Classic cocktails are all the rage with speakeasies garnering double-page spreads in main stream magazines, newspaper articles posting once-secret recipes with ingredients such as "lavender vanilla simple syrup" and long waits for a rare seat in the upper echelon gin joints. Now most decent restaurants pride themselves on having a cocktail menu! However, it is easy to forget how recent this accessibility and fervor has been. i.e. even though it is an institution, the Varnish only opened in 2009. Herein lies the short, wandering, and possibly informative tale of my personal cocktail history watching from the inside as the scene explodes in Los Angeles.
Prior to moving to Los Angeles (let's say about ten years ago) in the icy nights of the midwestern January winters I threw my first cocktail party. It was ostensibly in honor of an art show I had just finished. It was perhaps to hit on a gal or hook one of my perpetually single friends up with a gal. Either way, I thought it would be funny/classy (that luscious limbo of irony) to make martinis and cosmos the party theme. I wore a suit jacket and mixed the drinks based on a book I found at my parent's storage unit using Gallo vermouth or some-such drivel. They were terrible and I promptly forgot about it once someone brought a bottle of absinthe which we drank neat as we sat out on the snow-clad patio furniture and smoked and complained about art history.
Jump forward five years and a couple of states and I managed to land a spot in a prestigious art graduate program in California. When moved to go to school I ended up moving in with my then-fashion designer girlfriend. She happened to live on Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica. The bars surrounding us, swarming around us in fact, were of a level of classy that I had never been privileged to partake of before. Trying desperately to maintain some semblance of cool I took to ordering dirty martinis.
Though another part of my booze-fogged memory seems to claim that I took to ordering dirty martinis a couple years previous to impress another woman who was a film buff. I even had a preferred top-shelf vodka - Chopin (which, amidst all my cocktail faux pas I realize now to still be a quality vodka!)
As I acted cool and pretended not to care to fit in at 2AM, increasingly I was exposed to the love of fine dining. I had never known foodies before. Taco Bell was a birthday dinner in my family. But in Los Angeles, food was coming to the fore - dining fine enough to far exceed my meager job as a darkroom Grad TA (which honestly would have been anything above al pastor street tacos if I had had my wits about me). But I was lucky to experience many classy places that started to prompt a love of cooking that, as you can see on this blog, has stuck with me to this day.
One of those overly classy places that we started to frequent was Pacific Dining Car. A classic business and investment-set steakhouse that was also the haunt of newly monied computer and entertainment folks. Though meals would exceed $75.00 for a salad and entree, the bar was open late and in true old-school Santa Monica fashion didn't discriminate against any old local in sandals and shorts that might just want to grab a beer and watch a Dodger's game.
Always being a whiskey fan, I had transition to Manhattans at some point around 2006 (bourbon, not rye, being the novice I was) and spent a decent amount of time listening to stories of Ireland from our favorite bartender Carl while sipping. One night we had a chance meeting with a couple, Brendon and Stephanie, who were in the their early 20's, loved fine dining and punk rock and had a taste for pretentious "old man" cocktails.
Perhaps the best way express the attitude we were cultivating was that even to this day Stephanie describes Brendon and I as 70-year-old Italian men who happen to be in their 20's and live in L.A. Note: we might have been sitting on his balcony smoking cigars and taking about the finer points of grappa and socioeconomic theory when she made this comment.
At this point in Los Angeles, there weren't many accessible options for what we now call "Classic" cocktails besides old steakhouses and upscale clubs. Anywhere that had any ingredients past the basic grocery store brands was considered exotic. Vermouth was still to be dreaded.
St. Germain was still a new product. In fact, a local bartender by the name of Josh resided at Renee's courtyard cafe (a sprawling divey place made from various rooms from various homes on Wilshire) had developed a penchant for classic cocktails and took to wearing vests and handlebar mustaches. If you could catch him on a slow night he might even have a bag of exotic ingredients like fennel fonds or absinthe rinses that he would pull from behind the sloping red shadows of the bar and experiment. It had never occurred to me that drinks were invented! Josh eventually went on to win second place in a St. Germain mixology contest, then grow disillusioned with his job bar tending in the Santa Monica salt-air nights and off and joined the Army without telling anyone.
After Josh left our policy of only ordering cocktails at cocktail-specific places set in. A rule that is best expressed as "almost no one can fuck up a gin and tonic or a beer" and is still in effect to this day in that any bar gets one try at a cocktail and then becomes labeled as a "g&t joint" if they fail.
Air Conditioned Supper Club on Lincoln was probably the first "no sign, no web presence" venue we found. I can't even recall why I heard about it, but it might have been that I was invited in to photograph a TV pilot being filmed in the space. They made a decent manhattan and had swanky leather sofas and a dark, chill ambiance on weekdays. Honestly, there wasn't that much else to recommend it, but it felt very different than the hyper-trendy clubs favored by the D-list actors and party kids where we had started drinking martinis.
But the the most important place at the time for us was Bar Chloe on 2nd in Santa Monica, and only then for a couple of months. Bar Chloe was an very intimate space with victorian furniture, a dress code for it's bartenders and most importantly a drink list that specialized in classic cocktails such as Pimm's Cup or Vespers. Additionally they had brought two young men with experience mixing in the San Francisco scene (home to the influential Absinthe and Library, which we didn't even know about).
Even if they sounded more like guys who might have spent more time trying to look handsomely disheveled, these two dudes knew the difference between a rye and bourbon, between quality of vermouths and how to serve a drink in the correct glass. The bar became a hot-spot for media production types, which kept us away except for late weekday nights and early afternoons, but it's Rococo chairs and solid old drinks lit a flame.
Going back after even a few years of world-class drinks I feel the same embarsement that any band or writer might have on hearing their old demos. I can honestly say that they weren't even close to above average (and a few were quite bad) but they had a focus and a bar menu pulled from the past which was enough to fan the Vesper-fueled flames of cocktail lust.
This was just about the time that the food podcasts and blogs were bubbling with interest about cocktails — maybe 2006 or 2007. Maybe about the same time Brendon and Stephanie moved to Beverly Hills. About the same time that we discovered that Seven Grand's real gems weren't the whiskeys but instead their whiskey cocktails. This is when David Wonderich's Imbibe was released and became the Rosetta stone to let us understand the mysteries of the cocktail throughout history.
About the time that Comme Ca was discovered to have trained their first couple rounds of bartenders at Milk & Honey (a fabled place we had only heard about via the preposterously patronizing "Restaurant Guys" and the much more congenial guests of Evan Kleiman's "Good Food" program on KCRW) and even based our short lived cocktail club, called "The Society for the Appreciation of Ice", out of their dining room.
By 2008 and 2009 we were making giant crystal bowls filled with Philadelphia Fish House Punch for 4th of July, traveling to the Violet Hour in Chicago and Jardiniere in San Francisco to taste their special winter drinks. Judging the Edison to fall short on almost every drink, and the Roger Room to be successful only in their Japanese Maple we had reached the level of true cocktail snob.
This was also the time when you could go the the Varnish on an average night, get a seat without waiting and char for half an hour with Eric about ingredients and techniques. The Varnish was the last great love of our sepia-toned cocktail romance. In comparison, only a very tiny amount of places could reach anywhere near the exalted heights we had found in even the simplest cocktails at the Varnish.
(So too Brendon and I had found, after one drunken evening, that our love for Tiki Ti's only grew when we laughed our way through a night of ordering classic tiki drinks at the Varnish. It was like watching jazz musicians try to play rock. Embarrassingly refined. But damn I still can't match their cocktails nor can I do anything but thank Eric for introducing me to Picon Punch!)
But with prices starting to top $14 for a daiquiri and the economy imploding the novelty began wearing off. Anyway, it seemed to us that only a few bars were actually worth the steep prices (and by consensus that craft beer remained the best value on the dollar for epicurean drinks).
Our drift away from the public houses and toward our own parlors was also partially due to our experiments in mixing out of our kitchens (in my case nearly two months of making Manhattans of every stripe and proportion). Once you can best all but the top ten or fifteen bars in the city at your drink of choice, and most of those bars require reservations farther in advance than Animal, it's only natural for people who pride themselves on acquiring knowledge and skill on a topic to hone their own work at the expense of socializing.
To put it more simply, it's almost impossible to get in to the Varnish these days, but you can drive the 10 minutes to Silverlake and go to Bar Keeper and collect any odd ingredients you might want — As long as your ice is good, you're in business. And you can plop some Eric Dolphy vinyl on the record player rather than be forced to listen to that mediocre ragtime pianist. (Though I do heartily recommend 7 Grand's Monday night jazz session - it regularly features stellar players!)
Even looking back on the dusty past, the shear creativity of Julian's Rivera cocktail list or a Disco Mariachi at Las Perlas remain transcendent to both novices and experts! Cocktails have their place outside of perfect craft as well — Sometimes I want nothing more than to sit on the patio at Pete's Cafe with a passable but unexceptional Manhattan and watch the city mull over itself in the summer midnight.
Increasingly now we want to see a drink made with perfect measuring rather than showmanship. But that level of cocktail as performance more than taste - of having the right mustache and pocket watch over a refined palate - is new and with any hope will be fleeting.
But this was a history that I was telling, and the next time your bro cousin is talking about a new place to get an old fashioned or the next time you order a food-paired lavender gimlet at a trendy snout-to-tail restaurant or get asked if you want Dolin or Antiqua vermouth in your Manhattan at the hotel bar, remember that only 5 or 6 years ago there were just a few dedicated wanderers searching to unearth slim, small treasures the unknown towers and ruins that was the great unknown history of the cocktail in Los Angeles.
Anyway, thanks for letting me take a break from posting recipes, art and audio equipment guides to rant about this.