The Good, The Bad & The Ugly in LA Cocktails 2010

Perfectly made cocktails at The Varnish in downtown LA

Last issue, I wrote about recent eats in Los Angeles… this week it’s cocktails. The cocktail renaissance of the past decade plus has taken a long time to hit LA. For a major city, they’ve been behind the NY and SF curve. I’ve been eagerly waiting for that sort of standard to become more prevalent in LA. It’s getting there, with a big surge in the last couple of years, but it’s still got quite a way to go to be where those leading cocktail cities are, in my humble opinion, especially if a couple of the respected bars below are any indication.

The VodBox at Nic’s, Beverly Hills

I’ve written about spots like Seven Grand before, among the few places I’d drink cocktails in LA a couple years ago when vodka and juice clogged up drink menus (still often the case).

Though there are more classic and artisanal cocktails on menus, I noticed an alarming trend this trip: out of seven renowned bars (most pretty new), about half displayed a heavy hand in sweetening. As one bartender at a fine establishment told me, they often have to explain when someone is ordering a Manhattan that a cherry doesn’t make it sweet, rather it’s a “real” Manhattan. That pretty much sums up what bartenders are still wrestling with. Here’s to palates continuing to change enough to make high quality and balance more widespread; the standard rather than the exception.

Here are some bars doing it right:

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Mood lighting at The Varnish

• Downtown LA’s The Varnish has only been open for one year, helmed by the gracious Eric Alperin. From NYC, he opened Varnish with Sasha Petraske of NY’s famed Milk & Honey (where Eric used to work) and Cedd Moses of LA’s 213 bars (including Seven Grand). A NY pedigree shows in the muted classiness of the place. Certainly speakeasy style, you get there via delightful Cole’s French Dip back door. It feels like the 1920’s with an upright piano, lots of wood, mellow lighting and jazz.

This is the LA bar with my ideal environment: grown up, refined but relaxed, everyone is seated, conversation is easy, music is excellent and at the right volume. Of course, none of that would matter if service and drinks weren’t superb, and they are. At $12 each, there’s Hot Buttered Rum (with aged rum), cozy on a winter’s night. Holland Razor Blade takes Genever far with a kick of lemon and cayenne. El Diablo is a refreshing mix of tequila, ginger, lime, cassis, seltzer. But the highlight was being able to get Milk & Honey’s Penicillin: smoky with two kinds of scotch, accented by lemon, fresh ginger, honey syrup… plus a decadent candied ginger garnish. I’d go for bartender’s choice with their perfect ice spheres and elegantly balanced drinks. The Varnish will show you how it’s done.

Fred Warner at work behind the bar at the Association

•  Scoot right next door to the grand door with lion knocker and enter The Association, with a decidedly different vibe. While chandeliers shimmer alluringly, on a Friday night, music is loud, everyone is standing around, and decor is chic Vegas, circa 1970’s. Conversation is not as easy, but drinks are top notch, and the staff some of the most delightful I’ve met at any bar. Owner McCray Miller is warm, hospitable and his spirit infuses the staff. Fred Warner was our bartender par excellence, showcasing his skills in classics utilizing every spirit from pisco to scotch.  Fred makes a brilliant Blood and Sand – maybe the best version I’ve had. He whips up a mighty fine Pisco Sour, too. Ditto on his Singapore Sling, variation on the Last Word (using blanco tequila instead of gin), as well as a refreshing Paloma. If I lived close by, this is the place I’d love to stop in early or on weeknights, when the vibe is mellow, and let them make me what they will.

Association’s Paloma

•  I could sing the praises of Jose Andres’ The Bazaar‘s exciting molecular cocktails (and food). For now, I claim it to be among the best in LA, saving details for my upcoming review of The Bazaar.

•  VODKA rears its head for a comeback. Myself included, there’s been a rejection amongst many fine cocktailians and bartenders to steer far from vodka… understandably so, given its abuses and often lack of distinction. Sure, I love a classic vodka martini (though usually prefer gin), but there aren’t many I’d sip straight, especially compared to other spirits. As I begin to see small batch, higher quality vodkas behind my favorite bars, being made by distillers I respect (plus articles like Imbibe’s current cover treatment), I’m starting to find more I can work with.

Donning furs in the Vodbox

It was a pleasure to further my vodka palate in Beverly Hills at Nic’s one-of-a-kind Vodbox. A frozen room (28 degrees), it’s available by appointment and for small groups (flights $21-30 per person). Our host wore an evening gown but couldn’t have been more relaxed, appealing to tastes of each person in our group, from the novice who wants flavored vodkas to bourbon/scotch drinkers like myself.

Our knowledgeable Vodbox host

Hilarity ensued when we were given fur coats and hats to don – leopard coats for the ladies. After laughing at each other in giant, puffy hats, we were grateful for the furry warmth in a freezing, refined, orange and white room. We tasted vodkas from Poland, Iceland, Russia, Vietnam, covering rice, wheat, rye and potato grains. Thanks to our knowledgeable host, who led us through varying taste profiles, we discerned nuances and dramatically unique profiles of each. From Rekya’s “green” vodka of Iceland (with notes of jalapeno and lemon), Zubrowka Bison Grass vodka from Poland, to Jewel of Russia’s striking, hand-painted ultra-vodkas, I found plenty to relish here.

We didn’t eat at Nic’s except to dive into tasty, baked oysters ($13), with spinach, walnuts, garlic. I sampled an array of martinis, some a little fruity for my tastes, others with nice herbaceous notes. Kudos for What A Nice Pear You Have, a martini of Grey Goose Poire Vodka, fresh pear juice and shaved Parmesan on top! They also win points for warm hospitality… and a Dean Martin shrine.

Left disappointed:

Since the bouncer wouldn’t allow cameras, I had to find a photo. Source:

•  I actually recommend The Edison, a big player in LA’s classic cocktail scene, because it’s a stunner of an underground movie set. The Renaissance Man likened it to Disneyland, however, and coupled with a sceney, sometimes obnoxious crowd, it’s almost ruined. But go at least once to check out the subterranean space, a mad scientists’ elegant cocktail lab with creepy but mesmerizing, turn-of-the-century (1900, that is) black and white shorts playing on the walls, velvet couches and leather chairs strewn throughout (though good luck sitting anywhere unless you reserve ahead). I know Marcos Tello is a skilled, creative bartender, I didn’t see him – our bartender was just trying to keep up with the crowds so no time to engage. Though I asked him to make me whatever he wanted with bourbon or scotch, he made something straight off the menu. I loved the concept of an Anejo Old Fashioned ($13 each cocktail), but it was heavy on the agave nectar. Fairing better was The Edison, Woodford Reserve bourbon, pear cognac and a hint of honey.

Charming Roger Room

•  I wanted to love Roger Room, I really did. Less than a year old and hidden behind a faux tarot card storefront is a cozy, low-ceilinged bar reminding me of classic New York, with wood, murals, red booths and a ‘good old boys’ clubby feel. Bartenders are friendly, even if the crowd swings too heavily towards giggling ‘girlfriends’ sporting mini-skirts. Looking at the drink menu on hippie, rainbow-colored paper, I got scared. Vodka played heavily on the list – I’d heard this was a classic cocktail joint? Maybe if I’d stuck to basics, it would have been ok. But I heard the Pican Millionaire ($12) was one to get: Torani Amer, Punt e Mes, Luksusowa Vodka, pomegranate syrup, black pepper. It sounded intriguing but tasted like cough syrup… and, yes, was too sweet.

Tar Pit’s beautiful, over-sweetened drinks

•  Tar Pit was a priority: not only had it just opened a couple months prior, but NY’s cocktail queen, Audrey Saunders, was behind the menu. Literally days after my visit, she was suddenly no longer affiliated with the establishment. Hmmm.

With muted music and soothing elegance in a 40’s inspired room, I expected this would become a favorite as I sat at the refined bar. There was a little snobbery at the door, but I put that behind me… until the bartenders displayed the same. Low marks for unnecessary aloofness.

Cocktails ($12-17) are strikingly presented. Watching the bartender deftly make our drinks, I noticed perfect ice, ingredients of high quality, fresh herbs lining the bar. But he disappeared after serving one round and never returned, though I saw him hanging out in the kitchen. All three drinks I tried suffered from being too sweet. I was shocked. Audrey’s supposedly about balance!

The bar at Tar Pit

Though the bartender was correct in saying a beautiful Liquorice Whiskey Smash was more herbal than licorice, he failed to mention it was sickeningly sweet. I couldn’t even drink half. It was served proper julep style in a julep cup with crushed ice but even diluted by ice it retained  its syrupy flaws. A Lemon-Thyme Daiquiri was bright with white rum, muddled lemon and thyme, lime juice and lime syrup. Would have been lovely if it weren’t… you guessed it… sugary. I actually asked for the Agave Bravo (mezcal, reposado, agave syrup, Angostura bitters, grapefruit twist) to be less sweet since I’d heard beforehand that this particular drink was (who knew that applied to all?) This was the only drink out of three with equilibrium.