The Varnish Turns One
Last night the Varnish celebrated its first year—which is hard to believe considering the vital role it has played in establishing LA’s cocktail community. People came from near and far, among them Mr. Petraske, Mr. Moses and, of course, the ever-gracious host, Eric Alperin.
Perhaps no one is more acutely cognizant of the significance of this culinary movement in Los Angeles than Manhattan-native, Eric Alperin. “Coming from New York, mediocrity scares the hell out of me” he asserts with a candid intensity. Alperin wears an exhausting sense of responsibility and seeks silver linings from within the vitality of his burgeoning group of fellow barmen. His drive, unquestionably innate, given his French mother’s mantra, impossible n’est pas française (‘impossible’ isn’t French), has led him to the pinnacle of cocktail culture in America. Between his respective residences in New York—Lupa (Batali, Bastianich) and the Milk & Honey/Little Branch family (Sasha Petraske)—his pedigree is likely unparalleled in LA. He was brought here to open Osteria Mozza, and then went on to the Doheny and now the Varnish, with judicious stops in along the way—he’s left his mark all over town.
Part revivalist, part innovator—Aplerin is dedicated to the restoration of our collective heritage, which transcends cocktail culture, but instead speaks to a time when pride and integrity carried a lot more weight in the world. His dated temperament is reaffirmed by the distant resonance of America’s greatest cultural contribution, Jazz, which symbiotically took flight in Alperin’s favored era—it’s Louis Armstrong’s 1931 recording of Stardust. After watching him make one cocktail, brimming with tales and captivating narrative, one cannot help but wonder how we fell so far into the bacchanalian abyss of a near-dead cocktail culture; in the same breath, he instantly empowers the imbiber by including him in metamorphosis of this movement. This is a shared experience—it belongs to all of us—and he is equally grateful for the camaraderie. Alperin has such deep, genuine respect for his chosen products, and their creators, that he speaks of them yearningly like distant relatives; he harbors fugitive bottles of Picon and Suze bitters—contraband his mother smuggled back from France. Then, of course, there’s the ice, which he makes himself and hand-chips behind the bar.
The Varnish, a club-house of sorts—our LA drinks Mecca, which speaks loudly to a visceral nostalgia—is a partnership between Cedd Moses, legendary New York drinks master, Sasha Petraske, and Eric Aplerin. Alperin’s distinct shake is unmistakable—intoxicating, in and of itself. The perfection of simplicity—his precision and measure are humbling; and his encyclopedic knowledge, revealed in inimitable stories, is inspired. Though, when complimented for his erudition, he’ll say something along the lines of “Geek culture doesn’t necessarily make a good cocktail. Process and attention to detail do.”
Among the superlative drinks he is making these days: The Holland Razor Blade—lemon, simple syrup, genever, cayenne pepper; the Skid Row Cocktail (aka Original Sin Cocktail [Alperin’s original recipe])—orange bitters, Ramazotti Amaro, apricot brandy, genever, flamed orange peel; Medicina Latina (Marcos Tello’s original recipe): lime, agave nectar, ginger syrup, reposado tequila, mist of Del Maguey Mezcal; Rum King Fizz—egg, lemon, simple syrup, orange bitters, light rum; Fancy Free—Angostura and orange bitters, Maraschino liqueur and bourbon; and El Diabolo—ginger syrup, lime, blanco tequila, club soda, and a float of crème de cassis.
If you asked me to choose a favorite from the six, it’s nearly impossible; that said, I would gladly stand in line to order all of them, all over again, and again. For those of you who are in the throes of a love affair with genever—in all of her funky, prurient glory—I doubt you’ll find a finer rendition in town than Alperin’s Holland Razor Blade.