For the last several years, Los Angeles has been experiencing a renaissance in its craft cocktail bars, making it one of the top cocktail destinations in the country. With even more bars on the way and an influx of talented bartenders, the city is reclaiming its rightful place at the forefront of the national scene. Classic cocktails continue to win new generations of fans, while innovative drinks push the creative envelope and set a new standard. The myriad of Los Angeles cocktail options can be dizzying, but ultimately only a select few can be called “legendary.”
The 2007 opening of the Downtown L.A. whiskey den Seven Grand is regarded as a seminal moment in the thriving modern Los Angeles cocktail scene. Members of Seven Grand’s opening team, including Aidan Demarest, Marcos Tello and Damian Windsor, have gone on to become some of the most influential barmen in the country. As current Seven Grand bartender Dustin Newsome says, the Old Fashioned is “the cornerstone” of the Seven Grand cocktail program. Its preparation is a ritual akin to a tea ceremony, from the soaking of a sugar cube with Angostura Bitters to the two dozen stirs of the barspoon and the twists of lemon and orange peels. Sipping this primal cocktail in the hunting lodge environs of Seven Grand is a quintessential Los Angeles cocktail experience.
Cocktails don’t get more classic than the Martini, and the best one in town is made by Manny Aguirre at Musso & Frank Grill in Hollywood. Open since 1919, Musso & Frank has been a favored watering hole for generations of celebrities, from Charlie Chaplin to Johnny Depp. Some of the 20th century’s greatest writers were Musso’s regulars, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner and Raymond Chandler. To fellow bartenders and cocktail aficionados, Aguirre is just as iconic a figure in his own right. His sublime Martini is made with 2.5 ounces of gin and a half ounce of vermouth, stirred with ice and strained into a cocktail glass. It’s served with an olive garnish and a small carafe with the remaining cocktail on the side, a classy touch that is rarely seen these days. Some guests prefer to order a Gibson (a la Cary Grant in North by Northwest), the same cocktail but garnished with an onion. Whether it’s an olive, a lemon twist or an onion, be sure to sip slowly and drink in the history of the room, embodied by the living legend behind the bar.
The legendary Tiki-Ti was opened in Los Feliz in 1961 by Ray Buhen, a native of the Philippines who was a bartender at dozens of top bars during the height of the Mid-Century Polynesian craze. The Tiki-Ti’s signature cocktail is known as Ray’s Mistake, made with “Super Secret Flavor, Botanic Liqueurs, Passion Fruit and Floated with Dark Corub Rum.” Ray’s Mistake was the result of a happy accident that occurred in 1968, when Buhen used the wrong syrups in an Anting Anting (“amulet” or “talisman” in Tagalog) he made for a customer, who took one sip and said the cocktail was fine as it was. There’s no happy hour at Tiki-Ti, but on Wednesdays Ray’s Mistake is just $6 until 9pm, when Mike Buhen Sr. rings a bell and leads a toast to his father Ray, who passed away in 1999.
Located at its present site on Fairfax Avenue since 1948, Tom Bergin’s is the oldest Irish establishment in Los Angeles, founded in 1936 by a former lawyer turned publican. The tavern’s famed Horseshoe Bar has welcomed everyone from Tommy Lasorda to Ronald Reagan, and was reportedly the inspiration for the classic TV sitcom Cheers. The famed Irish Coffee is made with fresh coffee, Bushmills Irish Whiskey, demerara sugar and cream. The shamrock-shaped sign out front has said “House of Irish Coffee” since the 1950s, and one comforting sip of the Tom Bergin’s Irish Coffee is indeed like coming home.
Vodka is the top-selling spirit in the U.S. today, but once upon a time this wasn’t always the case. In the 1940s, vodka was considered an “exotic” import and was much less familiar to the public. To increase sales, a drink was created in a “buck” or “mule” style, which includes ginger beer or ginger ale, citrus juice and a base spirit. Made with vodka, ginger beer, lime juice and served over ice in a copper mug, the Moscow Mule became a runaway success with the Hollywood crowd at the Cock ‘N Bull pub on the Sunset Strip. The bright and refreshing Moscow Mule would help to jumpstart vodka sales in this country, a legacy that continues to this day. Los Angeles Times restaurant critic Jonathan Gold has long maintained that the definitive Moscow Mule is served at the Tam O’ Shanter Inn, and even though it’s served in a pewter mug rather than the traditional copper, who are we to argue with a Pulitzer Prize winner?
Some of the best cocktails in Los Angeles are being created in top restaurants such as Faith & Flower and Bestia. When it comes to culinary-driven cocktails, there’s no one better at creating them than Julian Cox, who runs the bar programs at Brilliantshine, Playa, Sotto, Short Order and others. Cox first collaborated with chef John Sedlar at Rivera, which opened in Downtown L.A. in 2009 and closed at the end of 2014. Three of Cox’s signature drinks have become bona fide modern classics, including the Blood Sugar Sex Magic (rye, basil, lemon, red pepper) and the Donaji (mezcal, citrus, agave, chapulin salt). But first among equals is the Barbacoa, made with mezcal, chipotle, jalapeno and ginger syrup. Each sip offers different notes of sweet, tart, savory and spice. The smoky beef jerky garnish elevates the Barbacoa to a hands-on cocktail experience.
Following on his acclaimed Abbot Kinney restaurant The Tasting Kitchen, chef Casey Lane opened The Parish in Downtown L.A. in July 2012. Lane’s take on the English gastropub was an instant hit, though it couldn't sustain its initial popularity and closed in October 2013. The stellar bar program was helmed by John Coltharp, who worked with Lane at The Tasting Kitchen. One of the highlights of Coltharp’s cocktail menu was the Historic Core Cocktail, a modern classic that traveled with Coltharp since he first created it in 2009 while he was a bartender at Seven Grand. The Historic Core was a winning entry in Marcos Tello’s "Downtown Los Angeles Sub-District Cocktail Competition," which featured cocktails named for the 17 sub-districts in Downtown L.A. Coltharp’s creation is made with rye whiskey, applejack, Green Chartreuse, sweet vermouth and Angostura Bitters. It’s a superb, aromatic variation on the Manhattan, and a spirit-forward cocktail that Los Angeles can proudly call its own. Coltharp recently began working with Tello and Aidan Demarest in their consulting group, so here's hoping the Historic Core appears on a cocktail menu soon.