Bars can be lousy places to drink. Oh, they're excellent places to buy a drink, and to drink a drink, and lately they've been pretty great for marveling at the combinatory skills and anachronistic facial hair of drink executors. But when it comes to actually trying, say, a dozen drinks to learn, simply, what you like and what you don't like — without passing out or going broke — bars are pretty user-unfriendly.
Sure, you went because of the banging good bites by way of a host of expert Asian chefs: cured Hawaiian butterfish from Sang Yoon of Lukshon, bao buns from Jet Tila of the Charleston, bulgogi with kimchi fried rice from Jenee Kim of Park's BBQ, a startling “startled pig” salad from Kris Yenbamroong of Night + Market — with postprandial bibelots from Coolhaus, the soignée ice cream sandwich truck.
But Lucky Rice was an oddly great occasion for serious drinking, too. Several cocktail stations were interspersed among the food booths, staffed by such talent as Rosie Ruiz (Big Bar), Joe Brooke (Mixology 101), Jaymee Mandeville (Drago Centro), as well as a few guest slingers, including Joseph Ehrmann (Elixir, San Francisco) and Jean-Georges sommelier Bernie Sun from New York. So that same $50 got you access to more than a dozen cocktails, a rare opportunity to try several in a single evening without the stubborn obligation of actually having to drink them all.
Even better, most of the drinks were made with a single spirit — Bombay Sapphire's subtly fragrant East gin, which adds such Asian spices as lemongrass and black pepper to the usual array of juniper, coriander, orris root and the like. It's a very good gin, better than Sapphire itself, which can come off a bit stiff and unyielding; East, with its brighter aromatics, felt looser and a lot more fun.
The reason I was able to come away with such an indelible impression of Sapphire East was because I got to try it in multiple forms, with multiple adornments, mixing elements, garnishes, flavors. Somewhere between the fifth and 10th beverage — was it Brooke's Tom Kha-Lins, a Collins with Thai basil and chilis? Or Ehrmann's Eastern Market, with Bing cherries and rosemary syrup? Or Mandeville's Eastern Fog, citrus juices seasoned with yuzu and ginger and finished with Forbidden bitters? — I realized what a boon this was, to actually get to know a spirit without overspending or overindulging.
Of course, there are now many opportunities to do just this in L.A. in the course of the year, more festivals and celebrations given to food, wine, beer and spirits, and their combination, than ever before: L.A. Food & Wine last weekend and this Saturday's Craft Beer Crawl are great examples. You may not wish to think of these occasions as instructive, but if you're not careful, you're liable to learn something.
Patrick Comiskey, our drinks columnist, blogs at patrickcomiskey.com and tweets at @patcisco. Have a spirits question for a future column? Ask him. Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook.