Craft cocktail scene spills onto a wider stage

JESSICA GELT
Los Angeles Times
Modified: August 15, 2012 at 4:30 pm •  Published: August 15, 2012
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photo - A crowd hangs out front of One Eyed Jacks, a bar and live-music venue in the French Quarter that hosted a number of events during the 10th anniversary of Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans. (Jessica Gelt/Los Angeles Times/MCT)
A crowd hangs out front of One Eyed Jacks, a bar and live-music venue in the French Quarter that hosted a number of events during the 10th anniversary of Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans. (Jessica Gelt/Los Angeles Times/MCT)

In this frenzied climate, where bartenders are called mixologists and its biggest players are the new rock stars of night life, Tales is like the South by Southwest of liquor. Master bartenders can barely stagger four feet through the streets of New Orleans without being flagged down by a friend or fan from Tales.

And for 54 mixology apprentices appointed by Tales from eight countries and 23 states, including places like Upper Arlington, Ohio; Guadalajara; and Mineville, Nova Scotia, Varnish owner Moses and lead mixologist Eric Alperin are two of the convention’s most sought-out advisers. One major liquor company director gushes that Moses is “the Steve Jobs of our industry.” Moses and Alperin, nominated for American bartender of the year, aren’t the only L.A. bar stars. Julian Cox from Playa and Rivera, which was nominated for best restaurant bar, and Neat’s Demarest, who is also the brand ambassador for a vodka called elit by Stoli, were in high demand.

Yet even as the craft cocktail industry goes global, some insiders worry that the mixology movement has jumped the shark.

In L.A., jokes about suspenders and mustaches — once the favored Prohibition-era uniform of the mixologist — run rampant, and grumbling can be heard about the “$15 cocktail.” This year, Tales was clogged at every entrance door with attendees complaining about how hard it was to get into parties and events.

The frustration is captured in a new video by the comedy team Fog and Smog that has more than 73,000 YouTube views and features a rap that pokes fun at the scene with the refrain, “Hey Mr. Mixologist, did you have to go to college for this?” and a plea for a no-frills rum and Coke.

“I think that video is hilarious,” says Moses, who just opened a second location of his popular L.A. whiskey bar Seven Grand in San Diego and plans to open another concept in Austin, Texas, next year. “I think every bartender in that has worked for me. Cocktails shouldn’t be snooty; there should be no attitude.”

“Without a customer base, this is a fad,” says Demarest. “But the customer base is here and it’s a young one.”

Even if the mixology trend turns out to be a fad, it’s one that’s spreading wide.

Birmingham, Ala., is in the midst of a cocktail explosion, says bartender Eric Lee Bennett, who pours in that city at the Italian restaurant Bettola. “There are a few like-minded bartenders at restaurants across the city doing really interesting things. We’re becoming a foodie city with James Beard-winning chefs, so that helps too.”

Bryan Dayton, who last year was crowned the winner of Bombay Sapphire’s most inspired bartender search and owns a cocktail bar and restaurant in Boulder, Colo., called Oak at Fourteenth, says, “The cocktail culture in Boulder is blowing up and the city is kind of a foodie destination now. Everybody’s doing it — from Denver to the whole state. In little ski towns people are getting hungry and going after it.”

Which is exactly where L.A. stood years ago when Moses and the craft cocktail pioneers began to build the scene.

“Seven years ago I came out here and everybody was laughing about the bars in L.A.,” says Moses. “And I said I was going to do great cocktail bars in L.A. The redemption is good.”