As one of L.A.’s oldest continuously operating bars, Fairfax Irish tavern Tom Bergin’s is hallowed ground to many local drinkers. One of them, Derek Schreck, loved the place so much that when the landmark shuttered unexpectedly in 2013, he opted to purchase the Irish pub rather than see it razed.
To Schreck, a primary selling point was the building’s attic space, designated as the original owner’s private office. Schreck immediately recognized its unrealized potential. Two years later, the fully renovated upper room is home to Vestry, a private whiskey club set to open, well, any week now — after several months of delays. Turns out there are many unforeseen twists and turns in taking over your neighborhood watering hole. Schreck explained to us why he was happy to take the plunge.
“I really appreciate the craft spirit and cocktail movement,” says Bergin’s owner. “The quality of the products has skyrocketed, and innovation is always exciting whether or not the final idea works.” An unapologetic whiskey fanatic, Schreck seems motivated at least as much by his own desire for a comfortable place to sip a dram as he is to push the stuff for profit. That said, his members-only club requires a $1,000 annual fee. In exchange, you receive access to an exceptionally rare collection of American whiskeys to go along with a tailored, seersucker jacket. Yet even within such rarefied confines, Schreck is careful to avoid the trappings of pretentiousness. “I actually like whiskey culture a lot, mostly because it lacks the effeteness which has crept into cultures like wine,” he explains.
The membership dues exist mainly to preserve the space for folks who take the drink seriously, if not themselves. An avid collector of bourbon, Schreck has amassed rare bottles with allocations far too strict to satisfy general demand. “I’ve been trading bourbon for years now,” he says. “Most of the antique bourbon comes from trading with other collectors.” He also cultivates healthy relationships with his spirit reps. “I tell them what brands I want [that aren’t already in L.A.], find out where [they do] ship, and see if they can broaden the market to California. Sometimes it works. Sometimes not, and I have to source it personally.” The proactive approach has resulted in a masterful list that reads like a phone book of the most important names in bourbon: Weller, Stagg, Taylor, and, yes, Pappy Van Winkle, to name a few. As for his favorite? “That’s a tough one,” Schreck concedes. “If I had to be marooned, a bottle of 14-year cask-strength Black Maple Hill would soften the blow. Sadly it's out of production, but I treasure those [bottles] that I have left.”
While the upstairs shrine to American whiskey awaits its debut, the rest of Tom Bergin’s continues to pay proper homage to Ireland. Here you’ll find the city’s finest corned beef and cabbage to pair alongside Irish whiskeys unseen anywhere else on the Pacific Coast. A museum-worthy bottle of Knappogue Castle 1951, for example, fetches $300 for a 2-ounce pour. Of course there's a “wow” factor to spotting a unicorn like that on the menu, but the bar's coziness concerns itself more with locals fiending for a shot of “Jame-o,” chased by a pint of Guinness.
“Being at the helm of Bergin’s is not ownership, it is a stewardship,” Schreck declares of his role. “My job is to make sure that it survives for the next generation. Honor what the place is: an incredibly classy, fun social nexus for all who live and pass through Los Angeles.”
You nose an unmistakable whiff of history here. Paper xhamrocks dangle from the ceiling, honoring vaunted regulars of the past half-century. One extra fascinating piece of memorabilia: The authentic NFL championship banner of the 1951 L.A. Rams is framed on the wall, commemorating the city's first professional sports title. Schreck has turned down multiple offers by the NFL to reclaim it for the Hall of Fame. “We couldn't be happier that the team is coming home to L.A.,” he is quick to point out. “And [we] look forward to being a hub for fans as the original Rams bar.”
With the actual timetable set, the NFL's return to L.A. suddenly seems more imminent than the TBD arrival of Vestry. But Schreck is assured that the time is nigh. “I'm so excited to be inching closer to an opening day,” he gushes. “This has been several years in the making … and though there've been delays, we're very close. Just details at this point, which doesn't sound like much, but I'm very picky. Hopefully it's received with enthusiasm commensurate with my excitement in its creation.”
Undoubtedly, Schreck has fashioned a space he's happy to call home. The question now: How many Angelenos are willing to pay the premium to enjoy it with him?
To join, email Schreck at Membership@VestryLA.com.
Tom Bergin's, 840 S. Fairfax Ave., Mid-Wilshire; (323) 936-7151, tombergins.com.