“When was the last time you really felt like you had a bar family?”
This question helped to set the wheels in motion for Cari Hah to become the new bar manager at Big Bar in December 2015. With almost no time to get her bearings, she hit the ground running with two of the Los Feliz bar’s biggest events: New Year’s Eve and the annual Valentine’s Day prom. She also somehow found time to create a superb new cocktail menu for spring 2016, her first ever as a bar manager.
I met with Hah and Big Bar’s heart and soul, Eugene Lee, on a gorgeous spring afternoon to talk about her approach to the menu, taking on a job she never thought she wanted, the importance of mentoring, and what it means to be the Tiger Mom of the Big Bar family.
Prior to Big Bar, Hah had created plenty of cocktails – as a consultant, she did the cocktail menus at Peking Tavern and City Tavern in Downtown L.A.; the latter was created with Brent Falco. (That Gibson!) For the Big Bar menu, Hah asked herself some basic questions: “What do I think is fun right now, what do I really like, what am I interested in, what would I want to drink?”
She made it a point to consider Big Bar’s customers and clientele. “I noticed that we have a lot of cocktail drinkers, but they’re not necessarily cocktail nerds, where they want all the craziest things all at once. They really enjoy cocktails, but they want something that’s approachable and accessible – they [could] drink another one after drinking one.”
“I really wanted to do something fun and whimsical. My whole cocktail style has always been keep it simple – classics and twists on classics. If you look at the [spring 2016] cocktails they’re all based on something basic with just a little bit of a whimsical twist here and there. That’s really my style. I always want to respect the base spirit first. If you can’t taste what spirit is in your cocktail, I find that highly disrespectful to the distiller and the actual spirit brand.”
“On top of the that, the other layer was of course, this is a business. As bar manager I have a fiscal responsibility to my owner. So I gotta make sure the cost of the cocktail is appropriate, the people that would support the bar are on the menu – not ‘selling out’ or whatever – I’m not ‘selling’ my cocktail menu. But at the same time you want to be able to garner support for being on the menu because we do a lot of cocktail business here, we don’t get a lot of customers asking for spirits neat. Nine times out of 10 when a customer walks into the bar they’re going to order a cocktail off the menu.
Big Bar’s bustling patio and all-day hours were also key factors. “For this bar it’s very important to have a lot of drinks that we call Patio Pounders,” says Hah. “You want to be able to picture yourself sitting on a patio sipping this cocktail. A lot of those heavier, stirred type of drinks we can make as Bartender’s Choice or on the fly, but on a menu you gotta have things where people are like, ‘Light! Refreshing! Yummy! Daytime drinking!’ Every single one of these cocktails can be drank during the day, on the patio with sunglasses on, enjoying the weather – California, you know? We are such a patio business. It’s very, very important.”
Indeed, our conversation took place on a perfect So Cal Saturday afternoon, and it was packed inside and out on the patio. Hah continues, “I mean I love stirred whiskey cocktails, but to me that’s more when you’re at a dark bar, in the nighttime, on a date, something like that. Whereas I wouldn’t necessarily want to be like, ‘11am, let me order a three booze drink.’ So… light, refreshing, Patio Pounders, these things are very much the core of my menu.”
Asked which cocktails her guests have responded to on the new menu, Hah answered, “I would say that our number one seller for sure, which I knew it was gonna be, is the #Tigermom Gimlet. You see ‘Gimlet,’ you know what a Gimlet is. Then you kind of read the ingredients – ‘oh, that’s really different.’ There’s a familiarity to draw your eye in, but again it’s a twist on a classic. It’s a little more complex, a little richer in flavor. A little more rounded and balanced. You can finish it in two sips and you want another one. And people have done that – three, four at a time.”
Lee says, “It’s kind of like a hit song on the radio, something that’s universally recognizable but with a new and fresh take on it.”
Hah adds, “That’s why I put it at the top of the menu, because I knew that that was gonna be the first drink that everyone’s going to look at.”
The concept of “tiger mom” – a neologism used to describe a tough, disciplinarian mother – gained widespread notoriety with an infamous Wall Street Journal article by Amy Chua, Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior, which excerpted from her book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.
Hah says, “It’s an Asian mom who loves like crazy but expects everything. A- is not good enough. A is the only thing. People always laugh because I’m so fiercely loyal, I’m 100% behind my team and I love like crazy, very fierce. But I expect everything. I will give you everything, but I expect everything.”
Lee adds, “Tiger moms will give you the world, but they will also ask for it back, no questions asked. Everybody here calls her Tiger Mom, I think even our owners call her Tiger Mom.”
“I remember that first bar meeting,” says Lee. “It’s 8 a.m. and at 8:03 she’s like, ‘Selene, tell me how to make the blah blah blah.’ We’ve had the menu for about a week, but the expectation was there, you better know it. Or [to] one of our cocktail waitresses, ‘How much does that cost? What’s in it?’ Right out of the gate, it’s 8 in the morning, we’re having to be on the spot, answering to Tiger Mom. Cari definitely owns the title, for better or for worse. For the positive and perhaps negative intonations, she owns all of it and I think that breeds a lot of respect out of her staff.”
“Surprisingly, [the Piña Vieja is] the only agave spirit cocktail on my menu and the only Old-Fashioned on my menu as well,” says Hah, who is well-known for her love of agave spirits. “I went really bold with this one. Everybody, when they put a tequila drink on the menu they do a shaken riff on a Margarita. This is two pet peeves that I have: One. It’s a riff on a Margarita and maybe it has a pepper in it. Two. Anybody that does an Old-Fashioned with mezcal or tequila, uses either chocolate chili mole bitters or an agave syrup spiced with habaneros or jalapeños. Really? You can do a tequila or agave drink without peppers and you can do an Old-Fashioned without the chocolate mole bitters. Jeebus!”
The result is the Piña Vieja, which uses none of the crutches that Hah mentioned. “So this beautiful reposado – I think El Tesoro is a very standout agave spirit – it is a big portfolio brand, but they do it right and it tastes great. I don’t like reposados, but their reposado is really one of the better ones. It doesn’t have too much wood, but it still has a little hit.”
“I happen to love pineapple and tequila together,” says Hah. “There’s a drink in Mexico called tepache, which is fermented pineapple. They take the rinds, the fruit and everything, add piloncillo (Mexican brown sugar), throw it in with water, macerate it and let it ferment. Everybody that makes it at home has their own recipe – sometimes they throw in cinnamon sticks and things like that. That’s exactly what I want to base it on, I want to base it on tepache.”
“Pineapple gomme gives it that beautiful mouthfeel and richness. I wanted to use my Miracle Mile Hello Cari Bitters, because that’s the base with cinnamon, dried persimmon and jujube, and that will go together perfectly with the little hit of wood and agave flavor. And I always like to throw a little salt on top for balance. I love it, it’s one of my favorite drinks on the menu.”
Lee says, “Like the #Tigermom Gimlet, at least the nights that I bartend – which is like seeing the Loch Ness Monster or Bigfoot – I sell a lot of Piña Viejas and #Tigermom Gimlets. People are comfortable with Gimlets and Old-Fashioned variations. Maybe [it’s] the L.A. vibe, maybe the weather being so nice outside, I think it leans agave a little bit.”
Hah thinks the Piña Vieja is popular because it’s the only tequila drink and the only Old-Fashioned style cocktail on the menu. There’s also the inevitable curiosity about the Hello Cari Bitters, which is made exclusively for her by Miracle Mile Bitters founder Louis Anderman. “When I show them the bottle everyone goes crazy. I’ve had girls try and steal it. I totally caught a girl. ‘Um, I’m gonna need those back.’ She’s like, ‘Uh, I was just looking at it.’ Yeah, that’s why it was in your purse.”
The Irish Goodbye (aka “ghosting”) refers to leaving a bar or party without saying goodbye. It’s a technique that Hah has perfected and the namesake of her Manhattan variation. “It’s a very easy stirred cocktail, almost like an intro stirred cocktail. Irish whiskey is a little more mild of a whiskey than rye or scotch, but still, Powers has a lot of great whiskey notes. [The Irish Goodbye is made] with China-China, which is a really beautiful amaro that’s not so polarizing. Everybody can drink that and love it. Cocchi Torino is a beautiful sweet vermouth. So those three together with Miracle Mile Forbidden Bitters, which are a crowd pleaser all around. Super easy to drink, it’s a great stirred cocktail for novice and seasoned cocktail drinkers.”
“This is our play on a Gin & Tonic or a Vodka Soda. It’s our highball with the Bols Barrel Aged Genever. I’ve never really seen it in cocktails other than stirred cocktails, where people replace whiskey with it, because it’s malty and has a lot of whiskey notes. So I really wanted to see if I could do a light refreshing drink from it. We infuse it with rosemary, because I think the barrel aged aroma together with rosemary is so beautiful. We also make a rosemary apple shrub, which gives it that little sweetness. Top with soda and a float of amontillado sherry, which plays really well with the Bols.”
Lee notes, “It gives it that beautiful fade, which really comes through. It’s so sexy looking.”
“We char rosemary to give that aroma as you lift it to your nose,” says Hah. “It’s really surprisingly light and refreshing. It sounds like a lot of earthy notes and flavors, but it actually comes off as super light.”
“I think it’s one of my favorite cocktails on the menu,” says Lee. “The way a cocktail appears is really important, and you can go super bombastic and dynamic. But with Cari’s cocktails a visual throughline that I’ve found is that they’re pristine – the intention is there, nothing is wasted, there’s no randomness to it. You talk about an elegant looking cocktail – with that little flourish of the rosemary that’s slightly charred, and that beautiful dark fade – it’s as if the fire from the rosemary [bled] into this porcelain clear cocktail. It’s an incredible thing to see.”
Hah adds, “I just don’t like garnishes that have no point. I’m really of that camp. It’s cute – I mean, maybe I’ll do it for special events and stuff just because it’s fun – but for a cocktail menu I really, really honestly believe that your garnish should do something, or don’t have it. I’m not trying to make my barbacks do extra work for no reason. I need them to do actual stuff.”
Hah gives credit to Ria Soler for the name. “I wanted to name it Shrub One Out, but that didn’t go over so well with my bosses. (Lee: “I like that name.”) I thought it was funny, whatever.” (laughs)
The Pera Coreana made its debut at Big Bar’s New Year’s Eve bash, representing the Brazil timezone. “[It] is one of the pride and joys of my life, and I’ll tell you why,” says Hah. “I’ve been working with Leblon Cachaça for years as a part-time ambassador, brand educator and doing creative applications for cachaça. Cachaça is one of those spirits that not a lot of people understand or care about beyond the caipirinha. Often on cocktail menus anything that’s a cachaca cocktail is some sort of riff on a caipirinha. Which is fine, that’s freakin’ delicious! I myself have a thousand different caipirinha type cocktails with Leblon, and they’re crowd pleasers, nobody doesn’t love it.”
“But I really wanted to challenge myself to go deeper than a caipirinha and make a drink with Leblon, with cachaça, that had nothing to do with a caipirinha. So, what I did here is infuse the Leblon with Asian pear. I found this liqueur called Acqua di Cedro, which is this grappa-based citrus liqueur from Italy. It has this beautiful deep flavor with a slightly bitter afternote. It’s different than any citrus – it’s not lemon, it’s not lime, it’s some weird version in between. Which is really apropos because the citrus is different in Brazil and the caipirinha is made with this fruit that’s slightly in between a lime and a lemon. Cocchi Americano is an aperitif that I just personally really love. [The Pera Coreana] has apple cider vinegar in it, and that’s my acid – there’s no citrus in this thing whatsoever, there’s no juice in it.”
“That all together makes this most amazing, interesting – your first sip you might be confused, and then you just want to keep sipping it, and then all of a sudden the drink is gone and it goes down like water. It’s so refreshing I don’t even know how to describe it.”
“There’s a show on NPR called The Dinner Party Download,” says Hah. “They contacted me about doing one of their shows. I had been on their show once before, I was talking about baijiu at the time. But that was just for radio.”
This time when they reached out to Hah, it was for a live show, which they’d only done once before. “I didn’t really understand what they meant by ‘live show.’ They were doing this huge live taping at the Theatre at the Ace Hotel in Downtown L.A. I’d never been there, so I didn’t know how big it was. And then they were like, ‘Oh, you’re going to be on stage with Father John Misty and blah blah blah.'”
“Cari didn’t know who Father John Misty was,” says Lee. “I think at one point she referred to him as Papa John’s. (laughs) I was a huge fan, his last album was incredible! (Cari: “I didn’t know.”) She was so innocent going into it.”
A regular segment on DPD features a historical story and a bartender who creates a cocktail inspired by that story. For the live show, DPD sent Hah the story of how the disco anthem Le Freak by Chic was created. It happened on New Year’s Eve 1977, when guitarist Nile Rodgers and bassist Bernard Edwards were invited to the infamous Studio 54 by Grace Jones. “When they went, the doorman wouldn’t let them in. ‘Who the fuck are you, we don’t know who you are, get out.’ They went back to their studio [and] they were so pissed off, the way they wanted to deal with their anger, they just started jamming.” The song’s original chorus, “Awww… fuck off! Fuck Studio 54, fuck off!” was the duo’s response to getting the door slammed in their faces while being told, “Fuck off!”
“As it kind of iterated into a different song, they realized, ‘Hey, we may have a hit here. We need to change the words, ‘cause we can’t really say that.'” So “Fuck off!” became “Freak out!” and the rest is music history: Le Freak became the first song to reach the Number One position on the Billboard Hot 100 three separate times.
“C’est Chic is basically a sherry cobbler,” says Hah. “For me, sherry cobblers look like snow cones, they look super fun. And Studio 54 was an adult playground, so I wanted to do an adult snow cone. Something low proof, because that’s kind of ironic – people would go there and get fucked up. The raspberries are like Grace Jones’ lipstick, really red. She’s from Jamaica so I put a float of Appleton rum on top, it’s a Jamaican rum.”
Hah made the C’est Chic on stage in front of more than 2,000 people. “Father John Misty loved it. They’d heard about Speed Rack, so they wanted me to make these seven cocktails as fast as possible. All right, cool. The whole cocktail segment of that show was meant to be less than five minutes. And they were talking to me at the same time. I’d never made cocktails in front of that many people in my life. Two thousand people just staring at you, it’s a little weird.”
For Hah’s recipe and to hear the story behind Le Freak from Nile Rodgers himself, visit The Dinner Party Download.
It’s sort of a running joke that I can’t leave Big Bar without sipping on a 50/50. And there’s no greater advocate of the 50/50 than Cari Hah. “This is basically my love letter to 50/50s. Everybody knows I love the 50/50. I love that you walk in and you want a 50/50. This is like our passion together. There’s nothing that brings me greater joy than making them and serving them. People think it’s such a simple cocktail, but there’s a thousand ways a 50/50 can go wrong – it’s not the right dilution, it’s the wrong blend of gin or vodka with the wrong vermouth, or whatever. You can make it really badly and it will taste horrible. But if you get it right, that right combination, there is nothing better.”
“For me the presentation of it and the making of it, it’s a moment of happiness for me – to make that and share that with a customer who’s never had it or heard of it, to show them this beautiful marriage of clear spirit with vermouth. I like doing riffs where I split the base with a vermouth and a sherry, or two different vermouths. It’s for people to realize that vermouth is really important – what you use and how you use it. There are some gins that will go with one vermouth and they won’t go with just any [vermouth].”
“You really have to know your flavors and know your spirits in order to execute that perfectly. So that for me is a personal challenge and joy.”
Lee says, “Something she impressed on us in our staff meeting, it really is the ritual of it. All the bartenders start to level up. All that technique and style is very Japanese – something some of us have been curious about, but this is Cari’s way to really respect the ritual of this Copper Martini and really shows her reverence to it. For me personally as a bartender I thought that was really fascinating and interesting, and I’m glad that we have that style cocktail on the menu.”
Hah says, “One thing that I will say for myself, and I fully admit any weaknesses that I feel I have, is that Tiki is not my wheelhouse. Tiki drinks to me are not where I like to live. Often it’s a little too sweet, I don’t feel well after I drink it, I can only drink a little bit. So I haven’t really delved into that world as much as I should.”
Despite this, Hah followed a Big Bar tradition and features a Tiki-style drink on her menu. “But I wanted to do it differently, I didn’t want to do a lot of crazy tropical fruity juices and call that a Tiki drink. Bacardi 8 is such a beautiful dark rum that begs to be in a crushed ice drink. Julie Bersani and I worked on this one together. This beautiful pumpkin spice puree [is from] Liquid Alchemist – Randy Tarlow is the man behind that, he’s one of the industry friends. [The XXXX Island] has Bacardi 8, Bonal, Cardamaro, a little bit of lemon juice, and these java bitters that are super-concentrated strong java flavor. All of that together doesn’t sound Tiki. But when you drink it you’re surprised how there’s layers of bitter, layers of flavor.”
The cocktail is named for the privately owned Pumpkin Island in the Southern Great Barrier Reef. In 2012, the island was renamed XXXX Island for three years after Queensland brewer Castlemaine Perkins leased it as part of a campaign to promote their beer, Castlemaine XXXX.
Lee says, “Cari is great at masterminding the endgame of a cocktail. Some of our bartenders, they’re younger or they’re just getting into being creative, and Cari’s a really great teacher for that because she helps bring it home. Julie is just stepping out into the [cocktail] world and what better person to hold her hand and walk her through that threshold than Cari? You see it in that cocktail, again one of the great things of a #Tigermom is that you do get that guidance.”
The Missy CRZA is another cocktail that one of Hah’s bartenders started and she helped to finesse and finish. “Garrett Hanson – we call him ‘Garrett Handsome’ ‘cause he’s very handsome – apparently he’s a dark horse cocktail creator. Once a year he’ll come out of hiding and make something and then go back into retirement. This was his contribution for this year. We were talking about the New Year’s cocktails when I first started. He had an idea for a Kappa Pisco cocktail, we worked on it together and this was the endgame. And honestly, this is probably the most delicious pisco cocktail that I have ever had.”
The Missy CRZA is named in honor of former Big Bar manager Dan Long‘s wife, Cristina Cornejo-Long. Lee says, “Her Instagram handle is @ChefCRZA, I believe for her love of the RZA and Wu-Tang. Originally on New Year’s Eve we called it the Lady Cornejo and then we sort of transmogrified that vibe into Missy CRZA just to make it a little more interesting.”
Berry Blossom Fizz
The Berry Blossom Fizz is Hah’s tip of the hat to Alcove Cafe. “We are attached to Alcove, and without Alcove there is no Big Bar. We have this amazing dessert case here. Our bestselling cake has always been the Berry Blossom Cake.” Pivoting to the cocktail world, she says, “I like Ramos [Gin Fizzes], sort of. But not really. I think they’re kind of whatevers. I know people make such a big deal out of making them and I don’t why, because making fizzes is really fun. And for me it’s always like a little game: ‘How big can I make my foam today?’ Or whatever. I think it’s fun.”
“I wanted to do a fizz that was not a Ramos – similar, but pay homage to the Berry Blossom Cake. It’s [made] with Aviation Gin, blueberry puree, créme de cassis, and it’s fizz-style with a little bit of orange flower water and a vanilla scented syrup. I don’t want people to think it’s a fruity drink, but it’s everything you love about a Ramos – it’s restorative, it’s a good breakfast drink, it’s not too sweet, it’s visually beautiful and it’s yummy.”
“It’s sort of a Trojan Horse in many respects,” says Lee. “You look at the cocktail and it looks fresh, fun and fruity. Like a good time. When you actually sip the cocktail, the hero of the cocktail is still going to be the Aviation Gin. Everything else is the supporting cast to the gin. That’s the beautiful thing about it – it’s not a smoothie, it’s not a fruit bomb. The fruit tones really balance delicately on a paper’s edge as you’re sipping this cocktail that looks like a fluffy cloud of fun.”
“For me it’s very, very important to have balance in cocktails,” says Hah. “That is one thing that I feel a lot of bartenders don’t quite think about, is the cocktail balance. And that’s why it’s so difficult to make a good cocktail. It’s easy to throw any sort of cocktail together and yeah, it’ll be fine. But to have it balance as Eugene said, on that razor’s edge, where your base spirit is highlighted – everything about it that the distiller wanted you to taste is still there. That’s very important to me. Absolutely.”
The Peatmont Flip is Hah’s take on a dessert cocktail. “Again, it’s not very sweet. I love Cutty Prohibition. The Cutty Pro is this beautiful, smoky expression. When people talk about blended scotch, I am a Cutty girl. I just love it.” Hah gives a shout out to Cutty Sark master blender Kirsteen Campbell, who was recently named the master blender for The Famous Grouse: “I love supporting women in the industry.”
“I was thinking about famous scotch drinks, and one of the most famous was the Godfather, which is Amaretto and scotch mixed together, which is freaking disgusting – nobody wants Amaretto and scotch.” Apparently Marlon Brando did, which is supposedly how the cocktail got its name. It’s also the go-to drink for a certain reality TV
blowhard host. “But this is a classic-ish cocktail, one of those awful cocktails that we’re bringing back. The Harvey Wallbanger is another [example] of that era of cocktail – but now there are beautiful renditions of it.”
Hah continues, “That was kind of where I started. Scotch, hazelnut – what do I like with hazelnut? Oh, I really like nutella. Dude, I want to make a scotch nutella-ish drink. Wait, I really want to make a flip. So this is my interpretation of putting nutella into a drink. It has Tempus Fugit Creme de Cacao, which is probably my favorite Creme de Cacao on the market. It uses Luxardo Angioletto Hazelnut Liqueur – pure hazelnut flavor; really, really beautiful – the Cutty Pro, a whole egg, a little bit of cream. What I love about this flip is that we top it with a really nice bold, bitter, dark stout, so it balances out any of the sweetness in the drink. We top it with little toasted hazelnut crumbles, which we grind up with a mortar and pestle so it’s fresh and gives it a nice, nutty aroma and texture.”
Big Bar always has a barrel aged cocktail on the menu. “We have a five-liter barrel,” says Hah. “I like to call it the ‘Mystery Barrel,’ because the only thing I’m going to keep in there as a constant is Galliano as my modifying sweetener. I love Galliano in a barrel, the way that the barrel plays with Galliano is beautiful. But I can switch the whiskey and bitters out however I feel like. That’s why all it says [on the menu] is Galliano plus ‘mysteriousness.’ You never know what you’re gonna get, but I guarantee it’s going to be delicious.”
Currently the Mystery Barrel has Old Forester 100 proof Bourbon, two different bitters (Creole and Sarsaparilla) and Galliano. The cocktail is served on a rock, Old-Fashioned style. Expect the Mystery Barrel to rotate from every couple of weeks to a month.
Lee says, “The most beautiful thing you do is you present something that seems effortless, but if they choose to go through those layers, they can find all these Easter eggs – insights and flavors that Cari has very thoughtfully put into it. But smooth it over just enough so it can be taken as is. Like a Pixar movie.”
CHASING THE TIGER MOM
Becoming the bar manager at Big Bar was the last thing Hah could have predicted for herself. “I never wanted to be a full time bar manager. I had a great life working part time, five different jobs. Working for three brands part time, working as a bartender part time. It’s really easy. You go in for your shift and you leave when your shift is over. You don’t care about the backend stuff, you’re like, ‘Eh, whatever.’ I’m here to make money when I’m here, you know? You have very, very little responsibility.”
“But being full time means you don’t get free time to do whatever you want. On the flipside, I get to work with this incredible team that is a family and I get to build this program and put my name on it.”
Lee likewise hadn’t considered Hah for the vacant bar manager position. He and bartender Florence Hartigan had wanted Hah for a Mixtape Mixology session and they finally got her last July for a night of K-pop and Korean-themed cocktails.
“We invited her back again for our five-year anniversary,” says Lee. “In between all that, ‘Cari’s so cool, Cari’s so great. Too bad she’s always busy, too bad she’s opening Clifton’s, too bad she has seven brand jobs.’ (laughs) It’s always been, ‘If only.’ I think that frame of thought in July – after she finished her guest night – just stuck in our heads, because at that point we were without a bar manager. I was managing with the help of my good pals here.”
Lee thinks that the seed was planted at a Kikori Whiskey event at Big Bar. “And there was Cari [sitting] at the bar, supporting Bryan [Chenault], supporting us. I don’t know how the conversation started, but Bryan said something like, ‘Well, I know someone who would be a great bar manager.’ And he kinda glanced over at Cari.”
Hah says, “My initial reaction was, ‘Ah ha ha ha that’s cute. No thanks.’”
“My initial reaction was, ‘HOLY SHIT. Never thought of that. Never even contemplated that. So at that point it was just this slow burn, ‘Hey Cari. Do you want to be our bar manager? Do you want to be our bar manager? How about now? How about now? I’ll ask you in five minutes. It’s been three minutes. How about now?’”
“It’s kind of a shy conversation at first. Cari’s always willing to have a conversation, she’s always willing to hear you out. She’s always willing to tell you the truth – honesty and directness is kind of her thing. We got along so well over the years and over these guest nights. It’s been such a pleasure to work with someone who’s at this level, it’s just a different category.”
Lee says, “The great thing about her coming on was that people already knew her, it felt very right. Oh cool, our next door neighbor is going to come and take over this family, this is really great.”
“She was in the weeds right from the beginning. We got Cari in December and God, it was trial by fire: ‘Hey Cari, why don’t you learn all these cakes at Alcove, why don’t you learn how our system works? Oh by the way, we have New Year’s Eve.’ Which ended up being our biggest night in Big Bar history. Cari’s only in the saddle for two weeks, it’s sink or swim. She walked right through that fire and executed beautifully. The team really got to know the strengths that she brings to the table.”
“You talk about inspiring. Following that, we’re both doing Golden State of Cocktails, she’s doing The Dinner Party Download, she releases a new menu, and we plan this little [Valentine’s Day] party called ‘One Night In Rio.’ Which again, was a crazy, amazing, beautiful night.”
Hah says, “All of my cumulative experience, all of the things that I’ve done in this industry, have kind of brought me to this point. Honestly, this is probably going to be the only bar that I ever manage full time – a bar that I don’t own or I’m not part-owner. [It’s] the right time, in the right place with the right team.
This bar has a beautiful family, there’s nobody here that’s shady, everybody has been here so long – nobody leaves, because they’re so happy. They all care about what they do, they’re passionate about it, even though they have interests outside of bartending.”
“It’s a beautiful setting,” Hah continues. “My parents have come here and [said], ‘Wow it’s really pretty,’ you know? So they’re not worried about me working as a bartender. I get to work with Eugene day in and day out and I’m not the only person trying to promote on social media. I have a partner who understands how important that is. I have a staff that’s willing to learn things. They’re already great but they’re also willing to learn. I have a staff that cares to help each other, so I’m not trying to convince people to cover each other’s shifts and things like that.”
“We give a place for our staff to grow and flourish. But we also provide a venue for brands to come and do their events, to highlight other bartenders in the city, to give people who are in our community a place to come and gather.”
IN THE TRENCHES
Lee says, “Cari has this incredible large format production brain, but she’s not a captain on a white horse leading the army from the back. She’s in the trenches, she’s in the pit, and that’s a wonderful quality to have in a bar manager.”
“As a bar manager, my whole aim is to make my bartenders’ lives easier,” says Hah. “Because here’s the thing: I’ve been a bartender at a bar where there is no manager, and I’m in the weeds at big events, struggling to make cocktails when nobody had planned them out or anything and I’m just supposed to execute all these things. It’s really hard to stay happy and positive and lovely to your guests when you’re trying to deal with the backend stuff.”
“For me, that is the bar manager’s job, to deal with the backend stuff so the only stress my bartenders have is no stress, really. You get in there, you smile and you’re really, really happy to your guests. But everything is already taken care of, so all you have to do is shake your drinks and be really awesome and close checks. If I take that burden from the backend production stuff off my bar staff, then I feel they will be that much lovelier to their guests and offer a better customer experience.”
Lee says, “I’ve seen many versions of [New Year’s Eve], and the reason why that night was our most successful night in company history was because all pistons were firing, Cari was in the back and working away like a blur, while all my bartenders were in the front – smiling, dancing, having a good time and cranking out cocktails. No worries. It’s a beautiful thing when see the machinery work with such precision, and that’s what she brings to the table.”
“I just make it possible for them to do that,” says Hah. “If they’re worrying about building one cocktail at a time because we ran out of ingredients, having to scramble for things, ask for this and that, look for this and that, and nothing is ready or prepped – of course as a bartender you’re going to get grumpy, you’re going to get really stressed out. ‘I’m ten deep at the bar, all these people are waiting for drinks and I have to build this shit one drink at a time?’ That’s ridiculous.”
“I was in the back, batching everything making sure my bartenders just had to pick up two bottles to make one drink – boom – and look really good doing it. With that nice front to the public, they’ll make a lot more money.”
Hah continues, “It would be my worst nightmare to have a big event and nothing was ready for them, and they’re struggling and grumpy, they’re sad and hate their lives, just really stressed out. Because they’re going to show that stress to the customer, and the customer’s not going to like that. I can’t allow that.”
SPEED RACK LAS VEGAS
The Tiger Mom was in full effect when Hah helped Bersani train for the recent Speed Rack Las Vegas. Now in its fifth season, the national female bartender competition has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for breast cancer research. For Hah, who competed at Speed Rack San Diego in 2014 and Los Angeles in 2015, the Speed Rack training was something she didn’t have herself.
“I think my philosophy, and the reason why people know me as a cheerleader of L.A., is because when I started out and beginning in this industry, there was no help. Nobody would help me, I literally clawed my way to be where I am. I don’t think I’m special or amazing, but I am in a unique position where I can help other people. Everything I do, I always do because I want to help people in a way that I wish I had had when I was a younger bartender.”
“I would’ve liked if people supported me on social media, I would’ve liked to have people explain and help me train for Speed Rack. Any sort of help, and I got none. There was no help for me.”
Hah continues, “When I’m in a position to help people who need a job – somehow I’ve become the unofficial employment agency of L.A. bartenders. Everybody hits me up for jobs, people who are looking for people ask me, and that’s great! I will always help people find a job if I can. If I hear about something I’ll let you know, if I think there’s somebody right for your job I’ll let you know. ‘This is what Speed Rack is, let me help you.’ Whoever it is, not just Julie from my team but Aly [Alyson Iwamoto of The Varnish] was part of that, I invited her to come do it too. I would’ve liked to be able to prepare for Speed Rack – when I did my first year I was horrible, because I didn’t know what to expect. But I do know now, so I want to help people in a way that I wish I had had. Everything in my mind now is, ‘How can I support and help other people’?”
Lee says, “The Speed Rack thing with Julie and Alyson – who’s incredible in her own right – we got to see someone like Alyson work side-by-side with Julie and have a real friendship come out of this, because isn’t that one of the points of Speed Rack? We got to do it the Big Bar way: we set up a hot light, we set up timers, we made a fake pink buzzer, we had people doing rounds of four drinks at a time.”
“[Cari] has created this sense of community not only within our bar family, but also within the women of Big Bar. For real. I don’t know if you noticed [on Valentine’s Day], all of the guys were at the satellite stations doing the different pop-ups we had set up, and it was an all-lady [main] bar. The girls already love each other and known each other for many years, but with Cari on board it’s really created this great, lady bartender niche, like a family in itself.”
“All the women went to Vegas with Cari and myself,” says Lee. “Every step of the way we’re testing Julie. We’re in the hotel room racing her and calling out four cocktails. We just made a game of the entire thing.” It certainly worked – Bersani posted the fastest time in the prelims. She had such a good experience that she wants to do it again.
“Cari has really put a fine point on making this family more outward, more inclusive of the community around us, and I just see that getting bigger and better. If you want to think of any one word about Big Bar, it’s ‘community’ or it’s ‘family.’”
“I think it’s kind of a natural carryover of the places that I felt accepted in this community,” says Hah. “Zahra [Bates], Brent and I started this lady bartender thing at Cole’s. Because even still, being a woman in this industry is not easy. Being appreciated for your skill and craft and not your body image. I still see a lot of bars where girl bartenders are hired because of how they look and they can’t make a cocktail to save their life. It’s ridiculous. There are so many strong, amazing women in this industry. I have three girls on my staff who are just killers.”
“To continue what Brent, Zahra and I had started seems like a natural progression for me. In L.A. I want to celebrate that – I celebrate my brothers as well, don’t get me wrong – but I really, really love to highlight the women bartenders in our industry. Which was why I really wanted to support Aly and Julie, and Bethany [Ham] who’s over on the Westside [at The Corner Door]. All these women, who are so amazing in L.A. You see the same ones over and over, but there are a lot of up and comers. Una [Green] is doing amazing things at Belcampo.”
Hah is very active on social media – retweeting, sharing articles on Facebook, tagging bartenders and cocktails on Instagram. “I have a lot of people that for whatever reason follow me on Facebook – if I can do that for you I will absolutely do that, 100 times. It’s little things, but it does make a difference, it gives confidence to people, it helps people to feel good about what they’re doing. Why would you not want to make somebody feel good about what they’re doing when it’s so easy to do?”
TIGER MOM LOVE
“I think mentorship is one of those things that’s lacking in L.A.,” says Hah. “Everyone’s competitive. Nobody’s really willing to take the time to invest, and they’re all trying to get the press for themselves. I want to highlight my team. They’re so amazing and I feel like not enough people know that.”
As an example, Lee talks about one of Big Bar’s youngest barbacks, Daniel Garcia. “She’s really taken him under her wing. It’s really wonderful for me to see someone like [Daniel] really grow and blossom under Cari’s guidance. He’s doing syrups, he’s doing recipes – I even let him borrow a camera, he’s shooting now, too. It’s a natural mentorship that someone like Cari can drive.”
Hah is blunt about her initial assessment of Garcia. “When I first came on, he was the worst. I was like, ‘What the fuck is this?’ I just decided, that’s not the move. You can do way more than this. I expect way more from you. You’re not an idiot, stop acting like one, stop thinking you are one. Just push, push, push every day. And now he knows our menu, almost knows the specs – I still test him on it – he knows all the liquor, where it’s supposed to go, he knows categories of liquor. He’s not just, ‘Oh, what bottle do you need, can you show it to me so I can see what I’m supposed to get?’ I say, ‘I need this brand, this bourbon, go get it, and he knows exactly where it is. I’m like, ‘Run don’t walk.’ This is Tiger Mom love. I expect everything from him, but I will give him everything. I will give him everything.”
Hah continues, “He progressed so much we decided to reward him by bringing him to Vegas. We made the other two barbacks – who are senior barbacks to him by the way, and really treated him as such. I let them know, ‘He worked way harder than you guys, and he knows more than you guys right now. He’s going to Vegas with us, you guys are not.’”
“This is the thing,” says Hah. “I really think that it’s possible to empower people to be better than they are. I think about it constantly, how I can help them to be better, even if this is not the career they want to devote their lives to, but while you’re here care about what you’re doing.”
HOMECOMING: MARCH 31, 2016
As this post goes live, Big Bar is preparing to welcome Brent Falco for a special Homecoming Guest Night on Thursday, March 31. The former bar manager at Cole’s moved back to her hometown of Louisville last year to work as a brand ambassador for Lucas Bols. “Brent is probably one of the first women in L.A. who really paid attention to what mentorship really means,” says Hah. “She was really committed to mentoring. I’m not going to go so far as to say she’s my mentor, because she’s my partner, really. We started this train together.”
“She called me down to Cole’s and it was really her gathering me and Zahra, because she had a vision of having three really strong women behind the bar together.” At the time, Hah was working at Neat in Glendale. “I had known about Cole’s, because I worked at The Varnish and I would pass by; we knew each other from that. When she asked me to work down there I was like, ‘Yes! It’s closer to my house.’”
“We had this great team behind the bar [at Cole’s], it was so fun. That was the first time I really felt truly like I had a bar family. And she was the one who showed me what a bar family was, because that’s what she was all about. We were just this mishmash who loved cocktails, loved each other, and we just worked. Anybody could walk in, any time of the day and know who was behind the bar.”
This Murderers’ Row of L.A. bartenders attracted imbibers from all over the city as well as out of town visitors. They also made history on Dec. 29, 2012 with “The Mayans Were Wrong,” the first time an all-female bartender team worked at the Red Car Bar in the one hundred-plus year history of Cole’s. Lee says, “I think that was one of the periods I have an actual memory of – on a very regular basis – having my go-to spot. I lived in Los Feliz but I would go all the way down to Cole’s – it helped that my buddy lived a couple of blocks away – but that was our spot. We would see Cari, Brent, Zahra or Chris Day all the time. And every now and then Danny Cymbal, too.”
BIG BAR FAMILY
Speaking of bar families, Hah recalls a pivotal moment from her conversation with Sean Loeffel, the General Manager at Big Bar and Alcove Cafe. “One of the ways that Sean got me to come here – I’ll never forget this. Eugene was like, ‘I just want you to meet with our GM.’ So Sean and I were talking, and I didn’t even think of it as an interview. I was thinking of it more like, ‘What is it that you’re going to tell me that’s going to make me want to come here? I really doubt you can tell me anything that’s going to make me want to take on a full time job as bar manager. Because I have no interest in that.’”
Loeffel asked her, “When was the last time you really felt like you had a bar family?”
“I was telling him about Cole’s and the team that we had there. He looks at me very poignantly, takes this long pause and he goes, ‘Isn’t it time that you had another bar family?’” At the time, Hah had been working part time at several bars and consulting – a year here, half a year here.
“‘Isn’t it time for you to find another bar home?’ Shit, maybe it is. Maybe it was something that I didn’t even know that I was missing until he pointed it out. ‘Isn’t it time that you found a bar home? And you would be the head of that household. And you could make that home for other bartenders.’ I was like, ‘Holy shit!’ Once he said that, it was stewing in my head.”
Loeffel’s Jedi Mind Trick and Hah’s great experience working with Lee on the K-pop night were an irresistible one-two punch. “I’m so used to people [saying], ‘Come and guest bartend’ and nothing is set up, nothing is ready, I have to bring everything. I’m like, ‘Why am I doing this?’ I did it because I’m with the brand, so of course I’ll count it as part of that. But with [Eugene] it was truly a meeting of the minds. Bouncing ideas, ‘What if we did this? What about this drink?’ SO FUN.”
Lee adds, “Costumes, cocktails, playlists. Flo and I love to get down with whatever our guest is doing, because it’s our opportunity to learn too. Even with the music part, Cari has this K-pop vocabulary that I don’t have.”
“What I said earlier is true, people already knew her because Cari was here. I feel like she’s been part of the Big Bar story across the bar for many years. We had the really good fortune of finally getting her ass behind the bar for our K-pop night and our July Featured Cocktail. It was so much fun, people still talk about it. Kim Jong Chill, are you fucking kidding me? Come on, now. Barenjäger soaked boba with strawberry [caipirinha], game over.”
Hah says, “Nobody commits to a theme the way Big Bar does. I will tell you that, 100%. Nobody goes bigger, nobody goes harder. And it’s really Eugene. So working with him was a dream, it was a fucking dream every day. Emailing each other, bouncing ideas.”
“And then Sean coming in [on] this side, ‘Isn’t it time you found a home?’ And all of these things together, I was like, ‘Holy crap!’ This is it, this is the only bar I want to manage, with the people that I want to work with. Coming into that, it’s still kind of a dream come true for me.”
“I am obsessed with the people here,” says Hah. “I think about them day and night. I think about them individually. What are their weaknesses? How can I push them to be better? What are they good at so I can make them even better at it? What can we do here that will be fun? How can we use this venue to support our community? How can we highlight other people in our community with our bar? All I think about day and night is Big Bar.”
“It’s just a wind change how it feels around here these days,” says Lee. “And I hope our guests feel that too. Even the ones who’ve been coming here forever – like yourself – it’s really nice to be having this open house, check out our new everything. Check out this new vibe that we have. It starts with the leader and that’s what Cari brings.”
“We’ve accomplished so much with her so far. We can settle into a groove now, and Cari can really get on us about our technique, our style, even our shaking the other day. I’ve learned so much in such a short period of time already. I’m always grateful for all of her insights. You get these rare senseis every now and then in life and whatever trade or whatever artform you’re involved in. It’s such a gift.”
“My biggest fear is that I don’t want Cari to be burned out,” Lee continues. “I want her to know how grateful we are of everything she brings to the table. And it goes beyond just the craft, it’s a full family here. It’s the Big Bar family. I could not imagine it with any other tigress mom at the helm but her.”
Hah says, “I was thinking to myself, how blessed I am that I wake up every morning and I’m so excited to go to work. I used to work in finance, and when I was at Goldman I would wake up in the morning and cry because I didn’t want to go to work.
“I can’t wait to come to work. I always tell [Eugene] that it’s a dream that we sit in the back office and bounce ideas. This is my life? This is my job? How ridiculous! How amazing that I can hang out with my friend – who is as close as a brother to me – and we just shoot the shit all day about what we want to do. We dream big and we make it happen.”
Big Bar at Alcove
1929 Hillhurst Ave.
Los Angeles, CA, 90027
Header image courtesy of Eugene Lee.