Mixologist Eric Alperin
The Varnish | Los Angeles, CA
Eric Alperin made a name for himself behind the bar at The Screening Room in Manhattan—he was the quickest draw in downtown. But it was the craft of cocktails that caught Alperin’s attention, slowed his pace, and drew him to Lupa and then Sasha Petraske’s seminal mixology havens Milk & Honey and Little Branch.
While his time at Lupa gave him expertise in Italian liquors and a taste of cocktail creation and modification, it was his experience at Milk & Honey and Little Branch that laid the foundation for his classic cocktail expertise. Alperin drank up the methods, precision, style, and roots of making classic cocktails, and sunk his teeth into the importance of fresh ingredients and the careful selection of liquors.
Alperin headed out west three years ago and settled into Los Angeles’ small but passionate and ever-growing cocktail community. He coupled his craft cocktails with food at Osteria Mozza, where his mix mastery won praise on TV shows and national publications (like “After Hours with Daniel” and Vogue). He then moved to Cedd Moses’ self-proclaimed “luxury lair” The Doheny, a private club wholly dedicated to the art of cocktails.
In early 2009, Alperin teamed up with Sasha Petraske and Cedd Moses to open The Varnish in downtown LA. There in the back room of the landmark (and remastered à la Cedd Moses) Cole’s French Dip, Alperin created a modern speakeasy-style lounge that focuses on classic American cocktails made with exacting precision.
More recently, Alperin was featured in Tasting Panel magazine as one of “America’s Best Bar Chefs,” and in the LA Weekly’s “The New Cocktailians” article. He is currently working on his B. A. R. Master certification. Additionally, Alperin consults for Steve Olson’s wine and spirits education company, aka wine geeks, and is the Vice President of the Southern California chapter of The United States Bartenders Guild.
Antoinette Bruno: What is your idea of mis en place for the bar?
Eric Alperin: Most importantly: fresh juices and syrups. We juice everyday about an hour before service. If we run out we do it à la minute. Also fresh syrups, we don’t keep any syrup beyond a couple of days, mostly because we go through them quickly. I think what happened to bartending is that a lot of pre-made ingredients started being used that don’t make great cocktails.
AB: Do you do batch processing?
EA: We make a lot of ice every single day. Otherwise, we don't batch process. I'm not opposed to it—for the Gin Fix we could mix the gin and grenadine together, then add the lemon before service. I can see that happening, but we don't at this point. So many people ask for bartender’s choice. Most of our bartender choices are classics or spins on the classics.
AB: What drew you to restaurants, and in particular, to mixology?
EA: It’s interesting, I used to race sailboats and I always make parallels between mixing and sailboats. I really like being ship-shape and I found mixing cocktails is incredibly precise, a little like pastry. If you're ever working at restaurants, it’s cool to be in touch with the pastry chef; there’s a lot you can do together.
AB: Were you trained in bartending or mixology?
EA: When I got out of college I took a bartending course. I appreciated it and laugh at it now because a lot of what we learned was how to make club drinks. It did teach me pneumonic devices and a sense of preparation. My real training was working at the Screening Room in New York. I got there and was pretty green. I lied my way in. The guy I worked with, my first mentor, said “I don’t care, let’s drink and let’s make cocktails.” At the Screening Room I learned about organization. I was compulsive because the guys behind the bar were so messy and everything was sticky.
AB: What other restaurants or bars have you worked at as a mixologist?
EA: From the Screening Room I went to Lupe and Inoteca. After that I took a year off because I was frustrated with the industry. Then I met Sasha and came to learn about the Milk and Honey program and decided I wanted to be in the industry because of this. So I got my chops with Sasha and then moved out to LA. In LA I hooked up with Mario, Joe and Nancy to open Osteria Mozza and get some LA food and beverage industry chops. Once I had figured out the LA industry, Sasha and I made The Varnish happen.
AB: What’s your philosophy of making drinks?
AE: Creating flow, a kung fu of sorts, being neat and clean and organized. We're not recipe oriented, we're process oriented. We're not using basil, we're not using kumquats. That's for another bar.
AB: What’s your favorite tool behind the bar?
EA: Ice is the bartender’s friend. Once you introduce ice to a liquid it changes it forever. If we're sharing a ticker, we do cocktails like food: rare, medium rare, etc. We time it behind the bar and serve everything at once. You have to stir cocktails, then you have shake cocktails, which are more like high heat. So the amount of time shaken cocktails spend on ice is less then when they’re stirred. We talk to each other and communicate. It’s important. Otherwise, you’re getting a less than perfect cocktail.
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