In life, some things are sheer contrivance and others are full of such serendipity that they almost seem contrived in their coincidence. Such is the story behind Melrose Umbrella Co. — which opened in February in the former Foundry space on Melrose — a locale where Prohibition, wet weather and family history all collide in a very odd, very circuitous tale. So pull up a chair and pour yourself a drink and keep reading.
This is actually a story of two friends, Zach Patterson and Austin Melrose have known each other since they were ten. “People call us yin and yang,” says Melrose. “He goes, goes, goes and then I have to grab him and sit him down.” Melrose’s yin was entertainment and the arts; he was a born showman who originally got into bartending to support himself. Patterson’s yang was his business savvy, which developed at a young age. Melrose, who is soft-spoken and thoughtful, says that the gregarious often goofy Patterson should have his picture in the dictionary under entrepreneur. A future partnership was born.
When Patterson and Melrose found themselves working side by side at many a bar, they started to envision the idea of “a bar built by bartenders, the industry clubhouse we never had,” says Melrose. They wanted a place that was open every day, a place that people would walk into and feel at home, and an evolving cocktail menu that was the brainchild of the entire staff not just one wunderkind mixologist.
Patterson, Melrose, and their partner Ian Schepp bounced all over L.A. searching for the right location. Finally, the old Foundry spot on Melrose Avenue became available. When they leased the space, it was covered in drywall, but a little demolition revealed the golden, rough-hewn beams that gave the first glimmer of what the space could become. Matt Winter, who had designed Thirsty Crow and Sassafrass, stepped in as designer, and he and Melrose took turns moving from corner to corner of the space, each sussing out the various angles and subtleties of the building, comparing notes and arguing semantics.
The next bit of serendipity came when the group learned that this was a 1936, i.e., post-Prohibition building, which jelled perfectly with their concept of creating a local, post-Prohibition bar that brought craft cocktails to the Melrose area. A bit of research uncovered a little-known symbol of the post-Prohibition era: an umbrella with rain falling inside it. The symbolism was simple: The country was no longer dry or, as Patterson sees it, "There would be many wet days to come." This image inspired both Patterson and Schepp to suggest the name Melrose Umbrella Company, but Austin Melrose, all too aware of the unplanned but obvious name connection, shot down the idea.
Then came the epiphany. Melrose’s grandfather, James Melrose, was a gentleman known as the Grand Old Man, who was mayor of York and a friend of the Queen herself. Years before, his grandfather had given Austin Melrose a book that showed an early 1900s silhouette of Melrose Sr. holding an umbrella. Suddenly, the name “Melrose Umbrella Company” was starting to seem like a good idea.
The team secured the original rights to the image, which now graces the menus. Bringing everything full circle symbolically are the 13 umbrellas hanging on one of the walls, symbolizing the 13 dry years of Prohibition, as well as turn of the century image of James Melrose hanging in a place of honor below the bar’s stuffed goose, an addition from Matt Winter.
Coincidence, kismet and serendipity are all good and well, but not if you have nothing to hang your hat on (no hats allowed on the goose, by the way). Along with a design that was meant to feel lived-in – exposed, raw wood, leather booths, tile tables, and an apothecary, saloon-like ambiance – the drinks menu combines comforting classics with modern concoctions.
“I can make cocktails for days,” says Patterson, who with Julian Cox created the bar’s first menu. “For every menu, I’m going to give my bartenders a chance to chime in.” Melrose says, “It’s everyone’s. It breeds creativity. There is no corporate; we’re all bred from service.”
The menu is divided into easily graspable sections, including classics (both modern and old-school), as well as staff creations and draft cocktails (among them the bartender darling Fernet Brancha.) One of the most recent additions is the 2 Handed Shandy. Usually a half-beer/half-lemonade mixture, Patterson's take on it uses Duval triplebock Jameson Black Barrel and Duvel Triple Hop, plus lemon, orgeat (an almond syrup) and Luxardo apricot liqueur. Served on draft, the fizzy result is a slightly creamy, sweet-tart brew whose strength dilutes as it mixes with the mound of crushed ice on top. The menu is destined to change seasonally and thematically, but rather than just switching it out, the menus will be classified as "Volumes" to chronicle their evolution.
A final and perhaps the oddest twist of fate came when Melrose discovered that the bar’s neighboring restaurant Vinoteque was owned by a member of the Paddy’s whiskey family. As it turned out, Paddy’s had been selling whiskey to Melrose’s family for over 150 years. When the Melrose Umbrella Company opened, Vinoteque’s owner gifted the team with a special bottle of Paddy’s 50, only one of three in the States. The bottle has a place of honor on the back bar.
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Lesley blogs at 12 Bottle Bar, tweets at @12BottleBar and is the author of the book "Gin: A Global History." Her book "The 12 Bottle Bar," co-written with David Solmonson, will be released on July 29. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook.