L.A. Cocktails: Liquid Heaven
At the Varnish, a speakeasy-style downtown bar that is now the city’s shrine to the art of the cocktail, the who’s who of the L.A. mixology scene are arriving. Tucked into the back of Cole’s, it’s a fine gathering place for an event with the Sporting Life, a skull-and-bones guild of our most celebrated bartenders. Steven Olson is pacing out front, doing last-minute fact-checking on the history of the margarita. His colleague David Wondrich is taking the full brunt of Olson’s frayed nerves. “Some of the most important bartenders in the country are in there,” says Olson. “I need to make sure this story has been confirmed.”
As the room fills, a near fistfight erupts in the corner—about ice. Yes, frozen water. The two bartenders defend their positions like family honor. Ice is that big of a deal. In fact, it might—save only for temperature—be the single most overlooked factor affecting mainstream cocktails. As bartender Eric Alperin asserts, “Ice is the bartender’s flame, and it’s often the most disregarded ingredient.”
Olson begins his presentation and goes on to debunk an old myth: The margarita was not invented in an Acapulco bar in 1948; it is actually a descendent of the Brandy Daisy, which dates back to the late 19th century. A gasp issues from the crowd—these people are serious cocktail nerds.
“The Barbacoa pushes all the boundaries of taste—sweet, salty, sour, bitter and, yes, the fifth element: umami.”
“Half of the country’s top 10 bartenders today are in L.A.,” Olson says. But as recently as six years ago, the state of cocktails in Los Angeles was at a low point. In spite of the city’s illustrious lineage, only a handful of places remained where one could get a proper drink. Gone were the days of Billy Wilkerson and his speakeasy-inspired nightclub crusade that included classic haunts like Ciro’s and Trocadero.
Enter the visionaries. In 2004, it seemed like a crazy idea to make a pilgrimage from, say, the Westside to downtown for one of Cedd Moses’ first properties, the Golden Gopher. Moses was an early pioneer and cannot be given enough props in terms of his vital role in reshaping downtown and preserving our cocktail legacy.
Today, the rate at which significant cocktail bars are opening and world-class bartenders are emerging makes Los Angeles the most exciting scene in the United States.
The proof, however, as is said, is in the pudding—or in this case, the libation. Our informal tasting panel sipped its way across town to seek out noteworthy and unique drinks that not only taste remarkable but represent a creative leap in construction. The research, we assure you, was strictly academic…
THE BARBACOA, THE DONAJI, and BLOOD SUGAR SEX MAGIC; Julian Cox, Rivera
Rivera’s Cox is modest and kindly, but his cocktails at this downtown spot are fierce—starting with the Barbacoa—a blend of Herradura Silver tequila, lime juice, red jalapeños and red bell peppers, chipotle puree, house-made ginger syrup and agave nectar, garnished with beef jerky. (Note: Barbacoa refers to meats wrapped in maguey leaves and cooked in earthen holes.) It’s like nothing you’ve ever tasted and breaks myriad rules in its ascent to brilliance. The nose erupts immediately into perplexity, pushing all the boundaries of what we know about taste—sweet, salty, sour, bitter and, yes, the fifth element: umami.
The Donají is Cox’s ode to the storied Zapotec princess, featuring Del Maguey San Luis del Rio mezcal, citrus juice and agave nectar, colorfully accented with fresh pomegranates, an organic lemon leaf and chapulin salt—the latter two garnered from unnamed local sources. This is perhaps the purest aromatic expression of mezcal that a cocktail has ever known. The palate is impeccably balanced, with an intense depth of flavor, refreshing finish and lingering clean redolence in which the sweet citrus marries with the herbaceous characteristics of the distillate.
Blood Sugar Sex Magic is a delectable potion of Michter’s Single Barrel US1 straight rye whiskey, agave nectar, chili pepper, lemon slices and basil. The ingredients are muddled and shaken, then served over ice. While the base spirit is decidedly non-Latin, the explosive, spicy flavors make for yet another beautiful cocktail pairing.
THE KING OF BAHIA; Vincenzo Marianella, Copa d’Oro
Selecting a single cocktail from Marianella—who, when he joined Providence in 2005, became il Padrino (the godfather) of L.A.’s cocktail renaissance—is challenging, particularly since his most compelling drinks are often invented on the spot. Among his jewels, however, is an appropriately named concoction that evokes the sensual essence of Brazil. The King of Bahia features disparate ingredients—Brazilian Sagatiba cachaça, St- Germain elderflower liqueur, passion fruit, lemon juice, jalapeño and simple syrup—that collide exquisitely with bossa nova–like poise. The immensely complex flavors are gloriously confusing to the palate, revealing layers of sophistication—running the spectrum from luscious nectar to intense heat—that are only trumped by sheer, unanticipated balance. Sultry and sumptuous.
A former semi-pro basketball player from Italy, Marianella is modest, claiming that since the age of 19 he has “stolen” techniques from bartenders from Sydney to New York to London, where he met his most significant mentor, Salvatore Calabrese. “But it takes two to tango. A passionate bartender can only do so much,” he says, referring to Moses, whom he bluntly calls a genius. Currently, Marianella is his own master at Copa d’Oro in Santa Monica, which he was tapped to join by Jonathan Chu at the beginning of 2009. The Westside oasis derives inspiration from the Santa Monica farmers’ market, allowing patrons to create cocktails from a select menu of spirits, herbs, fruits and vegetables—yielding exquisite libations.
THE ARSENAL Zahra Bates, Providence
This master takes her craft up a notch with the Arsenal—a fruit-driven classically inspired cocktail that is seamlessly balanced in its sweetness. Bulleit bourbon, agave nectar, Angostura bitters and muddled olallieberries and passion-fruit puree add up to an unrivaled complexity and purity. “I suppose the Arsenal is a true reflection of my style of mixing,” Bates says. “I love to make the spirit I am working with shine—in this case, bourbon, drawing out the citrus and dark fruit notes, yet not forgetting its beautiful smoky qualities.” Her respect for the base spirit and its modifiers is evident; this has to be one of the best cocktails in the country.
When Bates—now mixing it up at Hollywood’s Providence, after working six years in London at the Sanderson Hotel, as well as at Hollywood’s legendary Bar Marmont—shakes a cocktail, she has to use her entire body, starting at the knees, because, as she kids, “I’m so small I need all the help I can get.” If you catch her on a slow night or early in a shift, you might be lucky enough to pull a few stories out of her—and she definitely has her share.
THE NETTLE; Daniel Nelson, Doheny
Deep in Nelson’s repertoire are cocktails containing ingredients that even seasoned barmen use sparingly—raw ginger, myriad liqueurs and absinthe, to name a few. He has an instinctive understanding of base spirits, their congeners and modifying agents, and he marries them effortlessly. Among his most popular are the Square Cup, the Ginger Margarita, the Walnut Manhattan and his infamous Blue Blazer.
The Nettle, however, is a singular mixture that might just flaunt the best use of absinthe in any libation. It blends fresh-squeezed blood-orange juice, honey syrup and absinthe—all shaken with ice and poured into a flute, then topped with champagne. It is immediately bright and refreshing while rich and darkly complex. To take the first sip is to embark on a journey that inevitably meanders into shady districts, consequential of the magnificent Le Tourment Vert absinthe, reconciling in the brightness of Perrier-Jouët Brut Champagne.
Nelson entered the collective L.A. consciousness most prominently at Providence. These days, he’s both reviving centuries-old cocktails and blazing trails with new inventions at the Doheny, a private downtown club owned by Cedd Moses and Mark Verge.
THE BROWN DERBY; Marcos Tello, The Edison and The Varnish
Few bartenders are more scholarly about cocktail history than Tello. He regales his patrons with stories of George Washington’s punch parties, culminating in a version of the Whiskey Rebellion you never read about in school. Tello’s Brown Derby—which originated at the Vendome, the first in a string of clubs opened by Billy Wilkerson—is about as easy as it gets in terms of ingredients: bourbon, grapefruit and honey. But his result is greater than the sum of its parts. By the third sip, complexity blooms, and the ingredients blend flawlessly.
Tello is the quintessential organizer—timeless and zealous in his campaign for reform—and he is beloved. He serves as president of the Southern Chapter of the United States Bartenders’ Guild (USBG), and he founded the Sporting Life, the society of L.A.’s benevolent cocktail illuminati.
THE SPICED MULE; Damian Windsor, The Roger Room
Among his peers, Australian native Damian Windsor is consistently mentioned as one of the best barmen in L.A. A favorite cocktail of his is the Spiced Mule, inspired by a trip to the Curio Parlor cocktail club in Paris and conjuring images of tall ships and late-19th-century seaports. “Rum was the first currency of Australia, and the only people eating limes back then were sailors,” he says. Everything is complementary and contradictory at the same time—naughty and pure. Fresh liquefied ginger is beautifully tempered by lime and a spice-infused simple syrup of nutmeg, vanilla and cinnamon, paving a landing strip for the beautifully balanced Sailor Jerry spiced rum. The palate is intensely sweet, explosively spicy and entirely mysterious, yielding complex flavors, borrowing from the best of Indochina along the colonial spice route.
Windsor has a cult-like following that tracks his every move: from Table 8 to Copa d’Oro to Seven Grand. He currently holds forth at the Roger Room, which opened its unmarked doors on La Cienega earlier this summer.
SOUTH OF THE BORDER SAZERAC; Jason Bran, The Roger Room
Born out of a dinner in which he matched eight courses of food with original cocktails is Bran’s South of the Border Sazerac. The original Sazerac, one of the oldest known cocktails—and a New Orleans native like Bran—calls for rye whiskey, Peychaud’s bitters (and only Peychaud’s), a sugar cube, a splash of absinthe and a lemon for garnish. Bran loves the drink because “after all these years, it is true to the spirit—you can taste the whiskey. The bitters and absinthe are secondary.” In his version, he substitutes rye with Don Julio añejo tequila, the sugar cube with agave nectar, the Peychaud’s with Fee Brothers grapefruit bitters and Regans’ orange bitters. The tequila and bitters—unlikely bedfellows—interweave a structure in which the absinthe dances whimsically, lending an intricate harmony. This is innovative drinksmithing—breaking ground while maintaining a reverence for classics.
Bran trained in Seattle as both barman and circus performer. While under the tutelage of famed Seattle barman Murray Stenson of the Zig Zag Café, he studied with the Teatro ZinZanni troupe. His circus background coupled with an interest in writing led him to L.A., where he has made a significant name for himself as an assertive barman.
REMEMBER THE MAINE; Eric Alperin, The Varnish
Commemorating the attack on the USS Maine in Havana Harbor in 1898 and the subsequent call to arms that led to the Spanish-American War, Eric Alperin’s version of Remember the Maine is exceptional. The recipe includes Old Overholt rye—for its nutty profile and backbone—Dolin Rouge Vermouth de Chambéry, Cherry Heering, a spray of Pernod absinthe and a slightly wet Luxardo Marasche cherry. The rye is first and foremost, giving way to a battle between Cherry’s sweet spice and absinthe’s herbaceous muse. The overwhelmingly complex palate is at once sweet, sour and bitter, revealing layers of rich, deep flavor that persist indefinitely.
Alperin’s pedigree is unparalleled. After tenures in New York—Lupa (Mario Batali, Joe Bastianich) and the Milk & Honey/Little Branch family (Sasha Petraske)—he was brought here to open Osteria Mozza, then moved downtown to the Doheny and now the Varnish. For him, cocktails are personal: “Man, I relate drinks to moments and experiences—that first sip after a tough job or that glass of something after a good romp in the bedroom.”
THE FASHIONISTA, David Kupchinsky, Comme Ça
This creation might just be Kupchinsky’s signature cocktail. The Fashionista calls for Martin Miller’s Westbourne Strength gin (a good start), Peychaud’s bitters, a pinch of tarragon, Luxardo Marasche cherries and Banyuls vinegar. It’s a unique example of a culinary cocktail that stays within the realm of traditional libations. The very floral nature of the gin begins a delectable dance that is enhanced by the tarragon, taking twists into the sweetness of cherry and the sharpness of bitters. In between, there is something quite remarkable—a concoction of toasted juniper, white pepper and coriander seeds marinated in Banyuls vinegar that lends a delightful convolution. Think herbaceous, floral, spicy and rich.
At West Hollywood’s Comme Ça, Kupchinsky is unassuming and enchantingly disconnected from the scene. He seems to channel spirits in his cocktail making and relies on his intuition more than trends. He offers a decidedly refreshing twist on the sidecar—his lemon-verbena version calls for Kelt Cognac, Cointreau, honey, lemon and lemon verbena, topped with Regans’ orange bitters. Highly recommended.
OLD-FASHIONED; John Coltharp, Seven Grand
With a complete redefinition of the venerable old-fashioned that poses impeccable balance and thorough longevity, Coltharp creates his most formidable drink. The nose is complex in its purity, offering balmy lemon skin, jasmine and orange blossoms, with oscillating waves of sweet and bitter. To quote the drinksmith: “A well-made old-fashioned is the bedrock of cocktails. A bartender who doesn’t take care in building one is someone I’m buying a beer and a shot from. They’ve been made for over 200 years. Let’s give a nod to those that poured before us, and make them right.” His incarnation consists of Sazerac six-year rye whiskey—as he calls it, “Baby Saz”—a white sugar cube, Angostura bitters, soda water and lemon and orange peels. But it’s not the ingredients that make it—rather, it’s the hand of the craftsman.
Coltharp trained under Australia’s Sammy Ross—of Milk & Honey/Little Branch fame—at Comme Ça and Sona, making him an indirect descendant of New York legend Sasha Petraske. This experience, no doubt, prepared him for his true love—whiskey—and an invitation to join Cedd Moses’ Seven Grand downtown, the first serious property built for and around spirits.
PISCO SOUR; Lucas Paya, The Bazaar
PAYA, The Bazaar
Barcelona native Paya’s pièce de résistance has to be his Pisco Sour, served in a cocktail glass with Pisco 100, lemon and lime juices, simple syrup, fresh egg whites and Angostura bitters. Never has a better balance been achieved with Pisco—one that puts the earthy distillate front and center, revealing its funky, herbaceous belly while drawing upon egg whites to lend body and citrus to elevate its intrinsic flavors. It is ridiculously decadent, refreshing and simply elegant.
At Bar Centro at the Bazaar in Beverly Hills’ SLS Hotel, where Paya serves as beverage director, his libation arsenal is extensive: He has enabled Angelenos to have a reason to drink Sangria again—here made with Parés Baltà cava (a type of sparkling wine), lime rounds, raspberry, verbena, gin, Cognac, Cointreau, simple syrup, orange skin and grapes. His version of the dirty martini, with Ketel One and Noilly Prat topped with an “olive brine air”—the unexpected contrast of salty foam chased by the essence of pure distillate—is brilliant. His dramatic Liquid Nitrogen Caipirinha is cachaça, sugar and lime, topped with edible petals and lime zest, all nitro-whisked until it can be eaten with a spoon.
FRESCURA, Pablo Moix, Hotel Maya
A Queens native of Colombian and Venezuelan origins, Moix takes great pleasure in educating people about cocktails, and he can make one hell of a drink, which he’s currently doing at Long Beach’s Hotel Maya. His original Frescura combines Cazadores Reposado tequila, Del Maguey Chichicapa mezcal, orange and lemon juices, chamomile simple syrup and ginger, topped with ginger ale. The intrinsic flavors of the agave-based spirits, found in dank earthiness, elegant smoke and chlorophyll, are accentuated by the citrus and elevated further by the ginger-chamomile components and candied aromas. The crushed ice provides for temperature control and perpetuates the playfully unassuming nature of the cocktail. About halfway through the drink, you believe you’re drinking liquid magic.
Through preeminent roving beverage consultant Ryan Magarian, whose clients include the Huntley Hotel, Consilient Restaurant Group, the Viceroy Hotel in Miami and the Sofitel hotels, Moix learned cocktail history, recipe execution and management skills. Recently, he accepted a position with Bacardi as portfolio mixologist, enabling him to work with New World agave and cane-based spirits and continue to collaborate both with friends across the country and imbibers—connoisseurs and novices alike.
Original article published in LA TIMES Magazine on September 7, 2009.