For a snapshot of the thriving state of the Los Angeles bar scene, look no further than Harvard & Stone, where not one, but two champions from the recent Bartender’s Weekend in San Diego are behind the stick. Jill Webster, who began working at H&S six months ago, was crowned Speed Rack San Diego champion. Yael Vengroff (Proprietors LLC), who is currently working 2-3 shifts a week at H&S, is about to come on full time. Vengroff, the 2012 National Speed Rack champion, blew away the rest of the field in the Wild West Rematch competition in San Diego.
When The Varnish won Best American Cocktail Bar at the 2012 Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards, many saw the well-deserved accolade as the arrival of the Los Angeles bar community on the national stage after years of steady growth. The torrid pace of LA bar openings has continued unabated, with key venues including the Houston brothers’ No Vacancy, the upcoming Los Angeles Athletic Club project from Tello Demarest Liquid Assets, and Old Lightning from Steve Livigni and Pablo Moix among the highly-anticipated debuts. An influx of bartenders, brand ambassadors and bar owners from across the country is helping to accelerate LA’s emergence as a world class cocktail city and industry hub.
In her role as the Director of On Premise Education and Outreach for House Spirits Distillery, Brooke Arthur helps the company expand and strengthen its relationships with bars and restaurants. As long as there’s a major airport nearby, she could essentially do her job from anywhere. So why is the Chico, California native making the move to LA the last week of April? “Love of course! I think that’s about the only thing that could get me to move away from SF! I’ve been maintaining an amazing relationship long distance for over a year. Don’t get me wrong, it’s been hard. But, for a girl in the industry, that’s had her hand played in the dating pool, this has been a very comforting and easy way to build a trusting relationship.” She added, “It helps that he is also the most patient, respectful, understanding, FUN guy on the planet…After I went national with House Spirits, the stress and balance of having two homes got to be too much for me. We promised not to even speak about moving cities on either side until the year mark. When it came, the obvious answer was for me to make the trek south.”
Arthur has certainly been making her presence and that of House Spirits known around these parts. “We just launched the new beautiful bottle design for Aviation Gin, Cali was one the first to get it after Portland of course. We also just launched our 3-year aged Westward Oregon Straight Malt Whiskey in SoCal, with the help of all the amazing guys and gals at Seven Grand San Diego and LA.”
She noted that “LA has been really warm and welcoming to me and House since I started. It helps that I have the lovely and talented Kiowa Bryan (Eveleigh) on my team. Kiowa is one of seven Brand Supporters I’ve been in the process of hiring across the country. We will have around 20 if I can keep up.” Arthur continued, “[Kiowa] is a dream to work with. Her contacts and friends in the LA cocktail community have really risen to the cause if you will, to help her and I get involved in the market. She also has incredible drive, and really believes in what our small, yet kick ass distillery is doing over in Portland.”
“It’s not easy building a brand,” said Arthur. “Breaking down the walls of some overconfident, ego-driven bar people can be tough. You’d be surprised at how many of your industry ‘friends’ don’t support you. Los Angeles has been a lot easier to break into than others though. Ryan Magarian, one of the founders of Aviation Gin, helped us out a lot from all of his consultant contacts he made over the years, as well as the help of people like Harvard & Stone’s Steven Sué and Jill Webster, Paul Sanguinetti (Patina Group), Alex Day and Dave Kaplan (Proprietors LLC), Cari Hah (Cole’s), Daniel Warrilow (Son of a Gun), everyone at Wood & Vine, and Dave [Kupchinsky] and the Eveleigh bar team have really helped to move us forward. So thank you to them, and everyone else I’m forgetting.”
On April 1st, Arthur, Webster and Jackie Patterson (Solerno Blood Orange Liqueur) are bringing an old school SF party called That Time of the Month to Harvard & Stone. “[The event] is an idea that a few awesome SF bartenders (Jill Webster and I included) created to get the community of female bartenders together to support their efforts, and a charity of our choice. It’s been roughly three years since we did the last one, and yes I still remember it. This time we are celebrating the ladies of Los Angeles, who by the way just killed it at Speed Rack…very appropriate.”
Arthur emphasized the importance of community in the bar industry. “I feel like I preach this all the time, but lately it seems to be an important topic. I owe everything I have to my San Francisco industry family. The support of my peers, and friends throughout the years in SF is LITERALLY why I’m standing here today. Throughout my travels with House I have seen extreme shifts in how communities work to support each other. We all need to share recipes, job offers, TRAIN bartenders, love and have fun with each other! I’ve never seen any city do it better than San Francisco, and if I can bring anything with me to LA, it will be all that. There is no room for tears, drama or egos in bartending. It’s hard enough to live this life as it is.”
Dino Balocchi originally moved to Los Angeles from Chicago last November to pursue his music production career and “begin to develop a lifelong dream of growing old and making music for films.” Though Balocchi had enjoyed success playing guitar and singing in bands, he took the long view. “There’s nothing appealing to me about seeing a middle-aged, old dude getting up there playing guitar, especially in the kind of music that I’ve always loved,” said Balocchi. “I grew into producing a little more in the past few years, at home and in studios, and I’ve really enjoyed that. I knew that moving [to LA] would provide more opportunities to grow that side of my music career.” His production work includes his “little all-purpose side-project” Odd Fayze, and as a founding member of Only Children. The DJ-production-art collective has garnered acclaim for its steady output of releases and remixes, as well as numerous Windy City gigs that include sets at the legendary Smart Bar and a slot at Lollapalooza in 2010.
Bartending was a natural fit for someone who’s been a musician his entire adult life and needed time off to record and tour. After bartending his way through the latter half of college, Balocchi helped open Chicago’s Michelin-starred Longman & Eagle in January 2010. “I learned so much and it really changed the way I thought about spirits, drink and food,” said Balocchi, who cited his influential colleagues Jim McCann and Derek Alexander “for the encouragement and help along the way.”
It was at Longman & Eagle where Balocchi met Brian Butler (Sunny Spot, The Brig) when the latter visited Chicago. “Basically we just started laughing about me getting buried in the service well while he sat in front of me,” said Balocchi. “After a few shots of Fernet, I told him that I was moving [to LA] and he told me to hit him up.” They kept in touch, and Butler subsequently offered Balocchi the bar manager position at littlefork, which opened in January 2013. Balocchi had previously consulted and contributed to lists, but in many ways littlefork is his first attempt at fully creating a cocktail and spirit list.
“I’m very proud of what we’ve done so far in the beginning and I’m looking forward to further developing our program here as word gets out about Jason [Travi]‘s food at littlefork,” said Balocchi. “My approach so far has been to try and create interesting riffs on classic drinks and respect the base spirit. That’s basically my philosophy in general. Hopefully, people who come to Hollywood to enjoy what we have to offer can see that.” At some point, Balocchi hopes to do a bourbon barrel program at littlefork and do something special for whiskey lovers. “Whiskey will always be my favorite spirit and I would love nothing more than to make littlefork a destination restaurant for bourbon and whiskey nerds!”
Managing at littlefork doesn’t allow for much free time, but Balocchi is eager to explore the city and its environs. “There are so many amazing music venues here in LA, really looking forward to seeing a show at the Greek especially. And Chicago is so flat, it’s really refreshing to get out and see mountains and palm trees and hills and the ocean.” Speaking of which, Balocchi has started getting into a quintessential So Cal activity: going to the beach for an afternoon bike ride. “That’s when I get to text and send pictures to my friends at home and make them extremely jealous as they sit in the long cold winter! This is also an opportunity to not-so-subtly tell them they should move here.”
Payman Bahmani grew up in Los Angeles, graduated from USC Law School and practiced for a few years in California. He moved to New York in 2005 with his then-girlfriend, now-wife Vanessa and practiced law out there for a few years as well. It was in New York where Bahmani first had a really great cocktail. “Back then there was only Milk & Honey, Pegu Club and Employees Only. The more I frequented those places and learned about classic cocktails the more I realized I hated my day job, and so I eventually decided to give up the legal practice and do what I was passionate about.”
“At first nobody wanted to give me a shot,” said Bahmani. “So I decided to start my own event and consulting company, Life’s a Cocktail. In 2010 I enrolled in the Beverage Alcohol Resource (BAR) 5-Day course and passed what I jokingly call my third Bar exam (after California and New York), earning Bar Ready Certification. That was actually my first intro to LA bartenders, as Alex Straus, Matt Biancianello, Matt Wallace and Joseph Brooke were all in that same class with me.”
Bahmani began working at Hudson Bar & Books in the West Village, a Scotch and cigar bar that also offered classic cocktails. From there he moved on to Louis 649 in Alphabet City, a neighborhood watering hole that had a “pretty good but under-the-radar cocktail program.”
“But my real break came in the summer of 2011 while I was waiting at the gate to board my plane to New Orleans for Tales of the Cocktail,” said Bahmani. “There I ran into Jim Meehan, who was on the same flight along with a ton of other bartenders heading to Tales. He mentioned that he was going to have an opening soon at PDT and would give me the job if I wanted it. Of course I said yes, and that’s how I ended up there.”
Bahmani moved out here a few weeks ago, “just in time to make it to San Diego for Speed Rack, Rematch, and the rest of the shenanigans.” Being close to family played a big part in his decision. “Since moving, I’ve met a ton of awesome bartenders from LA, and there seems to be a really tight knit community out here,” said Bahmani. “Everyone I’ve met has been so welcoming and shown a lot of love, and I’m really looking forward to getting more involved with Sporting Life, because that’s a pretty cool thing you guys have going on in LA. However I still need to get more acquainted with the LA bar scene because when I left in 2005 there was really nothing going on in terms of cocktails – my idea of an LA cocktail at the time was an Adios Motherfucker.”
Bahmani said he really enjoys The Varnish and The Spare Room, but he’s lately been most impressed with Sassafras Saloon. “It doesn’t get talked about much but I really like what they got going on there. The ambiance, decor, and lighting are great, and the cocktail list is very well put together and well researched. Even their barrel-aged cocktail program is kinda cool, the way they have the hanging bottles rotating above the bar for the bartender to grab. I’m really feeling that bar right now.”
Natalie Bovis first came to Los Angeles 20 years ago this year, armed with a bartending certificate from a college course and a B.A. in French Literature and Theater. Bovis said, “I spent the next several years working in bars, restaurants and nightclubs, where I slung food and drinks alongside people who are still some of my oldest and dearest friends.” In 2006, she launched The Liquid Muse, a consulting, educational, cocktail catering and editorial resource for beverage and spirit companies, bar professionals, event coordinators and home entertainers. “It was amazing to be in this city as the bartending community began to blossom,” said Bovis. “I was at the very first Sporting Life meeting – about 6 of us in Bar Keeper’s backyard. It boggles the mind to see what the community has created as [Sporting Life] celebrates its fifth anniversary.”
Bovis left LA three times over the years, though she never stayed away for long. The last time was in 2010, when she took a “personal time out” in Spain and worked on her third cocktail book, Edible Cocktails: Garden To Glass. Although she had been consulting and writing about spirits for years, Bovis said, “I felt I needed to get back behind the stick to practice mixology in the truest form.” She then went back to her hometown of Santa Fe and was a bartender there for a year and a half.
Bovis continued to hear the siren call of Los Angeles. Last summer, she chose LA as the first city to launch OM Cocktails, the line of certified organic Ready To Drink cocktails that she co-founded with Jason Monkarsh. “[Jason] hired me to create the original fresh-fruit cocktail recipes and consult on upcoming flavor trends,” said Bovis. “It’s amazing to think that what started as a conversation in a Venice Beach coffee shop is now a beautiful product sitting on Whole Foods and Gelson’s shelves throughout Southern California. We just expanded to Northern California, and April will mark our first order to stores in Florida. It’s also placed in some bars and nightclubs where it’s used for table service (like a wine) or as a modifier in cocktails.” The company’s first release was Wild Cranberry & Blood Orange. Its next flavors, out in April, are Meyer Lemon & Ginger; and Coconut Water & Lychee.
As a partner in OM Cocktails and the “face” of the brand, Bovis feels it’s important to have some control over how the product is presented to the public—her name is on every bottle label. “I love that what’s in the bottle is certified organic, the bottle itself is lightweight glass, the labels come from a wind-powered facility and there is a tree planted for every bottle sold. We really tried to keep the message’s integrity from sip to sale.”
The opportunity for Bovis to return to Los Angeles came in the position of West Coast Development Specialist for Domaine Select, overseeing G’Vine Gin, June Liqueur and Excellia Tequila. She’s officially back in town as of the end of March to organize the LA preliminary of the G’Vine Gin Connoisseur Program, taking place on April 22nd. Bovis said, “The dynamic bartending community here has been overwhelmingly kind welcoming me home. Over the years, I’ve visited bars, distilleries and wineries on four continents several times over, but nothing excites me more than coming home to the innovative spirit of Los Angeles.” She added, “I can’t wait to delve even deeper into the history this city has had on cocktails over the years, visit the truly world-class establishments, and jump back into a community of professionals that has become one of the most respected across the globe.”
“It’s crazy to think that this little dream I have of moving to the West Coast is [a few days] away,” said Nathan Burdette, who’s been behind the stick in Cleveland for a little over four years. He started as a barback in a “high volume beer and shot joint,” and just two years later Burdette was mixing classic cocktails and launching the Cleveland chapter of the USBG with his friends and peers. For the past 18 months, Burdette was lead bartender at Crop Bistro & Bar in Cleveland’s Market District, where he helped to bring a more craft approach to cocktails in the Ohio City area. Burdette was also one of 20 bartenders selected to compete in the first-ever Diageo World Class U.S. Finale last June.
When Burdette made the decision to move to the West Coast, he originally had his sights set on San Diego. “I have close friends and some great industry connections there,” said Burdette. “That whole idea started to derail last October after heading out to Portland Cocktail Week.” That’s where he met Bacardi Portfolio Manager Jaymee Mandeville. Burdette said that he and the former Drago Centro bar manager “hit it off on every level. We stayed in touch on a daily basis after PDXCW and I found myself visiting LA for the first time in early December. Jaymee and I had this grand illusion that we would travel back and forth each month to see each other in our respective cities until my move to San Diego. But, I kind of fell in love with LA right away. The mix of culture, the weather, the opportunity for growth within our industry, and of course the love of my life, all these signs pointed to LA. So I started planning the move!”
When Burdette was in LA in February, he sat down with key people such as Jason Bran (The Roger Room), Naomi Schimek (The Spare Room) and Marcos Tello (Liquid Assets). Burdette said, “They gave me a lot of great advice and I am thoroughly impressed with the humble but very serious attitude they share about our craft.” He said he would love to work alongside Luke Ford and Dustin Newsome at Seven Grand to keep his “extreme passion for whiskey” flourishing. Burdette added, “I’m really excited to see Simon Ford and Dushan Zaric making moves in LA too. It would be an absolute pleasure to work with either of them in any capacity in the future.”
“Although I am sad to leave a growing and eager city of young, passionate bartenders, I am excited to branch out and seek new challenges in a tested and well-versed market,” said Burdette. He’s also looking forward to driving to LA from Cleveland. “Jaymee and I have friends, colleagues and family along the way. We’re planning stops in some great cities: St. Louis, Missouri to see Matt Seiter behind the stick at Sanctuaria. Albuquerque, New Mexico to spend time with Kate Gerwin. And a stop in Las Vegas to see Jaymee’s parents and quite possibly a trip to Vesper Bar for a Fernet Bomb or two!”
As Burdette mentioned, Simon Ford and Dushan Zaric, two of the principals of The 86 Company, have moved to Los Angeles. Ford is one of the most influential voices in the global spirits industry, renowned for his role in launching Plymouth Gin internationally as well as his bartender events and education programs. Zaric, along with fellow 86 Co. partner Jason Kosmas, is the co-founder of acclaimed New York bars Employees Only (named World’s Best Cocktail Bar at the 2011 Spirited Awards) and Macao Trading Co.
With the motto “Noise and Spirits,” The 86 Company was created as “a company by bartenders, for bartenders.” In September 2012, two 86 Co. releases made their way to California and a few other select markets: Caña Brava Rum and Aylesbury Duck Vodka. They were soon followed by Fords Gin. In January 2013, Tequila Cabeza completed the line and 86 Co. was officially launched. Conversations with bartenders inspired the flavor profiles of the spirits, which are full-bodied and made for mixing. The innovative, ergonomic bottles are designed for functionality, from the multiple grip points to the measurements on the side for inventory and batching.
“The West Coast is ready for [86 Co.], high quality at a reasonable price,” said Zaric. “These are liquid tools that are used by craftsmen. They’re not just a product, there are real people behind it.” He continued, “No cocktail trend is left to be resurrected. I feel that over the next 10 years, you’ll see a merger, with cocktail culture moving into an indispensable part of the gastronomical experience. I’ve witnessed it from Seattle to Miami, it’s incredible to see people come for the experience. LA took a while to catch up on the culinary side but there are a lot of young, talented chefs here.”
As to why the move to Los Angeles, Ford said, “Most people that know me well probably know that I have wanted to live in LA for a long time. I have a lot of really good friends here and I think that the cocktail culture is one of the most advanced in the country, so it’s naturally a place for us to try and build The 86 Company.” He added that LA “has a restaurant and bar scene that is already burgeoning, and it also has an immensely tight cocktail community, but I feel it’s just the beginning and there is so much more to come.”
“The great thing with The 86 Company is that I have the freedom to live wherever makes sense in the USA, so it gave me the opportunity to make this move,” said Ford. “What is quite funny is that Dushan and I fought for a little while about who was going to get to come out to Los Angeles to build The 86 Company, and in the end we said ‘what the hell’ and both came.”
Zaric said, “It took me ten years of coming to LA to really appreciate it. It’s more of a feeling, not a rationalization. Los Angeles just resonates with me in a really positive way.” He echoed Ford’s thoughts about LA cocktail culture being poised for even greater heights. “There’s really no better satisfaction than seeing young bartenders grow. There are TONS of super-talented, hungry bartenders in Los Angeles.”
The move to Southern California was something that Zaric and his wife Yelena had been planning for some time. Zaric arrived in New York from war-torn Yugoslavia in 1996. In the ensuing years, he opened EO and Macao and co-authored two books with Kosmas, You Didn’t Hear It From Us and Speakeasy. Zaric said he grew professionally in New York, “but I was paying a price.” Noting that his daughters are ages 4 and 5, Zaric said, “Los Angeles is a better place for kids to grow up than Brooklyn. There’s everything here, you can go skiing, surfing, hiking. And right now the flowers are beautiful and everywhere.”
Personal and professional goals came together with the launch of the 86 Company, and the Zarics arrived in LA at the end of February after a seven-day trek. “Have you ever driven cross-country? It’s just beautiful. We took the Southern Route: New Orleans, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona. We were escaping the winter, staying with friends along the way. I recommend it to anyone with the courage to take the time off.”
In a Facebook post, Yelena Zaric shared a moment that everyone interviewed for this story will likely appreciate: “Oblivious from unpacking, starved, happy and excited about our new home. Weather: 75F or 23C…Jasmine in the backyard about to bloom and intoxicate the whole neighborhood. The fig tree is jumping into its spring mode. And we are finally HOME!”