“How we can use cocktails to inspire a greater appreciation for math and science” With Kevin Peterson & Jane Larson

Yitzi Weiner
Jan 27 · 10 min read

I would like to use cocktails to inspire a greater appreciation for math and science. Creating the perfect drink requires mastering temperature, dilution, measurement and the combination of the right ingredients. If you don’t understand how ice works, achieving this is nearly impossible. I would like to show how science can be engaging, immediately useful and present in the objects that surround us daily. The act of dedicating yourself to understanding the patterns and correlations in nature through science has gotten a bad rap, and I would like to combat this by presenting drinks based in science that are undeniably delicious.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Kevin Peterson, who founded Sfumato Fragrances and Castalia with his wife Jane Larson. Sfumato is a natural fragrance company with its flagship store in Midtown Detroit and, in the evening, the shop transforms into Castalia, a cocktail bar serving craft drinks based on Sfumato’s scents. With a background in physics, engineering and culinary arts, Kevin has gone from line cook to studying combustion using high-speed imaging to resident ‘nose’ and cocktail scientist at a perfumery that also is a cocktail bar.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! What inspired you to go into the food and beverage world?

My grandmother is a wonderful cook, and she used to prepare special dishes for each member of the family. She remembered exactly what everyone liked and how they ate it — sweet and sour pork for me; eggs on toast for my sister; and frozen chocolate chip cookies for my dad. I used to watch her in the kitchen and wonder how she was able to get everything ready simultaneously. I still think personal connection and timing are the essence of food and drink, and in opening Castalia, I wanted to put that art into practice.

What has your journey been like since first stepping foot in a kitchen?

I first started cooking at age 16 at a bar and grill called “Philly’s” in southern Minnesota. There was nothing fancy about it. And it was highly dysfunctional in many ways, but I loved the fast pace, creating little works of art that disappeared as they were enjoyed and the feeling when everyone is working all out, just doing without thinking. I cooked several places around the country, from a family diner to a fancy French spot, and attended culinary school before switching career paths to physics and engineering and studying perfumery in my free time. I studied combustion and worked as an engineer for a little over a decade, and my wife and I started a scent company, Sfumato Fragrances, during that time. The fragrances are all based on culinary combinations I learned while cooking, like coriander/cardamom/nutmeg and rosemary/lavender. The scent company started to grow and, as it did, we occasionally hosted dinners pairing our fragrances with food, drinks and music. The excitement of hosting those dinners and the connections we made at them eventually lead to us building a brick and mortar in the lower level of a Victorian mansion. Our shop is a scent store by day and cocktail bar by night, serving drinks paired with our fragrances.

Do you have a specialty? If so, what was the appeal?

My specialty is pairing aromas and cocktails. I taught myself perfumery after attending culinary school, and I learned to appreciate the ties between fragrance and flavor. This seemed to be a very powerful but little-explored venue for creating sensations beyond what scent or drink alone could achieve. It also tied to my engineering background, much of which was related to interpreting how multiple signals affected each other. I realized how the tongue and nose and eyes are all sensing different aspects of a drink, and they all work in harmony to tell you how good or bad it is. Creating the perfect aroma to accompany your drink is as important, if not more, as the ideal garnish or glass to serve it in, yet many people are not doing it.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you during your career?

There was an outer space-themed party at the Michigan Science Center a few years ago, and my wife and I collected anecdotes of astronauts describing the smell of space when they returned from spacewalks. We created a scent based on their descriptions, and put it in a giant jar that said, “The Smell of Space.” We walked around the party and let people smell the jar, and the reactions were priceless. We got everything from people wanting to wear it to intrigued curiosity to one woman who just staggered backward in horror. I guess outer space just isn’t for everyone.

What is your definition of success?

I don’t dream of a day where I no longer work. I think food/drink is a medium of communication, and you can capture ideas and stories with food and drink the same way you can capture them with words or paint or music. Success is having the knowledge, time, team and finances to tell stories.

What failures have you had along the way? How have they led you to success?

My biggest failures have come from working with people that were only interested in profit. It often leads to cut corners and poor quality work and, as a small company, we are concerned about the integrity of what we put our name on. Even if it leads to slower growth, I try to only work with people who have the technical capabilities to do a job and motivations beyond money.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?

I am working on a series of drinks based on the inventions and ideas of Galileo Galilei. Galileo made advances in everything from optics to mathematics to fluid dynamics. His impact on the scientific world and overall direction of humanity can’t be overstated, and I’d like to demonstrate some of his discoveries in the form of cocktails. Despite being among the most brilliant people to ever live, he was forced to recant some of his discoveries because they contradicted the views of the political and religious elite. History has proven Galileo correct over dogma, and I think that is an important lesson to remember.

What advice do you have for aspiring chefs?

In order of complexity:

a. Learn how to make your tools (knife, shakers, pans, spoons, etc.) extensions of your hands. The ability to break ingredients down, control their temperatures and put them back together quickly and efficiently is what separates pros and amateurs.

b. Learn how heat moves. Much of cooking is putting heat into food and taking it back out again. It has to be done at the right rate. Did you brown the chicken or burn the chicken? There’s a fine line separating the two.

c. Study food, but study other forms of art as well, be it ballet, calligraphy, xylophone, whatever. Understanding how to approach beauty from many directions is key to creating beautiful meals and beautiful experiences.

What is the key to creating the perfect drink?

There are technical aspects and non-technical aspects to perfection. There is a science to cocktails and sensation that points toward perfect ratios of tastes (bitter/sour/salty/sweet/umami). The temperature must be correct, as well as the aeration and glassware. But you can’t just put a bunch of perfect ingredients in a perfect glass and call it perfect; it has to connect to the person, match their interest and mood, and have a story.

Food and drink are about human connection, and even the best-prepared drink presented abstractly will never compete with something made with heart (metaphorical heart, not real heart).

It is said that drinks are a common ground that brings people together. As someone who makes drinks for a living, what does this saying mean to you?

When you create something you think is delicious and share it with someone who also thinks it is delicious, there is a connection. Some of that connection is between the person creating the drink and the person enjoying it. Some of that connection happens when people are enjoying drinks together. The cocktails become a backdrop for discussion, and the happiness resulting from a perfectly balanced drink spills over into conversation.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Opened a Cocktail Bar” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

a. There will always be 83 problems (I read this in a book about Buddhism). You can solve them, and others will take their place. We have a whiteboard at the shop where we write down what’s broken, what needs to be ordered and what tasks need to be done. For all we do, the list on that board has never gotten shorter. The best approach to dealing with the constant deluge is to avoid giving yourself an 84th problem by wishing you didn’t have any problems.

b. You need to look at your numbers over a week or a month. On any given day, there are a million reasons people may or may not come into your establishment — a sports game nearby; bad weather; or an Instagram post. There are ebbs and flows in business, and separating your emotions from day-to-day business is key. I have gone from happy to sad multiple times within a night as the crowd grew and shrank. So, for your own sanity, let the numbers average out a bit before you decide to panic.

c. Sometimes a drink is the pre-text. I worked at a car dealership, and one of the mechanics was working on a car with a bunch of squeaks and rattles. He took everything apart, put it back together, but the customer kept finding more noises on each test drive. I asked him what the problem was and he said, “I see she used to wear a wedding ring, but she doesn’t right now. I think she just got out of a relationship where no one listened to her.” That was not the answer I was expecting. He brought her on another test drive, listened to her say whatever she needed and magically all the noises disappeared. Sometimes what people are buying is a listening ear, even if their tab says something else.

d. You can’t be all things to all customers. Most people at our bar have a wonderful time and find a drink they love, but it pains me when a customer comes through the door expecting or desiring a specific experience that we don’t provide. I want to provide every guest with a wonderful night on the town. However, we focus on pairing scents and cocktails, and don’t serve beer or wine. Our spirits are chosen for their taste and provenance and not their mass-market appeal. As a result, there are many well-known brands we don’t stock. I have had guests ask me 10 questions in a row: “What IPA’s do you have on tap? What’s in bottles? What red wine do you have? Do you have my favorite vodka?” and I have to tell them “no” at every turn. Although this pains me, expanding our menu would mean less time and attention spent on our specialty, fragrant cocktails. You don’t go to a Mexican restaurant and ask why they don’t have fettuccine alfredo or egg rolls. Pick what you want to excel at and focus there.

e. There is a hierarchy of needs when running a bar or restaurant. Although my favorite part about owning a bar is coming up with new drinks, if the plumbing is broken, a liquor order doesn’t arrive on time or the insurance bill doesn’t get paid, it really doesn’t matter how good I am at creating drinks, because the bar is going to grind to a halt. Working to get these behind-the-scenes systems in place and functioning smoothly is not glorious, but it is the key to enabling creativity. Shortly after we opened, we ran out of ice toward the end of one night. As I was using the last few cubes in a customer’s drink, I thought about all the hours of prep and taste testing that had gone into creating our menu and honing our drinks, and how they all would unravel without something as basic as frozen water. So, while the creativity and artistry of making a delightful cocktail is our reason for existing, it must rest on a foundation of solid systems that should be built first.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I would like to use cocktails to inspire a greater appreciation for math and science. Creating the perfect drink requires mastering temperature, dilution, measurement and the combination of the right ingredients. If you don’t understand how ice works, achieving this is nearly impossible. I would like to show how science can be engaging, immediately useful and present in the objects that surround us daily. The act of dedicating yourself to understanding the patterns and correlations in nature through science has gotten a bad rap, and I would like to combat this by presenting drinks based in science that are undeniably delicious.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to make a drink for and why?

I would love to fix a drink for Dave Arnold. Dave wrote a book called Liquid Intelligence that has been hugely influential for me. He approached cocktails with scientific rigor, an open mind and a sense of humor. It inspired me to pursue cocktails and use my background in physics and engineering to optimize and pair them with scents. I would love to bounce some ideas around with him and hear what projects he is working on.

Yitzi Weiner

Written by

A “Positive” Influencer, Founder & Editor of Authority Magazine, CEO of Thought Leader Incubator

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film, Sports and Tech. Authority Mag is devoted primarily to sharing interesting feature interviews of people who are authorities in their industry. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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