The drink is called the Chin-Up, which seems inadequate as solace, halfhearted as a name. It blends Beefeater's gin and Cynar, a peculiar digestif containing cynarine, the active ester that gives the artichoke its odd aftertaste. It is finished with muddled cucumber, a splash of vermouth, a pinch of salt.
It is not a drink you would ever in your life ask for, and yet there it is before you, miles from a martini. When you walked into the Varnish, the bar next to the bar at Cole's sandwich shop downtown, and said to the bartender, “Surprise me,” you certainly weren't anticipating this sort of surprise. But now it's here, and in the next 30 seconds you'll learn whether you're anywhere near as adventurous as the drink you just ordered.
Such is the state of things in the cocktail scene in Los Angeles, 2012. The initial flurry of activity came toward the end of the last decade, when the Doheny, the Varnish and the Edison opened; when restaurant programs at Providence, Comme Ça and Rivera kicked into high gear; when bar talent from New York and elsewhere swooped in on pop-up venues like the ephemeral Test Kitchen, or elevated the brilliant and short-lived Tar Pit. In the three years since Jonathan Gold declared this “the Cocktail Moment in Los Angeles” in these pages, the Moment has become a Movement — one that shows no signs of slowing down.
Many of the city's most successful cocktail impresarios — Cedd Moses, Julian Cox, Mark and Johnny Houston, Vincenzo Marianella — have established consulting companies that routinely fire up new recipes, new techniques, new disciplines and schools of thought, employing a bewildering array of new products, served up in venues as thematically diverse as Paris is to Havana. If Los Angeles is one of this country's great melting pots, its bar scene is rapidly becoming its mirror.
In fertile soil downtown, in Hollywood, West Hollywood, Silver Lake, Los Feliz, Highland Park, Culver City, Venice Beach and Santa Monica, new drinking establishments burst forth like rhizome clusters. The pub crawl, a phenomenon well suited to walking and public transportation and East Coast urban geography, is now an L.A. reality. Park once and suss out the skills of the staff at Seven Grand, say, before moving on to the Edison and east again to the Far Bar before corralling your designated driver and heading home.
In such restaurant bars as Picca and Lukshon and Bar Centro at SLS, cocktails are curated with astonishing sophistication, not only as taste experiences but as perfectly tuned pairings of complex kitchen creations, especially with molecular gastronomy.
Not only are establishments employing more themes than a Hollywood studio lot but now there are also bars devoted, like shrines, to a single spirit: tequila bars, rum bars, whiskey bars. Lest this seem excessive or daunting (it is), at these same establishments you can take classes in mezcal, seminars in gin, rum immersion programs.
You can devote your life to the sophisticated pursuit of inebriation like never before, and you won't be out of line to think of it as “higher learning.”
Indeed, the latest venue to fling open its doors is Mixology 101, and while the name is akin to calling a restaurant “Cooking,” its 41-drink cocktail menu proclaims a clear message: Class is in session, and we all have a lot to learn. (It's to be assumed that the longer you study, the less you'll retain.)
“I think we've reached the point in some places,” says Cox, who curates beverage programs at Rivera, Picca, Sotto and others, “where if you order a vodka and soda, you're going to feel a little weird.”
Not as weird, perhaps, as your first showdown with your first Chin-Up. It is pretty, this drink, the color of amber in its Champagne saucer, a bobbing wheel of cucumber in its center. It gives off an enticing, mildly herbal aroma, which, you'll see in a moment, bears no resemblance to how it tastes.
In the first sip, the initial sensation is a weird, mouth-filling sweetness — a refreshing gin rinse, followed by a Cynar wave, tripping your taste buds' saccharine sensors. But in seconds, before you've even had the chance to acknowledge the attack, the drink's flavors change course: It sucker-punches you with a powerful herbal thrust, and a gathering bitterness fills your mouth with such grave intensity that it seems at first like betrayal. For a few confounding seconds, sweet and bitter elements act out a kind of dialectic in your mouth — now wildly sweet, now wildly bitter — with a finish that is long and clean, the sweetness fading, the bitter elements lasting, refreshing as mint. It's a drink that not only demands your attention but has its way with you.
So it is: Attention must be paid. There is so much to be said about the Cocktail Movement in Los Angeles at the moment that any attempt to encapsulate it in this, my first column in these pages, is destined to come up short. There are mixologists with the palates of sommeliers and the deftness of sous chefs, drink makers whose shaking arms are as overdeveloped as tennis pros'. There are more spirits on more shelves than ever before in the history of spirits, recipes from sources new and old, with ingredient lists that require the foraging skills of a master chef. There are experts on ice, on water, on limes, on glass, on bubbles and foams and sourness. There are spheres of influence, by way of New York and Portland and San Francisco and elsewhere, and much debate on the degree to which L.A. is carving out a niche all its own.
So let this first effort serve as a promise, and an oath of assiduous study on my part to look at every element in the scene one facet at a time, one venue at a time, one drink (or two) at a time.
Patrick Comiskey is L.A. Weekly's new drinks columnist — or, as we like to call him, our Spirits Guide. A senior correspondent at Wine & Spirits, he is a frequent contributor to the L.A. Times and to the blog zesterdaily.com.