In the relatively short time that he was a bartender at Neat in Glendale, Arash Pakzad made a long-lasting impact on Los Angeles. Neat owner Aidan Demarest has often said that Neat wouldn’t exist without Pakzad, who helped Demarest open the bar in October 2011. Pakzad’s impressive bartending skills, engaging personality and warm spirit quickly garnered a dedicated following. Pakzad was a key member of the Neat bar crew for the first 8 months, before he and his girlfriend, Ashley Afferino, moved north to open their own place in Martinez, Barrel Aged Restaurant & Cocktail Lounge. The LA cocktail community kept track of their progress, and talk of pilgrimages to the East Bay began as soon as Barrel Aged opened its doors on July 16, 2012.
Martinez is a small city of over 36,000 residents that occupies about 12 square miles. The city retains much of its historic charm, with some homes dating back over 125 years. According to the official Martinez site, the city is named for Don Ygnacio Martinez, the early 19th century commandante of the Presidio of San Francisco. Martinez has a fascinating history that dates to the 1840s, when it began to evolve from a Gold Rush trading post to a shipping boomtown. The city was incorporated in 1876. Naturalist John Muir lived in Martinez for almost a quarter century, from 1890 until his death in 1914. “The Yankee Clipper” himself, Joe DiMaggio, was born in Martinez in 1914.
And of course, the namesake Martinez cocktail, said to be the progenitor of the Martini, was purportedly born there. David Wondrich sifted through the murky origins of the “King of Cocktails” in Appendix III of his essential 2007 book, IMBIBE!. Wondrich divides the theories into the San Francisco-based Martinez camp, and those that champion New York as the birthplace of the Martini. The former group includes “The Jerry Thomas Theory,” named for the legendary bartender whose seminal work, The Bar-Tender’s Guide, includes a recipe for the Martinez. According to lore, Thomas was bartending in San Francisco and created the drink for a traveler who was headed to Martinez. “The Julio Richelieu Theory” posits that a Martinez barkeep created the drink in 1874, when a miner came into his saloon and asked for “something special.”
Wondrich debunked both of the SF theories, but that hasn’t stopped the City of Martinez from staking its claim in the historic cocktail timeline. In 1992, Martinez dedicated a plaque, Birthplace of the Martini, where Richelieu’s bar was supposedly located. Martinez also features Thomas’ recipe on its dedicated page, The Martini Story. And in September, Martinez hosts the third annual Martini Festival, which counted Barrel Aged among its participants last year.
Barrel Aged was the first stop on a recent road trip to San Francisco with Home Bar Basics author, Dave Stolte. We managed to keep our visit to Barrel Aged a secret, and the surprised look on Pakzad’s face when we walked into his bar in the late afternoon made it all worthwhile. We settled into our bar stools and checked out the classically-driven cocktail menu, divided into Old Fashioned, Older Fashioned, and Farm & House. Stolte ordered the classic Martinez: Old Tom Gin, Maraschino Liqueur, Carpano Antica and Peychaud’s Bitters. This was the same week that a minor brouhaha had erupted over a hack article that listed “dickhead” bar orders, so I couldn’t resist starting with one of the offending cocktails, an Old Fashioned. It felt very much like being at Neat, sitting in front of Pakzad as he expertly crafted our drinks.
Pakzad first met Demarest when the latter was Beverage Director of The Spare Room at the Hollywood Roosevelt. “Neat happened out of pure good fortune for me,” said Pakzad. “I came to The Spare Room to meet up with my old friend from Sacramento, Erick Castro, and that’s where I met Aidan. Aidan and I hit it off as he was on his way to creating Neat. It was a great thing for me.” Pakzad said he learned how to sell and advertise himself by observing Demarest. “He is the king of ‘Thank you’ and ‘You’re welcome.’ Aidan gave me an opportunity in LA. When I was applying at a Jamba Juice knock-off so I could pay my bills, he helped a brotha out big time. I met many great people through him.”
“I never planned on moving back to the Bay Area so quickly, it just happened to be my time to take the Barrel Aged business model and put it into action,” said Pakzad. That model is centered on classic and signature cocktails, American comfort food, a comfortable environment, and excellent guest and team services.
Barrel Aged was inspired by a journey through many of the country’s top cocktail lounges. Pakzad said, “We were inspired by both individuals and places. We honestly try to stay away from visiting other venues, so we can be inspired through our own venue’s ethos and vibe. We try to set standards and become the best through our own originality and adaptation of classic methodology.”
Pakzad took the DIY lessons he learned from opening Neat and put them to good use at Barrel Aged, which occupies a space that was previously a Japanese restaurant. “Ashley and I did 100% of everything ourselves,” said Pakzad. “Buildout was May 31 to July 16. All of the upholstery, painting, build and design was done by us. Some good friends and family pitched in, as did some locals, who are now our friends and customers.” Work on the space didn’t end with the opening: during our visit, they were putting the finishing touches on an outdoor patio area that has since opened.
“It was an opportune time to come here, work hard, and open our doors to a community that has been very, very welcoming to us,” said Pakzad. He said that Barrel Aged has a few dozen regulars who come in a few times a week. A particularly notable guest is Martinez Mayor Rob Schroder, who not only likes to stop in for a rye Old Fashioned (well played, Your Honor), he even dropped off pomegranates when they were in season for Barrel Aged to make grenadine.
Barrel Aged serves lunch, dinner, brunch and happy hour. The spirit education classes have been packed, and special nights like trivia, jazz, and “Breakfast for Dinner” menus on Toast to Tuesday have likewise done well. “We do so much, without overexposing ourselves. It’s a fine line that we walk very carefully.”
Nearly a year after it opened, Barrel Aged has become an integral part of Martinez. Pakzad attributes much of the community’s enthusiasm for Barrel Aged to Afferino. “Ashley is a gem, she’s always handling the things that make a difference in a guest’s experience. People talk about our bathrooms, furniture, flowers, drinks, food concepts—it’s all her mind at work.” A few of our fellow bar patrons, when they found out we were visiting from SoCal, eagerly shared their appreciation for Barrel Aged. We were as proud of what Pakzad and Afferino have accomplished as the locals were to have a craft cocktail bar to call their own.
“The community is our backbone,” continued Pakzad. “We love them and they love us. We cater to the locals and to visitors from afar. We listen, cater and create for our guests.” Pakzad and Afferino do much more than take care of thirsty customers. “We’re regular donors to many local foundations. In our first year, we raised over $3,000 for Shelter Inc. of Contra Costa County, which helps battered women, children and displaced families.” Pakzad added, “We also donate and involve ourselves in the Martinez Education Foundation, Foster a Dream, Main Street Martinez, the Martinez Chamber of Commerce, a few other nonprofits. The community is very involved with us, and we are with them.”
Stolte asked what the top sellers are at Barrel Aged. Pakzad replied, “Sazerac, Manhattan, Moscow Mule and some other farm-to-glass and forward-thinking cocktails. At first, I was surprised as to the ratio of cocktails that were ordered off our list relative to the everyday soda mixers and such. We sell at least 85% of our spirits through the cocktail list and served neat or over.”
The large, well-curated wall of spirits at Barrel Aged was created with an ambitious vision. “We’re trying to have the best bar selection in California,” said Pakzad. “It’s a tough goal, but I believe we will get there soon. It’s a challenge competing with some of the spirit selections out there.” He lamented, “I shouldn’t have drank my Hirsch 16-Year-Old!”
After spotting a bottle of the sublime Tanqueray Malacca Gin on the back bar, I asked Pakzad to make something stirred with it. He improvised a Sazerac-style cocktail that he referred to as “Our Little Secret,” which has been added to the current menu as the Gin Floret: gin, Carpano Antica, plum bitters, lavender bitters, absinthe rinse, sugar cube. Pakzad served it in an elegant vintage glass, and it was utterly beguiling.
Reflecting on the months that he and Afferino spent in Los Angeles, Pakzad said, “I am always thankful for LA and my experiences there. I would not be here now if I didn’t go to LA first. I’m a big supporter of Los Angeles and of bars all over the state and country. I encourage people to travel and have a taste of the different styles of quality we can serve up in California! San Francisco, Los Angeles, Martinez, San Diego, Sacramento, Oakland—I’ve learned a little bit from people all over the state, whether I’ve worked with them or just watched them working. I’ve learned the most from my family, friends, and most of all from my business and personal relationship with Ashley.”
“Los Angeles showed me another world of amazing bartenders. I may upset a couple of people out there, but in my experience, the LA bartenders are in a league of their own. I never expected to meet such amazing, talented bartenders. I believe LA has some of the best bartenders in the world. I had the pleasure of meeting and working with these men and women behind a very big stick, and they hold it down with elegance.”
Barrel Aged Restaurant & Cocktail Lounge
823 Main St.
Martinez, CA 94553
For more photos of Barrel Aged, visit the Thirsty in LA Facebook page.
In a conversation at Invention, the newly-opened Liquid Assets bar at the Los Angeles Athletic Club, Aidan Demarest recalled the first time he met Arash Pakzad. “[Arash] was exuberant and excited, and had bartended up in San Francisco with Erick Castro. Best reference ever, done and done. Erick is one of my oldest friends in the business, so I’ll take anything from him.”
When Demarest was introduced to Pakzad, he hadn’t yet told anyone about his plan to open a bar. “Neat was a six-week buildout, we were putting together the concept as we went along. I was hiring him for a bar where I don’t know the area, I have no idea what this bar is going to be, I don’t know what it’s called. I’m diving off a cliff and I’m gonna take this kid with me. And he said, ‘I want all of that.’”
At the time, Demarest had his hands full working on Liquid Assets projects, running The Spare Room, working with Cointreau, all while planning on opening a bar. “Basically, I needed [Arash] to do everything.” Demarest added, “If you give people a chance, they will shine. And he was the perfect example of this.”
Demarest continued, “There are very few people in this world, and I think I’m one of them, that have a plan. And he stuck with it. [Arash] wanted to open his own bar, he wanted to learn about how to do that, and he wanted to watch someone do it. And that’s what we did. We built a concept, a bar, everything, together. We were driving around town buying tables from used car dealerships. We lifted appliances over the bar ourselves. He was in it 100%, literally rewiring the back bar five minutes before the bar opened.”
Having never seen Pakzad behind the bar, Demarest essentially hired him sight unseen. But he already knew that Pakzad had the hospitality side on lock. “I’m really good at being a customer in an interview,” said Demarest. “He’s so warm, and interesting to watch. And the one thing I look for when I hire people is that they’re interesting to watch. Good or bad, I want to look at that person. Because that’s where their job is, they’re being watched all the time. And Arash fit that exactly, he’s fascinating to watch and passionate about what he does. But he’s also a kind person, and that came through right away.”
Pakzad was part of an opening team that was, at the time, mostly unknown, even to the cocktail cognoscenti. “I have a big Rolodex full of bartenders, so to hire someone out of nowhere was really weird. But with Neat I was trying to do something different. And the gods provided him.”