features The Evolution of the LA Mixology Scene
The Downtown (R)Evolution of the LA Mixology Scene
January 2010

The renaissance of the classic cocktail experienced on the east coast has officially made its way to LA, effectively rekindling the spirit of mixology in the town known for starting the Tiki fad of decades past. Missionaries from New York City have brought the new mixology testament to the City of Angels—and downtown LA is ground zero.

New York trendsetter Sasha Petraske (of the seminal Milk & Honey and Little Branch) partnered with LA entrepreneur Cedd Moses to open The Varnish, where New York mixologist Eric Alperin manages a list of well-known and lesser-known classic cocktails—some with twists and some without—but all done in the precise and exacting style found in many bars in New York or London. No muddled kumquats or basil here.

Of course, Petraske wouldn’t have such fertile ground to sow the seeds of classic cocktail culture without the likes of Cedd Moses, a former stock market trader who saw the potential to restore a healthy cocktail culture and bar scene to the city. A mixology pioneer, he’s been building bars and stirring local fervor for almost 14 years, pushing the LA mixology scene to catch up to the likes of New York, London, and San Francisco. Moses opened his first martini lounge (The Liquid Kitty) in 1996 in a quiet section of Venice; in 1999 he bought his first downtown location. Now with nine bars on his roster, including downtown cocktail havens Seven Grand and Cole’s Red Car Bar, Moses is credited with making downtown LA a destination that competes with the Hollywood scene, but without the red carpets and starlets.

One of his next projects includes LA’s first spirit-focused bar that will offer sophisticated mezcal cocktails (similar to what Mixologist Phil Ward is doing at Mayahuel in New York). A whisky bar may be in the cards for the future as well. On top of that, Moses is planning on upgrading his ice system from in-house block ice (made using multiple chest freezers) to an ice factory entirely dedicated to producing different shapes of slow-frozen ice (customized for specific drinks and specialty glassware).

Downtown's The Doheny is the exclusive LA cocktail bar: a private club with velvet ropes and an annual membership fee. Bar lead Joel Black previously worked behind the bar at Comme Ca, where he was influenced by mix master (and 2008 New York Rising Star) mixologist Sam Ross, who was hired to consult on the Comme Ca bar program. After various local and national consulting gigs, Black returned to the bar to work with 2003 Los Angeles Rising Star Mixologist Vincenzo Marianella at Coppa, who would go on to work on the opening team at The Doheny. Black is now the general manager of The Doheny, and curates the club's highly seasonal menu, which is emailed to members every week.

At The Tasting Kitchen in Venice, Mixologist Devon Espinosa dabbles in house-made liquid accessories, like tonic and bitters. His Venice Cure-All is your basic brown spirit cocktail flavored with Fernet-Branca and made special with his cherry-anise bitters and a house-made allspice syrup. In his own words, Espinosa claims that he’s “a sucker for anything brown with bitters.”

New York’s doyenne of mixology and 2009 ICC presenter Audrey Saunders recently teamed up with Chef Mark Peel of Campanile to bring a high quality cocktail bar to set a new standard in LA—Saunders-style. Opened in collaboration with ICC presenters Chad Solomon and Christy Pope, The Tar Pit takes the form of a 1940s Art Deco bar and features some of Saunders’ timeless Pegu Club staples, like the Gin Gin Mule and Fitty-Fitty.

LA restaurants are also catching on to the importance of a well-curated cocktail program. Mixologist Tristan Price (also a Milk & Honey alum) revamped the cocktail menu at Manhattan Beach’s French bistro Café Pierre where he’s introducing the vodka martini-loving beach crowd to the concepts of craft cocktails and spirit-food pairings. At Southwestern style Rivera in downtown LA, Julian Cox’s cocktails are highly seasonal and market-driven, and heavily lean on tequila.  In the fiery red Barbacoa cocktail (inspired and named after barbecue), Cox gives the patron a choice of mescal or tequila and blends it with lime, bell pepper, chipotle puree, and agave nectar, topping the whole thing off with beef jerky. It’s slightly spicy and smoky, perfectly suited to Chef John Sedlar’s Southwestern cuisine.

At The Bazaar by José Andrés where elBulli-trained Mixologist Lucas Paya is in charge, patrons choose from a balanced cocktail list that offers a little bit of everything. The menu is divided into four sections: The old classics are faithfully reproduced; new classics, like the margarita or martini, are given a twist; “SLS Classics” are original recipes developed in house; and flashy, cutting edge concoctions, like the liquid nitrogen caipirinha and spherified gin and tonic, are made with flourish.

At The Hungry Cat in Hollywood, Danielle Motor muddles and mixes fresh, organic, local produce to create specialty cocktails with oddball flavor combinations frequently inspired by people—both patrons and movie characters alike. (In fact, her Coolidge cocktail is based on the various kooky characters of the actress Jennifer Coolidge.) Motor carries over a lot of flavors from prior kitchen experience in New York (at city hot spots Balthazar and Prune) to her liquid concoctions.

New York isn’t the only inspiration for LA’s recent wave of serious cocktailians. Local mixologists have been tinkering in house-made bitters and muddling together market-fresh ingredients for years. It’s their patrons who are only recently getting over their predilection toward sticky sweet Cosmos and humdrum Lemon Drops; developing a taste and newfound respect for modern cocktail culture. The wider public of drinking Angelenos are ready for the brotherhood of downtown mixologists to take them to the next level.

Bringing the city up to speed is not just a matter of invention. Native barsmiths and New York transplants have already proven there’s a thirst for craft cocktails in the West. The foundation is set; New York, Chicago, and San Francisco are models of where cocktail culture can go. And what’s more, entrepreneurs, like Cedd Moses, and mixologists, like Alperin and Cox, will continue to spread the gospel around the west coast, further developing and deepening a local cocktail-happy culture.