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Ice, as the Varnish's Eric Alperin is fond of saying, is the bartender's flame. And the two most important factors in any drink are chill and proper dilution. If the chill and dilution are right, even a stirred slug of vodka can be delicious. Naked stirred vodka is, in fact, what most people consider a dry vodka martini. If your bartender is good, the differences between Tito's or Belvedere or Stolichnaya are slight, not worth arguing about really. If he's barely rinsing the glass with vermouth, or adding the vermouth with an eyedropper, or softly whispering the word vermouth as he stirs your drink, the provenance of the vermouth doesn't matter, either. But the ice has to be cold. And the glass has to be chilled. And while we understand that a proper martini is at least one-third vermouth, maybe half, we know that it doesn't usually happen that way, at least outside the kinds of places where the bartenders wear sleeve garters and vests and exhibit the kind of attitude you might expect from a man who formulates his own bitters. A great vodka martini depends on the chill and the dilution, and on the steak you're planning to eat, and on the $5,000 suits worn by the other people in the room. Where else but the Grill on the Alley. 9560 Dayton Way, Beverly Hills. (310) 276-0615.
When the clock inches past midnight, and the tables begin to empty, and you are a regular in a bar like the Varnish, where the bartenders have postdoctoral skills, it is usually OK to ask for something like a flip: a drink made with sugar, liquor and egg white that's as smooth as velvet and as cool as polished marble, and that takes a heroic amount of muscling the shaker to achieve a texture finer than the sorry head on a Starbucks cappuccino. A well-made flip is the most miraculous of drinks. So if you're at the Varnish, and you've asked for a flip, it is sensible to let the bartender decide what he or she wants to put into the flip. You might end up with an Eagle's Nest, scented with violet, a Port Flip, or what Chris Bostick shook up the other evening — a Valentine's-pink Chanticleer, flavored with a single fresh raspberry. Stunning. 118 E. 6th St., dwntwn. (213) 622-9999.
Is soju a cocktail? No, soju is not a cocktail, even the expensive stuff with herbs. Anyone who has tasted soju cocktails at ambitious but underlicensed lounges knows that it is not much of a mixer, either. The blandness and low alcohol level that make chilled soju a brilliant accompaniment for highly spiced Korean anju mean that it is just too diluted to assert itself anywhere where ice is involved. The only acceptable modification to soju, I believe, is the grandmother's trick of gouging out the bottom of a lemon with a bottle cap and trickling the liquor through the fruit — it may be the Korean equivalent of an apple bong. But I do appreciate the practice, at a favorite Koreatown pub that shall go nameless, of wordlessly emptying half-filled soju bottles into battered teakettles a few seconds before 2 a.m. Like any well-mixed cocktail, teakettle soju has the magical ability to suspend time.
Maybe I was hanging out in the wrong circles back then, but my introduction to the michelada came a few years ago at a gas station up north of Bakersfield, where a half-dozen canned variations on the drink, spiked with Clamato, lime, beef broth, whatever, shared shelf space with all the energy drinks. The can mixing Bud Light and Clamato was exactly as charming as it sounds. But in almost any city in Mexico, the micheladas are delicious, concoctions of fresh lime juice, ice cubes and frosty-cold beer perfect for taking the edge off a hot afternoon. And in Los Angeles, the micheladas are especially wonderful at Studio City's Lotería Grill, where they are treated as carefully as the $100 tequilas. If you're a thrill seeker, you can try the variation of michelada popular in Mexico City, seasoned with umami-rich dashes of Tapatio hot sauce, Worcestershire sauce and MSG-rich Maggi seasoning in addition to the lime juice, a combination that smells a bit like a barnyard but has a shimmering depth of flavor you would never expect from a marriage of commercial condiments. 12050 Ventura Blvd., Studio City. (818) 508-5300. Also at 6627 Hollywood Blvd., Hlywd. (323) 465-2500.
Fine dining in Los Angeles has been dominated by Italian cooking at least since the 1930s. The most popular casual dining has involved Mexican cooking for at least that long. So it makes an odd sort of sense that the most influential cocktail from Osteria Mozza, whose back bar is a virtual museum of amari (bitter Italian digestives), should be the Sculaccione, an Eric Alperin invention, which is more or less a margarita overlaid with Campari and bitters. A Sculaccione, whose sweet assault on the system lives up to its name, which translates to "spank," is a drink that would seem equally at home at a Milan cocktail bar or in a glossy Tlaquepaque cantina. And the food's not bad at Mozza, either. 6602 Melrose Ave., Hlywd. (323) 297-0100.