier made working all week"), he applied for a part-time bartender role at a cocktail bar in the Meatpacking District.
If he thought he was in with a chance, not least as he had already conceived the cocktail list at Counter, the formidable owner quickly cut him down to size. "She asked me how to make a perfect Manhattan, and I had literally no idea. She said to me: 'Honey, you have a lot of work to do.' She told me to buy Dale DeGroff's Craft of the Cocktail. I still have that copy, all highlighted and my notes scrawled in the margins."
Joe had other irons in the fire, though. He set up his own cocktail catering company, using organic ingredients, and on the strength of his reputation in the New York Times managed to land a gig making drinks at the after-party for Al Gore's film An Inconvenient Truth. "I made a drink for Al, he was a lovely guy. Matt Groening came too. And [talk show host] Charlie Rose."
Suddenly, life as a jazz pianist took a distinct second in this glittering new world. That was compounded when he was blindsided by an interesting job offer from a customer who frequented Counter. It was a Turkish businessman called Ersin Pamuksuzer who was about to start a chain of vegan restaurants - Saf. "He asked if I would come to Turkey and work a few parties, I agreed and ended up staying in Istanbul for a year-and-a-half."
Saf (an acronym for 'simple, authentic food' and 'pure' in Turkish) Istanbul kick-started an international footprint for the group and for Joe, who moved with it from Istanbul to Munich and then London, cultivating roof-top gardens in each and using the produce in classically inspired cocktails. "I tried to put myself out there for as many experiences as possible. I had always wanted to travel but thought it would be with a band, rather than bartending."
It was in 2008 at Saf's first London home, on Curtain Road in Shoreditch (now closed) that Joe once again put himself on the map in a move which would set himself up for the next part of his career.
"I read about a competition for the Grey Goose winter ball where you had to come up with your idea of a dream bar. I stocked Grey Goose from the moment we opened in London - I have genuinely always loved the brand, had been blown away by the quality factor and understood the notion of sustainable wheat. My concept was a greenhouse bar and the prize was that your bar would be built and you could keep it." To his surprise, he beat stiff competition from Daniel Baernreuther, then at Claridge's and now at The Savoy, and Paul Tvaroh from nearby Lounge Bohemia. The greenhouse bar was duly built and installed in Saf's Curtain Road courtyard.
"Basically the walls and sides were on hydraulics, so they would pop open and you could serve from directly in the greenhouse. All the shelves on the front were plumbed into the ice well, so that as the water melted it actually watered the garnishes and many of the special ingredients for infusions and syrups we made in-house."
The win gave Joe more valuable PR, not least in Wallpaper*, and also brought him into close contact with Grey Goose Global Brand Ambassador Dimi Lezinska (now working in India). Straight off, he told Joe how he liked to pull in great bartending talent to work on Grey Goose events, and whisked Joe down to Cannes for some red carpet treatment, working the bar at the film festival. "It was on that trip that I found out that then Grey Goose U.K. brand ambassador Alex Kammerling was moving on. I was hired in his place in 2009."
What's a typical day like as a Grey Goose ambassador? Joe works all day, then he's out at night, probably four nights a week until 1am or so. "There's really no such thing as a typical day. It's not like showing up to an office. In fact, I don't have an office. Most days I spend training in bars, in hotels, bars and restaurants, talking about how Grey Goose is made. That's the favourite thing I get to do."
Doesn't that get old, repeating the same conversation day after day? "Actually it seems like it's getting easier talking about vodka with professionals. Consumers have never had an issue with vodka, they just go with what they like taste-wise. As far as bartenders are concerned vodka has been so successful for 50 years that they want to move on to gin and whisky but great bartenders all know it's not about us it's about your guest, and they appreciate quality in every spirits category, they know vodka is an essential tool.
"Even initially I don't think I was met with as much animosity to vodka as I expected. Of course there are extreme voices on blogs that attack vodka, but when you start talking to guys that love bartending they get it."
So far, so normal. But the difference with Grey Goose and even other super premium brands is that it has these über-glamorous associations with top celebrities, notably with a long-standing relationship with Elton John and his eponymous AIDS Foundation. Joe's tremendously circumspect, but when we push him he admits in the last year he's met Heston Blumenthal, Grace Jones, Beth Ditto, Kevin spacey, Jay Kay, Emilé Sandé - and, of course, Elton himself.
"Making drinks for celebs is not really something I'm that fussed about. Don't get me wrong, meeting Elton is epic: I taught myself piano on his records. I mentioned that to him and he was very generous about the whole thing. On the same level, I got to meet Tony Bennett at a Grey Goose at the Ivy and I got to do a personal cocktail consultation. For me, going back to my musical roots, I was blown away."
What he says he has given him the most pleasure is meeting so many drinks makers, and being able to link the bartending world with food while working with chefs from the likes of Nobu and El Bulli. "What it shows is what a brilliant industry this is that allows you to brings you into contact with these people."
But what's the pressure like managing one of those huge events? "My first such event was the Grey Goose Winter Ball last year. Any event like that takes extreme planning - it's all about the execution (and thankfully Elton doesn't get involved in that, so it's not like you get bawled out by him), but it's full-on, no less than 12-hour days in the days leading up to it, then on the day of the ball it's a 10am start and you leave at 6am the following day. Yes, I felt a load of pressure, but not because of the celebs there but because of El Bulli's involvement - to bring their chefs over and create an event for 700 people is incredible pressure but the bar team was stunning."
One of the most challenging situations recently was the Soho House Festival, which is sponsored by Grey Goose. Think 5,000 people, free cocktails all-day long, starting with a full pallet of Grey Goose. "Five minutes before the whole thing was over, I realised we were going to run out, and obviously you just can't run out. We were moving around stock like crazy and we came down to one single bottle of Grey Goose from running out. We placed it on the empty palate and stood back.
"Those events are always hard to pull off, especially as we never try to do simple drinks but to utilise all five tastes."
That nicely segues into a pet area of Joe's - his work with flavour. He's been working with scientists at the University of Reading (the same department that does research for Heston Blumenthal). What place does a vodka have lecturing anyone about flavour? How have you managed to run 30 'Taste by Appointment' consumer events over three hours in the last year for a colourless, essentially tasteless liquid?
"I don't think there's any irony. Taste has always been at the heart of everything Grey Goose has done. It's made in the gastronomy capital of the world and practically every conversation in France is about taste. I can see how some people might think it's surprising for us be so involved, but for me that was never a surprise."
This topic puts Joe into high gear - he becomes properly animated, recommends we read a book on taste and it's clearly something he's revelling in understanding and teaching others in. Suddenly he's talking about retro-nasal taste (the role of smell in taste, and how humans taste more as we breath out) and whether dogs really have a better sense of smell (they don't, but they taste when they breath in).
"Taste is what we do every single day. People don't understand even the simplest aspects of taste. The fact Grey Goose is interested isn't a cynical ploy, it's a simple way of constantly pursuing the best and looking at every aspect of cocktail making."
So Joe, is the position of Global Brand Ambassador, a role he now shares with Ludovic Miazga, former French Brands Ambassador for Bacardi (looking after Noilly Prat, Benedictine and Baron Otard) one for every bartender to aspire to? "I think people underestimate the fact to do the job well you have to be passionate all the time. It's not for everyone. You gotta love bartending, meeting bartenders and chefs. Otherwise when you are on the road for two weeks or working six nights of events you are not going to enjoy it."
A big, successful brand like Grey Goose must open doors though, right? "I don't feel like we are any more 'powerful' than a smaller brand - and I've worked for smaller companies. But the thing I most appreciate is the beautiful network we have created, the connectivity. It helps us explore what's going on in Brazil, China, wherever, I just have to get on the phone and I can talk to one of our national brand ambassadors.
"Just because we're Grey Goose doesn't mean we stop appreciating pour costs or inventory or rotas and all those other pressures of running a bar. There's a belief brand ambassadors fly around and couldn't work a four-deep bar. Of course, when you are working at a bar you hone those skills, and that means when you are not working high volume your skills are slightly different. But when people see you behind the bar, they know you've been there."
Well, it still sounds impossibly glamorous. "People think you wave a black Amex card and can get whatever you want. But gone are the days when you were whisked through First Class and flashed the cash. I get screamed at if I go over budget, and I've never flown business class - for an extra six inches and free Grey Goose? I think I have that part covered."
Photography by Alys Tomlinson