It is nearing one a.m., and the music has started to fade, and the quarrel that seemed so important over dinner has already crumbled out of memory. The friends you ran into on the street outside hurried home long ago; people who slide out of bars before midnight are built of different, sterner stuff. The evening slips by at a silky, languid pace. A pretty girl is at your side — the girls are all pretty in this dim, masculine light — and Eric Alperin, the young man on the other side of the bar, who — like all serious bartenders in Los Angeles at the moment sports the vest and rolled-up sleeves of a picnic-scene extra in a silent movie — is measuring out a fantastically complicated series of liquids from a row of unmarked laboratory beakers. Some half-dozen of them come together into a frosty, ice-filled metal shaker into which the bartender plops a single fresh egg white separated from its yolk with an elaborate wire device.
Alperin shakes the canister, and then shakes some more, arms extended at a perfect 45 degrees, his body motionless, the rhythm falling somewhere between a rhumba and a foxtrot. (At this level, bartending must be a great core exercise.) As the ice wears down, the sound softens from a crack to a rattle, and at the moment just before it deteriorates into a slushy sound, he cracks open the shaker, pours the contents through a filter, stirs in a bit of seltzer, and gently sets down a cylinder of marble-white liquid, thickened with a hint of foam, which goes down your throat like cold milk and has a subtle, persistent back taste of what you know to be orange-flower water. This is a Ramos Fizz, perhaps the greatest of all the New Orleans cocktails, and you have never had one so fine.
If you were to close your eyes and imagine the perfect wee small-hours bar, it might look a bit like the Varnish, an intimate, odd-shaped space tucked into the back of an old downtown building, quiet when it needs to be, equipped with deep leather booths, showcasing its bartenders behind a perforated steel counter. The bar itself has no stools, although the edges are padded for easy leaning, and the cocktail list is short, a bare eight drinks, which are all classics, although mostly classics that probably haven’t been served in this part of town since the 1930s — and in at least one case, the Gin & It, a drink traditionally consisting of half gin, half sweet vermouth, served un-iced at room temperature, perhaps not even then. (Does the Varnish serve a great Gin & It? It might. I haven’t been brave enough to try.)
Other bars exist to facilitate love, to hang out, to provide comfortable spots for watching the Lakers, to dance, to watch turtle races, to obliterate that nagging sense of self. These are all fine things. The Varnish, a joint project of Alperin, downtown impresario Cedd Moses and New York’s cocktail Yoda, Sasha Petraske — whose Lower East Side bar Milk & Honey may have kick-started the New Cocktalian movement in America — is an idealist’s vision of the perfect cocktail bar, a place where drinks can be celebrated as a great American artform, like abstract expressionism, Fred Astaire movies, or jazz.
Do you remember the week when you suddenly realized that club DJs had become exponentially more important than the musicians who made the records they played, or the day when everyone decided that bacon belonged in dessert? This is the Cocktail Moment in Los Angeles, the moment when the appletini is finally replaced by a well-made Jack Rose, and the Jack and Coke by a properly made old-fashioned, when people started to realize that the $40 vodka endorsed by the famous rappers didn’t taste any better than the $4 stuff from the back shelf of Trader Joe’s. In some of the best restaurants in town now, the bartender may be as well-known as the chef and even more creative; it is no longer considered odd even in places like Sona and Anisette to accompany your meal with carefully made cocktails instead of wine.
Los Angeles has seen its cocktail moment before. This was, after all, the home of the Rat Pack, as alcohol-identified a group of men as any in history, who turned Hollywood into a drunken after-hours party even as they raised saloon-singing to a great American art. If the Rat Pack had a house cocktail, it was probably the Flame of Love, a sherry-rinsed variation on the vodka martini invented by Pepe Ruiz, the longtime bartender at Chasen’s, for Dean Martin. Sinatra used to order 20 at a time. Dale DeGroff, considered the father of the modern cocktail movement, spent decades behind the bar at the Bel Air Hotel. The fad for tiki bars began here, in the Hollywood bars of the 1930s, and the American taste for vodka was launched in Hollywood at the old Cock n’ Bull, as part of a tasty highball called the Moscow Mule. Hollywood always had a thing for a fine gin martini, with its caressing bitter chill, its burst of aromatics, and the terrible, crystalline clarity that carried within it the elements of its own demise.