Having spent the four years of my undergraduate education here, I've always had a soft spot in my heart for Los Angeles. While the diversity, culture, and weather rival any other city, the cocktail scene has always left much to be desired, especially when compared to the renaissance in Boston (and all the other players in the cocktail movement). The last year, however, has seen a slew of new ventures promising to bring LA back into the game and I was eager to try a few out while visiting some friends.
After going through the various articles written in the past few years, I narrowed down the possibilities to the Edison and the Varnish. A few of my friends had visited the Edison before and spoke well enough to pique my interest and place it first on the list. Unfortunately, the Edison's odd hours (closed Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday) exactly conflicted with my stay.
I was initially hesitant about the Varnish because of their sparse website; how could I make a reasonable judgement without seeing the menu? Browsing through Yelp!, however, I discovered that the Varnish is a creation of the Milk and Honey team and my initial hesitations evaporated.
The Varnish executes the speakeasy theme with exquisite detail. Behind a discreetly marked door in the back of a downtown LA restaurant, the bar features wooden walls and booths dimly illuminated by metal fixtures. A sound system hidden from view plays period music, although we were treated to live piano music most of the night. My only criticism of the design is the lack of stools at the bar which has the effect of discouraging patrons from engaging the bartenders directly. Not to say that it stopped me from heading over to the bar to chat.
More impressive than the atmosphere was the menu. About half of the drinks were a little bit conservative and welcoming to the uninitiated, with the second half more creative and intriguing combinations. Of particular note was the "Remember the Maine", bringing together rye and absinthe in an interesting twist on the Manhatten. After sampling most of the menu between the four of us, I went off menu for my last drink and was pleasantly surprised by a "Medicina Latina" that combined tequila, ginger, and lime with a mezcal (must have been del Maguey) float and an impressive chunk of ice.
An unexpected bonus was Tal, the Lucas/Bols VP of marketing, behind the bar, fresh off of his release party in Boston. We chatted a bit about the new Bols Genever while I partook in samples of the spirit neat and in a punch. Andy had brought back a bottle of the Bols Jonge Genever from Europe a few months ago that was less than impressive, but the new genever based on the 1820 recipe was a marked improvement. Unlike a dry gin, which infuses the herbal flavors in the second distilling, the 1820 recipe adds the herbs directly to malted grains, resulting in a malty almost bread like flavor that pushes the herbal flavors to the back of the palette, almost like a sweeter sake. The spirit was sufficiently intriguing that I decided to try it in a classic Aviation where the malty base almost completely changed the way the herbal flavors hit the palette.
I can't wait to see what the city of angles has to offer the next time I'm in town.