Penetrating Wind. Illuminating Fire. They may sound like kung fu techniques from a classic Shaw Brothers movie, but in fact they’re cocktails on the new menu at General Lee’s. It’s the first menu from Christopher Day since he took the reins of the Chinatown bar. Day explained the menu concept at a recent preview of the new drink list, which debuts on Tuesday, August 4. “It’s all based on the Taoist cosmology, the eight trigrams. So every element of reality, as they call it, is a cocktail. We don’t have actual formal cocktail names, they’re just the eight trigrams and each of them is based on the elements. Hopefully as you taste them you gain a little synesthesia for that particular element.”
Each of the eight trigrams, collectively known as the bagua, consists of three lines – each line is either “broken” or “unbroken,” representing yin or yang, respectively. The General Lee’s menu shows a trigram next to its corresponding elemental cocktail in the Signatures section, where “Classic Meets Ancient.” Throwbacks features a selection of classics, while Contemporaries showcases “What All the Cool Kids are Drinking.”
The idea for the bagua menu originated with previous Bar Manager Garrett Mikell, who now helms the program at Eveleigh, and General Manager Jay Lee. Day says, “It popped into their heads and then we all started going over it, and we got really excited about it. Some people can go off and make cocktails willy-nilly, but it’s really nice to have some sort of cohesive theme, especially one that goes along so well with this place.”
General Lee’s marks something of a Downtown homecoming for Day, who got his start as a barback for Julian Cox at Rivera. Day credits that first gig to Matthew Biancaniello, who suggested that he should sign up for the bartender training program taught by Cox and his Soigné Group partner, Josh Goldman. Day was among the first to enroll in the intensive course, along with Karen Grill, Dave Fernie and Kate Grutman. Day was later on the opening bar teams of Playa and Sotto.
During his tenure at Sotto, Day got into a bicycle accident that put him out of the industry for a little while. As he recuperated, Day decided to leave Sotto and looked into working at Bar | Kitchen, which had been revitalized under the management of Proprietors LLC.
“I started at Bar | Kitchen on a whim, because that’s where we used to go for lunch during Julian’s courses. We would walk over to Bar | Kitchen from Rivera, and I’m like, ‘Wow, this place is really cute and fun, and I could totally work here. It’s a pleasure.’ And it was! That was just great fun, because that was when I was introduced to both Adam Weisblatt and the Proprietors group.”
“I learned a lot about hospitality there. A lot about hospitality, both from Adam and Alex [Day]. I met some of the best people, bartenders who are now leading their own programs and what have you. Daniel Zacharczuk, Joe Swifka, Ricky Yarnall – I met all of them there. It was just such a rad bunch. I still miss working there.” After Bar | Kitchen, Day went on to bartend at Cole’s, then Honeycut, was briefly at Tipple & Brine and Murph’s, Terrine “for a hot minute,” and now General Lee’s. (“I’ve worked at a lot of places, I’m realizing.”)
Day says he brings something from each of those bars to General Lee’s. “Every single person I’ve ever worked with inspired me, from barbacks to chefs, even managers of places. I’m constantly being introduced to new things, and learning to appreciate stuff I usually balked at beforehand or never thought to incorporate.”
Then Day asks, “Would you like some house-made Chinese Fireball?” Needless to say, the answer is “yes” to the off-menu offering. “This is more of an industry thing, you know about it or you don’t.” Day adds, “We also have industry pogs that we pass out to friends and family. Those are usually good for a shot of this Fireball and a beer.”
General Lee’s will start hosting low-key industry nights every Tuesday. Day says, “It’s for industry and locals and the people who appreciate the place, who want to sit and sip.” There will also be live music sets in the upstairs lounge on Tuesdays. With Day’s bar program, a soaring double-height space and a striking Neo-Tiki design, General Lee’s has started garnering attention as a stellar event venue. The fourth annual Art Beyond the Glass took place there in June, and last month Bounce LA presented the legendary DJ Premier to a packed house.
The tasting began in earnest with the arrival of fellow imbibers Caroline on Crack and Garrett Snyder. The eight signature cocktails are listed on the menu from lighter to heavier elements, a natural progression for Day to make his drinks.
Heaven is made with gin or vodka (Day used Beefeater) and house-made green tea cordial.
Created by General Lee’s bartender Derrick Lo, the Penetrating Wind is made with Svedka Vodka, house-made lychee cordial, fresh lemon and soda. The bright and refreshing Penetrating Wind is like a cool breeze on a warm summer night.
The Illuminating Fire is a spicy riff on a Margarita, made with Union Mezcal, Rancho Alegre Tequila, fresh lime, Thai chili and ginger.
Served in an elegant vintage glass, the Deep Abyss is made with Tequila Tapatio, Giffard Pamplemousse, manzanilla sherry and gentian. The Deep Abyss marks the halfway point of the menu, ideally situated before we move on to the “heavier,” more spirit-forward elemental cocktails.
The Joyous Marsh is made with Karlsson’s Vodka, wasabi vermouth and Miracle Mile Yuzu Bitters. Day describes the Joyous Marsh as the marriage of a 50-50 and Dirty Martini. There’s a nice umami to the cocktail, and Day suggests taking a bite of the cucumber garnish after each sip. Don’t tell Rachel Maddow.
Next was Thunder: Black Bottle Blended Scotch, oolong-infused vermouth, Amaro Montenegro and Miracle Mile Bergamot Bitters. Like its namesake character from Big Trouble in Little China, Thunder packs a punch – a Manhattan variation for the dog days of summer that will make some noise and is sure get your attention.
The tasting ended with Earth, an Old Fashioned-style cocktail that’s truly “one with the soil,” made with Diplomatico Añejo Rum, Park VS Cognac, reishi mushroom demerara, Miracle Mile General Lee’s Longevity Bitters and garnished with an unpreserved apricot.
The new bagua cocktail menu and live music nights kick off at General Lee’s on Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2015.
475 Gin Ling Way
Los Angeles, CA 90012
Christopher Day photo by Andrea Macias-Jimenez, courtesy of American Cinematheque.