Booze You Can Use

The Left Coast, You Know, Has Quite a Cocktail Scene Happening

Photo: Jenn Farrington

The new book Left Coast Libations, co-authored by Ted Munat and Michael Lazar, is an ode to the great work being done by bar stars up and down the West Coast. From L.A. all the way up to Vancouver, these writers and cocktail aficionados highlight 51 bartenders and provide recipes for two cocktails apiece. In total, the book ends up being a pretty thorough portrait of what’s been going on in world of fancily mixed drinks in the last decade, and a must-read for all dedicated boozehounds. Grub Street spoke with Lazar — who’ll soon be managing the next-door bar at Daniel Patterson’s Plum in Oakland, and inviting many of the bartenders featured in Left Coast Libations to do one-week guest stints there — about what he sees happening with cocktails out here.

On a sort of macro level, how would you define what’s going on with West Coast cocktails now versus, say, ten years ago?
The general level of awareness that there are better and worse cocktails to be had is much, much higher. Savvy customers are now looking for that experience and are willing in some cases to travel just to have it, much the way they’d travel for a top-notch dining experience. And there are more good places at which experience good cocktails. On the flip side, it seems like every bar now feels the necessity of having a cocktail list and a few “exotic” sounding offerings. There’s a lot of dressed-up crap. And, sadly, not every customer knows the difference.

What was the biggest thing you learned in writing the book – be it technique, or philosophy, or whatever.
I learned many things, because I was responsible for proofing all the recipes and that entailed acquiring all sorts of skills. And it exposed me to a wide variety of cocktail aesthetics. For example, from Jon Santer [formerly of Bourbon & Branch and Beretta] we got recipes for rather straightforward, three-ingredient spirituous cocktails with *precise* instructions on stirring and dilution. I’m still taking all of that in. On the other hand, from Daniel Hyatt [of The Alembic] (yeah, I’m harping on SF bartenders today), we got his recipe for “Still Life with Apples, After Cezanne” which involves first making a gastrique and then preparing this rather finicky foam (the “air”). A recipe like this takes you down an entirely different path and shows you how to leverage the kitchen and chemistry behind the bar in a way that makes sense, not simply for show.

Who are some of the all-stars among your picks, would you say, who are doing really idiosyncratic and inventive things?
Well, they all are, really. That’s why they’re in the book!

OK, here are two that come right to mind:

Erik Adkins at Heaven’s Dog, because he’s everything you’d ever want in a great bartender and host. His cocktails are always perfectly executed. He’ll remake something if it’s not just so, maybe more than once. (Is that idiosyncratic?) He’s a huge influence in the S.F. scene having trained so many other great bartenders, many of them in the book.

Andrew Bohrer [of Seattle’s Mistral Kitchen] who’s a wizard operating out of this very small bar (one well) serving absolutely wonderful original drinks served with a dry wit. He’s also got a great thing going with ice and he loves to show off his carving skills. I love sitting at his bar. [See the recipe for the cocktail at right, the Ueno San, below.]

Also, Evan Zimmerman at Laurelhurst Market in Portland submitted two very original recipes, one involving the now infamous smoked ice (Yes, we provide instructions on how to do that.) and the other with single malt scotch and sauternes. The only downside of this one, called “Morning Bell” is that it’s very expensive to make.

What’s your favorite bar in L.A.?  San Francisco?

It’s hard to pick a single bar in San Francisco because there’s such a wide variety of places doing good work and they can be quite different from each other. I’m going to mention two for contrast.

First, there’s Alembic because Daniel Hyatt is a fantastic bartender serving great original cocktails plus it’s got this punk/dive aesthetic which makes it feel very cozy to me. Daniel is often about and I love shooting the shit with him. Then there’s the great back bar offering a very large spirit selection, bigger than what’s listed on the board. Oh, and there’s good food to be had as well.

Second, taking it to another extreme, there’s Smuggler’s Cove. It’s a Tiki bar on steroids. Martin Cate is an incredible host and he’s got great talent working there, specifically Marco Dionysos and Dominic Venegas. There’s a definite party feeling (the effect of all that rum and all the kitschy decorations) but if you watch how the drinks are being made, you see there’s total attention to detail. The only downside is that there’s no food and the drinks are potent. A dangerous place to come on an empty stomach.

The scene in L.A. still seems to be evolving and as best as I can tell there’s not the same variety of choices as can be found in San Francisco. We just had a launch event at The Varnish and I was duly impressed. Eric Alperin and Chis Bostick (the GM) both pay close attention to the details and are great hosts as well. The only downside is that space at the bar itself is limited so when it’s busy there’s less chance you’ll be able to interact with the bartenders.

Having just said that, I guess I should mention: I usually like to sit at the bar because that’s where the action is. That’s where you’ll get to experience what a good cocktail is all about. It’s not a just a drink, it’s a drink made well in front of you, plus great hospitality.

Ueno San
Andrew Bohrer

1½ oz. 101-proof Wild Turkey bourbon
1 oz. Lillet Blanc
½ oz. Carpano Antica sweet vermouth
4 dashes Fee Brothers peach bitters
A wide strip of orange peel, for garnish

Stir the ingredients over ice. Strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with the orange peel.

Andrew tells us this cocktail is named for the master Japanese bartender Hidetsugu Ueno, famous for, among other things, carving ice balls. Naturally, Andrew builds this drink over a hand-carved ice ball. (He says: ”I do this to show off.”) Andrew also peels an entire orange in a long strip and winds it around the inside of the glass, à la Crusta, for a garnish.

Mere mortals, unable to carve their own ice balls, can still show off by purchasing these from a new venture called Glace Luxury Ice Co. Check them out here.

Earlier: Plum to Feature Rotating Startenders [Grub Street]
GQ Names Best Cocktail Bars, Shafts Sasha Petraske [Grub Street]

The Left Coast, You Know, Has Quite a Cocktail Scene Happening