Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Drinking in Los Angeles

It's a shame that Los Angeles is such a sprawling, car-heavy city. It presents a great challenge for an adventurous drinker, trying to map out a route to hit LA's best watering holes without ending up blissfully stranded in a far corner of the city. It took discipline, but over the course of three days I managed to pop in at a handful of spots for some mind-blowing drinks without becoming marooned.

The Edison
Edison Bar, LA

This might be the most eye-poppingly gorgeous cocktail joint I've ever visited. After ducking in a relatively modest door down an alley, you descend into the wildly ornate main bar. The interior is full of shining copper and iron, with a wild metallic structure resembling a stylized blast furnace beyond the main bar. The ambiance was a bit odd. They were blasting oddly inappropriate 70's funk and the happy hour crowd was clearly more 'downtown LA' than cocktail enthusiast. I managed to sample two drinks here:

Flowers For Tito
Flowers For Tito, Edison Bar
Theia Jasmine Liquer
Tito's Vodka
St. Germain Elderflower Liquer

Not a particularly fantastic cocktail- very sweet, heavy on the St. Germain. But their happy hour special let me suck one of these down for a whopping 35 cents (makes up for the $3 I had to pay to check my umbrella, gah).

Carnivale, Edison Bar
Sagatiba Velha Aged Cahaca
Luxardo Maraschino Liquer
Orgeat syrup
Chili oil
Lime juice

Again, too sweet. The orgeat and maraschino were way too much in the front, the lime juice could have been more pronounced. But the kick of smoky spice in the back was incredible, leaving a smoky tingle on your lips long after the sip.

The cocktail list had some interesting ideas, and other bartenders around town agreed that there was a lot of thought put into designing the drink menu at this place, but the execution just felt off. It's probably worth grabbing a happy hour cocktail to check the place out and moving on.

The Varnish
Varnish, LA

Now THIS is what I'm talking about. This place is speakeasy-style, nestled in the back of Kohl's, a nondescript sandwich shop, through a door that looks like a storage closet.
The unmarked entrance to Varnish
It’s the west coast project of one of the guys behind Milk & Honey in New York, and the attention to detail shows. The place was empty when I showed up and only half-full by the time I left, but it had hands-down the friendliest bar staff of anywhere I've been so far and the simplest, most well-balanced drinks. Ooh, I get shivers just thinking about it. Check out that hand-carved ice!

Kentucky River
Kentucky River, Varnish
Elijah Craig 12 Year Bourbon
Bols Creme de Cacao
Peach Bitters

Staggeringly delicious. Perfectly balanced, with a surprising kick from the peach bitters.

Pop Quiz
Pop Quiz, Varnish
Elijah Craig 12 Yr
Ramazzotti Amaro
Chocolate Mole bitters
Orange twist.

The combination of the Ramazzotti and the bitters in this drink lent it a darker, smoother flavor than the previous drink. Still, same characteristics: incredible balance, dangerously delicious.

Before I left, the bartender whipped me up a Penicilin, based on the standards of the original at Milk & Honey. I've had a handful of these drinks before, but this one absolutely shined. Seriously, shimmering glory in my mouth.

Can you tell I liked this bar? Yes. I did. Best in town.

Library Bar
Library Bar
Nestled in the Roosevelt Hotel on a gaudy stretch of Hollywood Avenue, this little bar feels like a mission for cocktail sophistication amidst Los Angeles' aspiring loudmouthed movers and shakers. A crew of spunky Brits were surrounding me on all sides as I drank, who were giddy as teenagers experimenting with the different flavors (“Hey! Give me one of those raspberry type ones! And maybe a strawberry type thing!”) I’d read about what this place was doing with market-driven cocktails & it didn’t disappoint: the bar itself was adorned with a beautiful array of fresh onions, peppers, fruits and herbs, and my bartender was an enthusiastic professional. I wouldn't say these were the most overwhelmingly delicious drinks I've had on the trip, but certainly the most interesting.

Cultural Lotto
Cultural Lotto
Partida Tequilla
Mescal Chichicapa
Ginger Syrup
Carmelized Honey
Red Pepper
Yellow Pepper
Serrano Pepper

This cocktail was awesome, but whoa, it was spicy. Borderline unbearably spicy. The bartender admitted he was testing out some new peppers on me, and remade the drink to take it down a notch. The result was deliciously earthy, with a fruity sweetness in the front. The tequila was unpronounced, but the mix of the mescal and the peppers worked well, with a vegetable crispness at the end. I almost felt like I was drinking something healthy.

One & Only

One & Only
Geniver Gin
Lime Juice
Agave Nectar
Curry Leaves

This was the most unfamiliar flavor combination I've ever had in a mixed drink. My mind is still reeling trying to place it. It was mellow up front, but those curry leaves gave the drink a subtle spiciness in the back that was beguilingly savory.

Harvard & Stone
Harvard & Stone

A bit off the beaten track of the Hollywood strip, the bar itself had the a scaled-down industrial look of a lot of LA bars, but felt decidedly more casual. It was refreshing to hear soul music and 60’s garage on the stereo after listening to old-timey jazz and dance music at cocktail bars across the city. There was an oddly unpleasant aroma about the place. I drank a fairly medicinal Fernet Cocktail at the bar and was ready to call it quits on this place, when I realized I’d nearly missed the boat.
Back Bar, Harvard & Stone
In the back was a tiny room packed with people and a rack of Hudson Whiskey behind the bar. The man behind the bar was Gable Erenzo, part of the father/son distilling team behind Hudson, serving up a handful of classic staples from the whiskey he made with his own hands. This bar has been bringing in distillers every night to serve cocktails made from their own stock.

I had Gable mix me up a corn whiskey Sazerac, and had a chance to chat with him about why he prefers the corn whiskey in the drink (the whiskey is a bit lighter, more mellow- gives the cocktail a bit of buoyancy). The drink itself was a Sazerac, plain and simple, delicious. On a repeat visit, I’d skip the front bar entirely and see what they’re cooking up in the back.

I've made it to Oregon and plan to descend into Portland tomorrow morning. More soon!

No comments:

Post a Comment