Where is the Love?

by Lindsay Nader

Janna Aurora Velasquez of La Descarga

The city of Los Angeles. Famous for Hollywood, Noir, orange groves, Disneyland, misguided starlets, zip codes, The Dodgers, The Lakers, Rodeo Drive, the beaches, surf culture, unbeatable weather...must I go on?

But one sparkling historical orb in the city's star-studded past that is often neglected is its cocktail history.

During its Golden Era, Los Angeles provided the most innovative and in vogue drinking establishments in the entire country. Tiki was born and raised in L.A. Don The Beachcomber, perhaps one of the most famous bars in our nation's history, was opened just off Hollywood Boulevard in the 1930s, setting off a post-war Polynesian craze that swept the country. The Brown Derby Cocktail sprang into popularity during the 1930s as well. (Whether or not it was created at the original Brown Derby Restaurant on Wilshire Boulevard or at the neighboring Vendome Club will continue to be mused upon.) The Moscow Mule was invented at The Cock N' Bull Tavern in 1941 by two heavy hitting industry professionals. It's rumored that the Margarita was first mixed in 1954 at the Tail O' The Cock restaurant on La Cienega Boulevard by bartender Johnny Durlesser. A Young's Market chairman saw an opportunity to promote the category of Tequila and the brand Cuervo by releasing an ad campaign that read "Margarita is more than a girls' name." There was Romanoff's in Beverly Hills, which was a famous watering hole to the likes of stars such as Bogart and Bacall. Charlie Chaplin used to kick it in the corner booth at Musso and Frank on Hollywood Boulevard. And how could anyone forget the phenomenon that was the Cocoanut Grove nightclub in the Ambassador Hotel, where Hollywood elite would go to drink, dance and watch performers like Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and Barbara Streisand.

So when it comes to recognition for its contemporary achievements, why is Los Angeles not given its due? A cross examination of a modern institution whose function is to feature and award excellence and achievement within the beverage industry will highlight L.A.'s neglect.

I'd like to preface all that I am about to say below with a few words. I learned half of what I know about the beverage industry while living and working in New York. I love that city, and I love its bars and bartenders. While in New York, the most I heard about the scene in L.A. was how great The Doheny (now closed) was and that Eric Alperin was doing great things at The Varnish. It wasn't until Tales of the Cocktail 2010 when I met Johnny Houston, who gave me his  La Descarga business card, that I had any idea of the scope of industry that L.A. had to offer (which is so much more than just the legendary Varnish). Sasha Petraske is a genius yes, but The Varnish is a carbon copy of his New York bars; the room size, the drink style, the ice, the scupper rails. It's not representative of L.A.'s bar culture as a whole; it's a little piece of New York nostalgia, an example of drink revival pioneered and of course a place to get a very well crafted drink.

Let's take a look at Tales of the Cocktail, the Academy Awards for the spirits industry which gathers every year in New Orleans to recognize greatness stateside and worldwide.

This past year (2011) Los Angeles received 2 Spirited Awards nominations:

Best American Cocktail Bar - The Varnish

American Bartender of the Year - Eric Alperin (of The Varnish)

2010 Los Angeles nominations:

Best American Cocktail Bar - The Varnish

American Bartender of the Year - Eric Alperin

2009 Los Angeles nominations:

None

2008 Los Angeles nominations:

Best Drink Selection - Doheny

Best Cocktail Menu - Doheny

2007 Los Angeles nominations:

None

Redundant, no? It's like watching Susan Lucci lose year after year at the Emmys. Let's cross our fingers that The Varnish wins something soon, so other Los Angeles bars can get the recognition they deserve.

You'd also think that after nine years, Tales of the Cocktail would be more flexible with stateside nominees, branching further than the Northeast cluster of bars that continue to dominate the nomination slots year after year along with the usual suspects who run them and their affiliates.

I wouldn't be surprised to find out that other major cities feel jipped as well.

So many times I have heard words like, "Share the wealth of knowledge and experience with the next generation of bartenders," and "Help spread the craft so people in cities all over the world can enjoy delicious cocktails," come from the mouths of our mentors who we consider to have set the whole craft-revival-classic cocktail movement spinning. The movement is spinning, oh yes, and spreading, but none of the newbies now carrying the torch are getting high-fived. And they should be.

The Spirited Awards added a few new categories this past year, one of them being Best High Volume Cocktail Bar, which is necessary as a reflection of how quality drinks are permeating larger markets. I thought The Edison in downtown L.A. would have received a nomination for sure, being that it's become an institution in itself, is a revenue behemoth and is one of the most recognized bars in Los Angeles. But no dice. 

PKNY (Painkiller) was nominated for Best New Cocktail Bar, barely meeting the nomination requirement by being open for 28 days, yet La Descarga, which opened before Painkiller and was sold out for 2 months straight, got no love.

Ever heard of a guy named Vincenzo Marianella? He was named Best Bar Chef by starchefs.com in 2006, is still head barman at his bar Copa D'Oro in Santa Monica, and is a living legend who studied in London and mentored some of L.A.'s finest. Marianella is considered by many to be the Godfather of L.A. bartenders and he is responsible for programs at The Doheny, Drago Centro, Seven Grand and Providence. Where's his Bar Mentor nomination? In 2005, Marianella teamed up with Chef Michael Cimarusti (co-owner and chef of Providence, a highly acclaimed and Michelin awarded fine dining restaurant), becoming one of the first mixologists to collaborate with a world renowned chef. This union changed the perception of cocktails, elevating them as a culinary expression. The contemporary counterpart to Vincenzo and Michael are Julian Cox (starchefs.com 2010 Rising Star Mixologist) and John Sedlar (Esquire Magazine’s 2011 Chef of the Year). Whatever is touched by this team turns to gold.

When I first moved to L.A., my good friend Erick Castro provided me with my first bartender related experience by taking me to a monthly gathering called The Sporting Life, which is an organization that was "founded in March of 2008 by bartender Marcos Tello (as well as Christine England, Eric Alperin and Damian Windsor) to bring together bartenders and serious cocktail enthusiasts to raise the status of cocktails in this historic cocktail city of Los Angeles."

This organization is very unique to L.A., and creates a strong sense of community in a city that is massively spread out. I don't know of any other organization quite like The Sporting Life. It gives the community a monthly meeting place by featuring bars around the city and different brand sponsors, while providing a platform for the industry to schmooze and make announcements.

In a 2009 article for latimesmagazine.com by Wyatt Peabody, Steve Olson is quoted as saying “Half of the country’s top 10 bartenders today are in L.A.” Peabody goes on to write, "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...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." Wyatt wrote those words over two years ago, so you can imagine how much has happened since.

Los Angeles has a flavor for everyone, so next time you're in town and develop a thirst, try something new.

If you like Whiskey:

Seven Grand, a Whiskey Bar in downtown L.A., evokes the feeling of gentleman's club meets hunting lodge meets Ivy League Frat House with a touch of class, and is truly a whiskey drinker’s paradise.

Harvard & Stone is an industrial style rock and roll bar featuring craft American spirits with a focus on Whiskeys. There's a one man "Research & Development" bar in the back which hosts a different bartender and menu every night. H&S also offers burlesque shows on the weekends, guest DJ's and great live performances by touring and local bands.

If you like Rum:

La Descarga is a Cuban style rum bar with an impressive showcasing of rums from all over the world. You'll feel like you have been transported to Havana once you set foot inside, with vintage lighting pieces, colorfully painted and weather washed walls and boudoir lighting. There's also a smoking lounge attached offering a nice cigar selection.

Cana Rum Bar in Downtown L.A. also has a crazy good selection of rums and is a cozy place to sip killer cocktails.

If you like Tequila and Mezcal:

Las Perlas (another 213 Group joint given to us by Cedd Moses) is an Agave bar that is all about paying homage to Mezcal.

Rivera is a restaurant serving modern Latin cuisine, with a Latin inspired craft mixology program pioneered by Julian Cox. Julian loves Mezcal, and makes sure it keeps flowing at Rivera. They also have an extensive tequila selection which can be sipped while sitting in the "Tequila Chairs," which are massive sculpted bronze chairs specially made for drinking the house tequila and its many different infusions.

If you like Pisco:

Picca, a Peruvian restaurant, has a to-die-for Pisco selection and a program to match, again, another Julian Cox production.

If you like Molecular:

Bar Centro at the Bazaar restaurant by Jose Andres in the SLS Hotel holds it down molecularly. There's a lot of liquid nitrogen and emulsifiers being thrown around. I’ve had the liquid nitrogen Caipirinha. It was DOPE and it knocked me on my a**.

Providence, a fine dining restaurant, gets jiggy with Molecular, serving edible cocktails like "mojito" "gin and tonic" and "greyhound". Their bar program, run by the talented Zahra Bates, is exceptional.

If you like the Farmers Market:

The Library Bar at The Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel is a Los Angeles favorite. Matt Biancaniello has a romantic relationship with the Farmers Market, and will whip you up something seasonal. He might even sweeten it with his own house-made honey, collected from the bee colony he leases. WHAT!!?? Now that's next level.

More L.A. Cocktail Bars and restaurants with Cocktail programs to love:

Playa

Sotto

Eveleigh

Roger Room

Comme Ça

Soho House

Bar & Kitchen at the O Hotel

Big Bar

Jones

Neat

Areal

Drago Centro

The Edison

Ink

Black Market

The Spare Room

1886

Tasting Kitchen

The Varnish

Cole’s

A-Frame

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