As we enter the final days of 2012 (or the world, if the Mayans were right), the winter solstice is only a few weeks away and bartenders across Los Angeles are unveiling their latest seasonal menus. One of the first of these new cocktail lists is from Jaymee Mandeville, the bar manager at Drago Centro. While many bartenders will reach for brown spirits and feature spirit-forward drinks, Mandeville has done the unexpected and launched a menu that includes some light cocktails and features gin in more cocktails than any other spirit.
Just before Repeal Day, Mandeville hosted a tasting of her new winter menu at Drago Centro, where I was joined by e*star LA and Art Beyond the Glass co-founder Zahra Bates. Mandeville made each drink in the order it’s listed on the menu, so she began with the March Hare, made with Oxley Gin, Solerno, Schizandra tea foam, rose water and prosecco. The effervescent cocktail was an ideal drink to start the tasting; the Oxley takes a starring role and the white tea foam provides an aromatic texture.
Mandeville distills the season into a glass with the Winter Bushel, made with Karlsson’s Gold Vodka, apple/dill shrub, St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram, lemon juice, sea salt and Bar Keep Baked Apple Bitters. She deftly uses the Allspice Dram to lend a winter spice backbone to the Karlsson’s, while the shrub gives the Winter Bushel a fragrant tartness.
At first glance, the Black Leaf appears to be one of the more straightforward drinks on the winter menu: Templeton Rye, Concord grape shrub and Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao. A few sips of the Black Leaf reveals its complexity, with the crisp and peppery Templeton offset by the tart shrub and the bittersweet, subtly floral Pierre Ferrand.
The Naked in the Woods is one of the winter menu’s standouts, made with St. George Terroir Gin, kiwi/mint-infused Dolin Blanc, Fee Bros. Lemon Bitters and St. George Absinthe. The outstanding Terroir Gin receives a proper showcase with the Naked in the Woods, a stripped-down cocktail that’s anchored by the absinthe and yields an unexpectedly long finish that continues to develop on the palate. Bates observed, “It’s rare that you have a drink that starts one way and finishes another.” For an additional tasting experience try a bite of the kiwi and take a sip.
Next was the Sea Loch, made with Bank Note Scotch, Cynar, Miracle Mile Sour Cherry bitters and yuzu soda. Cynar and citrus are the winning combination at the heart of this tall drink. Mandeville takes the blended Scotch into unexpected territory for a winter cocktail, creating a bright, bitter and refreshing sipper that could just as easily be enjoyed on the patio in the spring.
Thanks to its brilliant hue, the Growing Roots is sure to catch many a guest’s eye. The Growing Roots is Mandeville’s winter spin on the Bloody Mary, made with Campo de Encanto Pisco, beet juice, Miracle Mile Pho Bitters, lime juice, Fever-Tree Ginger Beer and truffle salt. As she did with her springtime Night and the City, Mandeville once again subtracts tomatoes from the Bloody Mary equation and takes the familiar brunch standard to a new and funky, savory level.
Then came the superb Coquettish Angel, made with Pierde Almas Mezcal, Boudier Parfait Amour, Meletti Amaro, lemon, egg white and Miracle Mile Chocolate Chili Bitters. How good is this drink? Bates took one sip and grabbed a knife, threatening us with bodily harm if we tried to take the cocktail from her. She reluctantly handed over the glass, and as we took our turns it was easy to understand her reaction. La Puritita Verda is an entry-level, lower-proof mezcal from Pierde Almas that gives the cocktail its smoke without overpowering it. The aptly-named Parfait Amour (“Perfect Love”) offers rose, vanilla and almond, working in tandem with the Meletti’s floral and saffron notes. The bitters tie it all together with hints of chocolate and a subtle heat. Bates described the Coquettish Angel as “the most delicate mezcal cocktail I’ve ever had,” and as its name suggests there is a flirtatious innocence about it. Even as it teases you with its approachability, there’s a complexity and depth that rewards with every sip.
The excellent Novo Fogo Aged Cachaça is featured in the elegant Bronzeado de Sol, which also includes Petite Canne syrup, Bitter Truth Creole Bitters and a cinnamon/espresso tincture. Served in a snifter, the Bronzeado de Sol opens up as it warms to room temperature, and its caramel and cocoa nose becomes even more apparent in the glass.
Mandeville is a longtime supporter of Nolet’s Silver Gin, and for winter she features it in the Kissing Cousins, along with housemade rose vermouth, Yellow Chartreuse, Fee Bros. Grapefruit Bitters and Scrappy’s Lime Bitters. Mandeville’s take on the classic Bijou cocktail swaps out the Green Chartreuse for the milder, sweeter Yellow, and augments the distinctly floral Nolet’s with her house vermouth.
The final cocktail of the tasting was Mandeville’s personal favorite, the Soul of Mayahuel: Casa Noble Reposado Tequila, sage/black peppercorn infused agave, orange blossom water, hot water and brown butter foam. The Soul of Mayahuel is tailor-made for sipping on a crisp Los Angeles winter night, a tequila-fueled version of Hot-Buttered Rum that offers warm, rich comfort with a gentle kick.
Mandeville has consistently taken risks with her cocktails, featuring new and unique spirits, mixing seemingly incongruous ingredients with often spectacular results. Even as she walks the creative tightrope with her recipes, Mandeville’s drinks remain balanced and approachable, always keeping the restaurant’s clientele in mind. With her new winter cocktails, Mandeville’s ambition is matched with a confidence that results in her best cocktail menu since she assumed the reins at Drago Centro.
525 S. Flower St., Suite 120
Los Angeles, CA