As the Los Angeles cocktail scene continues to grow by leaps and bounds, a trio of bars that were in the vanguard of the city’s ongoing renaissance are celebrating their five-year anniversaries. The Roger Room opened on La Cienega in June 2009, just a few months after Copa D’Oro and The Varnish, which opened in January and February, respectively. Jared Meisler, who partnered with Sean MacPherson to open The Roger Room (as well as The Pikey and Bar Lubitsch), recently hosted a tasting of the latest offerings at the dimly-lit neo-speakeasy.
The new Spring menu is a collaborative effort, featuring five seasonal drinks, each one created by a different bartender. “It’s actually hard to choose just five,” says Meisler. “We have 21 drinks on our regular menu, and the stuff to make another couple hundred drinks, and we’re bringing in new ingredients, so there’s only so much room.” The Roger Room General Manager, Matt Wise, adds, “We workshop stuff ad nauseum, we tweak it and tweak it until it’s perfect.”
Meisler suggested walking through the menu from light to heavy. “But the truth is, with the exception of one drink, everything is kind of on the heavy side,” says Meisler with a laugh. “I wonder what you think about this. I feel like, as a cocktail enthusiast myself, I kind of want more. My palate is just getting gnarlier, I want more depth, and more heavy, and more substance.” Meisler’s tastes echo those of many a veteran imbiber, which lean toward the spirit-forward regardless of the season.
The tasting began with the Ricky Jay, created by Tai Bennett: lavender-infused Tanqueray Gin, crushed blueberries, lime juice, club soda and crushed ice. “It’s like Spring in your mouth, in bloom,” says Meisler. “What’s nice about it, often that kind of drink would be a little bit too sweet and you just lose the gin. But the gin is really present, it’s not just a foofoo drink, it’s still a punchy drink.”
Indeed, the Ricky Jay honors its namesake, the famed sleight-of-hand master – it’s a bright, floral drink with wide appeal, but there’s a subtle kick to interest cocktail aficionados. Wise notes, “The response has been incredible. People are really into this cocktail.”
Meisler continues, “It really represents the season well. If you drop that in December, nobody would give a shit. Whereas our hot cider was far and away our most popular in December. Plus we named it Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis, which is a Tom Waits song, so that just sold.”
Kublai Khan No. 2 | Photo by Eric Shani
Next was the Kublai Khan No. 2, created by Jason Porter: Old Tom Gin, calvados, Crème de Menthe, and Angostura Bitters. In a 2012 interview on NPR, author Richard Bennett (The Book of Gin) discusses the original Kublai Khan No. 2: “Whether this was actually made is not something I think we’re sure of. We find this in the writings of the great occultist, Aleister Crowley. Crowley tells us in his writings that he would go to a certain pub in Bloomsbury in London and order what he called a Kublai Khan No. 2, which he tell us was a mixture of gin and laudanum. Now, laudanum is essentially the earliest version of a sort of general painkiller. And it’s opium, so not far off heroin, dissolved in sherry. So if you imagine a kind of heroin Martini, this is what Crowley tells us he was drinking.”
Meisler says with a laugh that Porter, “being a [Crowley] fan and possible Satanist – we’re not sure – brought it back to life. He omitted the laudanum, chose the Old Tom Gin and the calvados. I don’t think the original recipe called out specs, it just said what was in it. I think [Jason] balanced it out really well. This is not for the masses, this is for the heavy. You think, what’s in here, and the last thing you think is Crème de Menthe. He uses it sparingly but it’s definitely there, and I think that’s what keeps going. And oddly it’s sort of like the vehicle that carries the flavors on the back.”
The Lady Boy, created by John Lawniczak, is made with house-smoked Plantation Rum, mango nectar, pineapple juice, Cherry Heering, hickory, and crushed ice. “The way it started, it was just a really nice Tiki-style drink,” says Meisler. “It’s interesting, it’s well-balanced. We tried it with probably 10 different rums before we landed on the right one. I was really proud to feature it, because it’s a really well-balanced Tiki cocktail, and those are hard to come by, I think.”
“But then we thought, let’s take it further,” Meisler continues. “And if anything, I think those drinks err on the side of sweet. So you can add citrus and balance it, or add bitters and balance it. What’s another step that would be far out, and create a whole experience. And we thought, ‘smoke.’ And we’re thinking, smoke and tropical is like a luau.” A PolyScience Smoking Gun gives the Lady Boy the desired effect. “But we didn’t want to hit you over the head with it,” says Meisler. “We don’t smoke the entire cocktail. So we smoke the rum, we smoke the juice blend together, and then we put in fresh lime.”
On the Make | Photo by Eric Shani
Created by Bruce Hood, the On the Make is made with Bulleit Rye, Apricot Liqueur, egg white, and peach bitters. It’s a relatively straightforward sour – the stone fruits give a nod to Spring, and the rye offers the signature “heavy” of this season’s list.
Flamed Chartreuse for The Big Shot | Photo by Eric Shani
The Big Shot | Photo by Eric Shani
The final cocktail was The Big Shot, made with Pierre Ferrand Cognac, Amaro Averna, rosemary, and flamed Chartreuse. The Big Shot was created by Lane Compton, “a proud protégé of Damian [Windsor] and Jason [Bran],” says Meisler. At the inaugural Golden State of Cocktails earlier this year, Compton took part in an impromptu cocktail competition that sprang from a cognac cocktail session. “Lane took the ingredients given at the cognac [seminar] and quickly created the basic idea for the drink. It was very good, but needed some more time and development. We took the idea back to the Roger Room and worked to incorporate some smoke and mellow the Chartreuse.” The Big Shot would be welcome at any time of year, but judging from how many times the eye-catching blue flame of the Chartreuse appeared during the tasting, the forecast for this Spring calls for “heavy” with a 100 percent chance of delicious.
The Roger Room
370 N. La Cienega Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90048
In his introduction to Whisky: The Manual, author Dave Broom says that the idea that whisky is supposed to be sipped neat is actually a recent phenomenon: “At any time when [whisky] reached its greatest heights of popularity it was a drink consumed mixed or drunk long – as a Toddy, in a Julep or a Sling, as a Punch, a cocktail or a Highball.” Broom is the award-winning author of eight books and has been writing about whisky for 25 years as a journalist and author. Forbes dubbed Broom’s 2010 coffee table book, The World Atlas of Whisky, the “best whisky book ever.” An updated version of The World Atlas of Whisky is scheduled to be published this fall.
Broom’s new book is about how to drink whisky, drawing on 500-plus years of history to expand the possibilities beyond drinking it straight, to include mixers both traditional (water, soda) and unexpected, such as green tea and coconut water.
Broom begins at the beginning, presenting a historical timeline that’s informative for newbies, yet filled with enough details and anecdotes to interest knowledgeable whisky aficionados. Broom traces whisky’s emergence around the world, from its introduction to America and Canada, to its arrival on the shores of Japan. There’s an overview of whisky production, while sidebars include historic recipes for whisky punch, Highland bitters, scubac and more. Boece’s Garden Aqua Vitae features Broom and London bartender Ryan Chetiyawardana creating a modern version of a centuries-old drink, steeping herbs in new make spirit and cooking it sous-vide.
The Mixing section is sure to raise many a whisky purist’s eyebrow. Broom makes the case for why soda water, ginger ale, cola, coconut water and green tea work so well when mixed with whisky.
The heart of the book is How to Drink Whisky, featuring 102 international whiskies that Broom tasted with the aforementioned five mixers. The combinations are rated on a point system, from 1 (“Avoid”) to 5 (“Superb. Great enhancement and a seamless mix of the two ingredients, with the whisky revealing more of itself.”). The highest rating is 5* (“The best. A must-try. The whisky transformed into a magnificent drink.”). Broom notes that a score is not reflective of the spirit itself, only the mix.
Before diving into the mixes and scores, Broom introduces whisky “Flavour Camps,” grouping malts, blends and North American whiskies with designations such as B1 (“Light & Fragrant” Blend), M4 (“Smoky” Malt), and NAM3 (“High Rye” North American). Each category has an in-depth explanation. Every whisky in this section has tasting notes and a chart with the whisky’s Flavour Camp and five mixer scores.
For the mixes, Broom selected whiskies that are widely available. He notes with fascination that some brands that are sneered at by drinkers – who only try these whiskies neat – “come alive” depending on the mixer. Case in point is Jack Daniel’s. The familiar Jack and Coke scores a 3, while three other mixers – ginger ale, coconut water, and green tea – receive a 4. Still, it’s tough to picture Sinatra ordering a “Jack and Vita-Coco” with the same panache.
Dewar’s 12 with green tea: “a classic drink: complex, floral, rich, sweet, and sumptuous.”
The 5* is granted sparingly, and some of the mixes that receive this top score are indeed surprising. Green tea takes Dewar’s 12 Year Old “into another dimension,” elevating the blended Scotch to a “classic drink: complex, floral, rich, sweet, and sumptuous.” Canadian Club likewise receives a 5* with green tea – “a gorgeous mix.” Coconut water has a “transformative” effect on Tullamore D.E.W., offering “basket-loads of pineapple and tropical fruits” from “out of nowhere.” Nikka Coffey Grain also scores a 5* with coconut water – it’s a “sensual” mix that’s “never too sweet, or too dry.”
A few whiskies are rated “N/A,” meaning that they don’t play well with others and are best enjoyed without a mixer. Among these are Aberlour A’bunadh, Macallan 18, Redbreast 12, and Yamazaki 18.
In the section Whisky & Food, Broom challenges the commonly held belief that whisky is only to be sipped after dinner. Whisky brands have been working to break down this barrier, hosting dinners that pair different expressions with each course. Broom enthusiastically suggests a peaty single malt to pair with oysters, lobster, clams and other shellfish. L.A.-based Johnnie Mundell (Morrison Bowmore) has led the way with the oyster luge, his deliciously interactive oyster-Bowmore pairing. Broom discusses other pairings, such as the well-known whisky and chocolate, and the unexpected whisky and sashimi/sushi, which Broom describes as a “devastatingly good combination.”
The final section is devoted to cocktail recipes, from classics like the Highball and the Manhattan (“the ur-cocktail”) to New Spins, featuring modern creations from bartenders in London, Sydney, Tokyo and more. Broom admits that some of the techniques might not be of interest to the home enthusiast, but they’re a fun read regardless – e.g. the garnish for the Ceres Joker is an exploding balloon.
Whisky: The Manual is an approachable, informative and engaging read that challenges assumptions and brings a global approach to the best ways to enjoy whisky. Whether you’re just getting into whisky or a longtime collector, as Broom says, “Widen your vision!”
Whisky: The Manual
By Dave Broom
Published by Mitchell Beazley
Hardcover, $19.99, 224 pages
Available April 8, 2014
Image courtesy of Octopus Publishing
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