Los Angeles has a long and proud history of cocktail innovation, though admittedly the tradition was lost for about 60 or 70 years.
The story of mixed drinks in L.A. essentially begins with Hollywood — the town and the concept. There were the drinks of the Prohibition era, which have that frisson of sex and danger, but the techniques used to make them are relatively simple. Then Donn Beach and his tiki invention took over the town in the late 1930s, arguably inventing mixology as we know it, with carefully layered liquors and freshly made mixers.
Tiki is more grandfather than father to contemporary cocktails, though. The drinks of the 1970s and '80s were the ne'er-do-wells of the booze family tree.
When the current craft cocktail renaissance hit L.A. in the mid-aughts, new bars followed a template already established in New York. As this city was trying to figure out what elegant mixed drinks could mean in our left coast culture, there was an amazing amount of imitation, all 1920s vibes and pre-Prohibition cocktails. But over the years L.A. developed its own style, led by a growing cocktail community of award-winning bartenders.
This May marks the 10th anniversary of the opening of Seven Grand, a turning point in the L.A. drinking scene, when we first pushed vodka-tinis aside to make room for crafted old-fashioneds.
The whiskey bar
Places such as the Hungry Cat and Providence were among the first to serve well-crafted cocktails using quality spirits and fresh ingredients. But it was 213 Hospitality owner Cedd Moses who helped transform downtown into the ground zero of L.A.'s craft cocktail movement, with a whiskey bar.
Huge whiskey sales at Moses' first bars — Broadway Bar and Golden Gopher — inspired him to build a shrine to whiskey. "We love our whiskey, and we were selling a load at the Gopher," Moses told the L.A. Downtown News at the time of Seven Grand's opening. "We figured we should be able to sell more if we carried more."
A whiskey-dedicated bar like Seven Grand, which aimed to educate and engage its patrons, stood in stark contrast to the velvet rope–loving, vodka-soaked Sunset Strip, the longtime epicenter of L.A. nightlife.
Within a year this new way of drinking was reverberating throughout the city. "The whiskey selection in every bar in town had doubled, even at bottle-service clubs on the Strip. It was an explosion," says Aidan Demarest, Seven Grand's opening general manager. Taking cues from New York's Milk & Honey, Death & Co. and PDT, cocktail-savvy bars in L.A. adopted the Gotham style: bartenders in vests and bowties and a classic cocktail–heavy menu.
Drinking in restaurants
In 2008, barman Julian Cox, who had trained with Sam Ross (Milk & Honey) to work at Comme Ça, championed high-quality, food-friendly bar programs. When he arrived on the scene, even Michelin-starred restaurants still employed bartenders who didn't know how bourbon was made. "Sweet and sour came in a plastic bottle. I was lucky to find a mentor in Bill Chait early on, and he helped set a course for what would follow," he says.
At chef John Sedlar's Rivera, Cox popularized the notion that a cocktail program is just as important to a restaurant's appeal as a wine program. "Many restaurants started to look silly because they had no idea how to catch up with the times," Cox says. "Now in L.A., if you are opening a restaurant, drinks are part of the whole package along with food, wine and service."
Restaurateur Stephane Bombet (Terrine, Faith & Flower) always regarded cocktails as an important part of a meal, having come from aperitif-loving France. But he didn't see that ethos in L.A. until he worked with Cox at Test Kitchen. "2009-2010 was the beginning of the big bar program in Los Angeles," Bombet says. "When we did Test Kitchen in 2010, we were selling more cocktails than wine every night with Julian Cox helming the bar program."
Cox set the standard for cocktails in L.A. by not only running the bars at every one of Chait's critically acclaimed restaurants from 2009 to 2015 (Sotto, Bestia, Otium) but by building a bartender school, with business partner Joshua Goldman, for those who sought to work in his bars. Many of its alumni went on to spread Cox's influence across the city and make their own mark in the industry; they include Chris Amirault at 1933 Group and now Otium, Karen Grill at Bon Vivants hospitality group and Nick Meyer at the Sprout restaurants (after Cox left L.A. for Chicago).
The New York speakeasy vs. L.A.'s farm-to-glass ethos
2009 set off another wave of cocktail bars: the speakeasy and the farm-fresh cocktail bar. Although at this point there were a few speakeasy-inspired bars in L.A., like The Edison, The Varnish, by Cedd Moses and Eric Alperin with Sasha Petraske (Milk & Honey), defined the genre. Tucked in the back of the iconic Cole's French Dip, it gave those who couldn't make it to Manhattan a taste of what everyone was going crazy about back east. In the dark, intimate bar, nattily attired and highly skilled bartenders such as Marcos Tello, Devon Tarby and Chris Bostick followed classic cocktail recipes to a nerdy-perfect level.
Meanwhile, in Santa Monica, Copa d'Oro was one of the first major L.A. craft cocktail bars to have a distinctly not–New York vibe, with a menu highlighting fresh juices. NYC-style bars were all the rage, but Vincenzo Marianella wanted to do something different: not just a cocktail menu celebrating the nearby farmers market but one that offered something for everyone. "I wanted to do a cocktail for any palate and any spirit and style. Shaken, stirred, tequila, rum," he says. "You can have a whiskey bar, you can have a tequila bar. But most of the bars should be cosmopolitan."
This kicked off L.A.'s very own cocktail trend: farm-to-glass. Bars lined with bowls of fresh fruit and stalks of fresh herbs became a common sight, further popularized by bartenders such as Matthew Biancaniello (the Hollywood Roosevelt's Library Bar, Cliff's Edge).
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A craft cocktail bar on every corner
Fast-forward to today and craft cocktail bars even populate neighborhoods way off the beaten nightlife path. Highland Park is experiencing a bar boom with Sonny's Hideaway, Highland Park Bowl and ETA. La Cañada Flintridge has "the world's largest gin bar," the Flintridge Proper. And craft cocktails have popped up in the most unlikely places, such as concession stands at Dodger Stadium and Staples Center.
L.A. has finally found its own voice in the cocktail scene. Bars like Walker Inn are doing scientific cocktails; there are a ton of fun theme bars like perpetual '80s party Break Room 86; and there's a growing roster of restaurants with stellar bar programs like Gwen and Here's Looking at You.
As one of the best bar communities in the nation continues to attract top talent, drink options in L.A. will continue to grow, challenging our palates and our preconceptions about how a cocktail should be made.