The Sunset Marquis has stories to tell. Since it opened in 1963, it's been home to recluses, rebels and rockers, who have been drawn by its secluded location on Alta Loma Drive, a cut-off cul-de-sac that is a quick hop to the Sunset Strip. If you could be a fly on the wall in this hotel, the nook you'd likely choose would be Bar 1200, where Hollywood glitterati have gone for decades to drown their sorrows and celebrate their wins.
In its previous incarnation in the '90s, Bar 1200 was the Whiskey Bar and it was home to more supermodels, rock stars and celebrities than TMZ could count. Back then, things were a little rowdy, to say the least; but now, it's the spirits that take center stage.
The man behind this sea change is Sunset Marquis beverage director Dave Whitton, who has been in the bar business for 14 years, opening both Frauds and Swindlers and Villains Tavern, as well as working in many spots in L.A., including Seven Grand Whiskey Bar.
When Whitton worked at Seven Grand, he had almost every possible whiskey at his beck and call, but that selection came at a cost - too many choices and little time to really focus on the story of the spirit itself. At Bar 1200, he has been given free reign to curate a whiskey collection that is scaled down, but nonetheless thorough in its reach.
As befits any whiskey bar, the interior is warm and dark, rather like the liquid gold it offers. The space feels more like a rich friend's living room or study than the hotel bar that it is. Dim wall sconces glow and low-slung leather couches circle the walls, creating a womb-like effect that is ideal while sipping your Whiskey Sour. Despite the cozy space and the history it brings with it, the whiskey is clearly the star here, lined up and lit from below against the back bar, which greets you as you walk through the double doors.
Whitton loved the history behind the Sunset Marquis and the bar, so he returned to the old name Bar 1200 because he says it was important to bring back "old nostalgia with a new edge." Given the intimate feel of the room, Whitton wanted a bar that not only reflected the minimal, but exactingly chosen spirits on offer, but also allowed customers to tailor their drinks to personal preference.
Thus, the menu offers two to three choices in four traditional categories - Old Fashioned, Manhattan, Julep/Smash, and Sours. "It's a bitter and sweet menu of classic whiskey cocktails that really display the back bar's depth," Whitton explains, "less ingredients all pushing to highlight the real stars: bourbon, scotch, rye, and Irish whiskey.
"Do you like your Manhattan mixed old-school? The bar's Classic with Sazerac rye, Carpano Antica sweet vermouth (which lends an almost chocolaty character) and angostura bitters fits the bill. If your tastes are more adventurous, sip the Fatal Hour, a Manhattan riff using spicy Rittenhouse 100 rye, Amaro Nonnino, Aztec bitters and a touch of Luxardo maraschino liqueur.
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And, if your tastes run more to sipping the spirit solo, there is more than ample possibility for that, including one of Whitton's favorites, the limited George T. Stagg. Other favorite bottles include Eagle Rare 10, which has honey and vanilla notes (featured in the bar's classic evocation of an Old Fashioned), and Rittenhouse 100 rye, whose spice and tobacco notes are built for cocktails, according to Whitton.
Even though Bar 1200 is just inside the door of the Sunset Marquis, it feels worlds away from Los Angeles, as if you've stepped into another time and place. It's not retro, it's not modern, it's got its own easy rhythm. Maybe that's why, at closing time, Whitton and his staff always find themselves reminding the guests that it's time to head home.
Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook. 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 August 2014. Email her at email@example.com.