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After Hours

After Hours with Blake Cole

After Hours with Blake Cole

[At the start of COVID], we were in a very specific situation, because we did not get to officially open before the pandemic. We got final inspection the day that shelter in place hit. Before, we had been delayed because of East Bay Mud, so as restaurant openings [often] go, we had a series of bad luck. Truly everything is just out of your control and nothing can be done – you just have to sit and wait. The entire concept of the bar changed because of COVID. There’s good and bad with that. Because we never really opened, people didn’t have an expectation of what we were or who we were, so we had an easier time adapting the concept because we never got to execute our original one.

The number one easy, go-to spot I think for most of us in Oakland was Starline, which is one of the biggest casualties of COVID, at least in the East Bay. Starline was the kind of place that you could always rely on. Even if you were going out alone, you were going to run into someone maybe. It was a staple go-to in the East Bay. As far as the city goes, El Rio was for sure a spot of mine, The Stud was one we’d go to a lot for casual beers and hangs. There are lots of little places I miss all the time. I totally miss Lone Palm, which I think is one of the best dive bars in San Francisco. But it’s not even a dive. Oh man. There are so many spots.

The number one thing that brings me back to a place, and something that we always want for Friends and Family to emulate, is really a sense of community and belonging and safety, which I think ultimately is what all neighborhood bars want to be. Or the good ones do. The feeling of connectedness and belonging is definitely the most attractive quality in those spots. And that comes down to the staff, and the kind of folks they serve and cater to. That’s a big one. Then there are those places that just feel really special to be at – they aesthetically feel really special. I’m always a sucker for classic, old school places. My favorite places to go eat in the city were Tadich or Swan Oyster Depot; places that have a lot of history to them. They feel very grounded. I’ve always kind of loved that sentimental feeling.

The number one thing that brings me back to a place... is really a sense of community and belonging and safety.

It’s funny because, even before COVID, I’ve never been one to make cocktails at home. I'm definitely a bottle of wine and beer person at home, because I make cocktails at work all day long. But you know, for the cocktail program at the bar which I collaborated on with our bar partner, Kim, previously from Trick Dog, something that she and I have always agreed upon is I really love simplicity and takes on classics – cleaner flavors, not trying to do anything too over the top. So for me, when it comes to having cocktails for myself, a mezcal margarita or a gin gimlet are my go-tos. For our bar program this summer, we made a drink with AMASS Gin that was our take on a white negroni. I called it “San Michelle My Belle,” which was inspired by the tiny little hotel I stayed at in Italy a few years ago, which was called the San Michele. It just felt like exactly what I would drink if I were there again, and I think I was mentally trying to go back there. We infused the AMASS Gin with melon, and then there was Cocchi Americano and Dolin dry vermouth with a grapefruit peel. That was for sure a cocktail that made you sit down and sip it and enjoy it, and just breathe in a different kind of memory than what you are currently experiencing.

Our initial intention with the cocktail program was to have a two-part menu. One was a family menu, and one was a friends menu. So all of the cocktails were meant to be inspired by our friends and our family and the people in our lives. All of the family cocktails we have on there are really classic cocktails, but done in the style of how that family member enjoyed them. So, we have the Grandma Standard on our menu, which is a Plymouth gin martini with a twist and a side glass of ice, which is exactly how my grandma [took hers]. It was the only martini she would drink. So that’s our house martini. Our friends menu we use as an opportunity to be a little more creative. There was always a component of each cocktail that was inspired by a person in our life. So it’s either our friend particularly loved a type of cocktail, or I traveled to a place with a friend and it’s a sense memory from that place with them, but it’s always rooted in somebody that we know.

The whole motivation for me to open a bar to begin with was just, I think that eating out and sharing a drink with somebody is the most human experience that we can share. Everything that I planned in terms of the buildout of the bar led to that. We wanted the bar to be curved in a certain way so every single person sitting there could see everybody. We wanted the lighting to be right, we wanted it to feel like this is catering to you and people meeting in a way that feels organic and cohesive. Adapting that to this has been really, really weird. I think ultimately it just comes down to kindness and attention to detail and making every little opportunity for a human connection possible. People just order on their phones; the servers don’t even take orders from guests. It’s definitely a much more isolated experience, but we try to bring a little personality and playfulness to everything, whether it’s a garnish or plating or a little note that we write; something so it feels like you’re getting a sense of us, and that you’re worth that little acknowledgement, you know?

Honestly, social media is the number one reason we’re in business, because we’ve been able to connect with a customer base that we literally never got to meet in person. Being able to utilize that has for sure given us a sense of community and a loyalty with people by just having direct communication with them online.

I just want people to sweat and dance and be sloppy. I can’t wait for people to be funnily sloppy again, which is really hilarious because that’s the most annoying thing for most bartenders, but I just want people to goof around and be free and let their inhibitions down a little bit. That seems like it might never happen again. But for sure dancing, and for sure people hugging, and truly meeting somebody at a bar; not knowing them and connections being formed. I’m very much looking forward to being a spectator to all that.

I just want people to sweat and dance and be sloppy.

I have positive and negative feelings. Before the pandemic, it’s always been in the back of my mind to one day be able to provide healthcare to all of our staff and figure out a way to make that happen. I always had an intention of adding a surcharge to put that cost on the guest to help pay for that healthcare, because the reality is as a small business, and especially a restaurant, we would be out of business in a month if we gave everybody healthcare. It’s just impossible, it’s so expensive. So when COVID first started and we were opening up a little bit and people started to go out for the very first time, you really got a sense that people understood the privilege of going out and the responsibility of it, and how much work it takes and how much it costs. People were showing that they were willing to pay for it, and pay a little more for that experience. I’m excited about the prospect of people having a deeper and better understanding of what a privilege it is to go out and what actually is involved in making your meal or making your drink, and hopefully being able to put your money where your mouth is and help pay for healthcare for employees. That’s the number one thought. I’m a little apprehensive and negative about it, because I can already see as people get used to going back out, the tips start going down more and they’re a little more comfortable and they’re adjusting to complaining about things again. So we’ll see. But I really, really hope that when we do open up again, like full scale, that you have the opportunity to implement things like a healthcare surcharge without extreme pushback from people.

People say all the time, “Oh, you guys look like you’re crushing it” because of the way we put things out on social media, but that’s just not the truth. Everybody is still struggling major. The only thing that we know is that we know nothing and nothing is promised. Each day is definitely a battle to get through. Just coming and supporting is literally life or death for restaurants and for businesses right now. We're definitely not out of the woods by any means. When one place looks like it’s thriving and another place looks like it’s about to shut down, it doesn’t mean that somebody did it wrong or people didn’t adapt right. Those things have become irrelevant very quickly. I’m happy for each day that we’re open and grateful I get to do this at all.

Photos by Lindsay Shea

After Hours with Fanny Chu

After Hours with Fanny Chu

What drew me to bartending initially was making a lot of money in a short amount of time and being around the nightlife scene. I was having a good time with my friends and meeting new people all the time while making money. That was when I first started bartending in gay dive bars, though. Then my perspective of bartending changed when I walked into Donna Cocktail Club for the first time and saw Jeremy Oertel and Matt Belanger bartending.  They were using these funny apparatuses called jiggers instead of free pouring. I was like, whoa, the way they moved with the jiggers, shaking and stirring, there is an art to this! Cocktails that are measured and taste like how the menu describes it? A drink that is not all booze with a splash of soda, tonic, or ginger ale? A creative aspect and art form of bartending? Yes! I want in!


First time I had a classic cocktail was a daiquiri at Death & Co. NYC. I was like pump the brakes, this is what a proper daiquiri is supposed to taste like?  Not those slushy things that are full of sugar and made with Rose’s lime?  Good God Rose’s lime, that was so long ago and yeah, that was some horrible shit. A daiquiri made with fresh lime juice, simple syrup, good white rum and proper dilution goes a long way. Nowadays, whenever anyone asks me what my favorite classic cocktail is, I say a daiquiri. They usually look at me with a puzzled face and say really? That sugary stuff? And I’ll ask them if they have had a classic daiquiri and will make them a little snaiquiri [Ed. note: a tiny Daiquiri meant to be taken as a shot] and they are usually blown away. I have had returning guests switch from whatever the fuck they usually drink to ordering a daiquiri with me, or they will say surprise me and I’ll make them whatever I feel like.

 

Whenever I go out, I’ll watch bartenders shake. I’ll listen to what’s being ordered and I’ll watch how they build their rounds if I want to order a classic cocktail, but most of the time I’ll stick to wine, beer, or a neat pour of amaro. Honestly, 95% of the time I don’t drink. But yeah, I do that, I am that snob, because if I’m going to have a cocktail, I want it made properly from someone who knows what they’re doing and looks like they know what they’re doing. I am that person who watches to see if the bartender has that awesome shake and if there’s head on a daiquiri. It is important to me. I’ll also watch bartenders on their techniques to getting out of the weeds. Lauren Corriveau was really incredible and patient about teaching me the art of choreography, like being ambidextrous when it comes to jiggering and pouring. I feel that it is important to show how you bartend fluidly. People sit in front of you for that reason. The bar is your stage and you put on that show for them. Make their night magical. Bartending is like dance choreography. If you have ever had the chance to see Natasha David and Lauren bartend, it is phenomenal. I always strive to be as smooth as them and just as fast. One of these days!


Health is wealth and working out is absolutely important to me.  Not only for my physical health but for my mental well-being. When I work out, it releases so much stress that my body goes through and it helps with my endurance for long ass shifts. My reasoning is if I’m healthy physically and mentally, I won’t have to call out sick and I’m 1000% at my job. Bartending is physically and mentally grueling, so you have to be at your healthiest at all times. You need the endurance, especially when you’re behind the bar at a place like Donna. You’re going to be shaking a fuck ton of margaritas and daiquiris. It is no joke! We are shaking all the damn time, so working out helps with my endurance.  

I am always learning new things and exercising my brain and body. I feel it is our duty as a bartender to be in the know with what’s going on in the world. People come to bars to engage with you; whether they are having a good or bad day, they are there for some kind of release and attention. They want to tell you their day – a bartender is also a therapist.  

 

The reason I applied for the Wine Empowered: Empowering Women and Minorities class was to learn about wine. It is a non-profit organization seeking to diversify the hospitality industry through formal wine education.  I do not know much about wine other than the fact that when I was eight or nine years old, my parents had a lot of wine and never drank it.  So I would have some [laughs]. I don’t think they know this about me. They also had a lot of cognac and I snuck some of that, too. Anyway, I do not know the language of wine and how to speak or describe wine. Most of the time when I’m tasting, including spirits, I have a hard time describing what I’m tasting and I just want to learn the lingo and the history behind it. I figure if I can do that with wine, I can also translate when I’m chatting about spirits as well. There is a gap, a disconnect, between wine and spirits and I want to connect and bridge it my way. I see a lot of times you’re either drinking wine or you’re drinking spirits and there’s not a lot of people out there that can talk about both. I wanted to be able to chat with and educate our guests on both, so that’s why I wanted to do this incredible program that was created by the boss ladies of Cote. 

These three amazing Sommeliers created a free program so that people like me, a 44 year old, queer, Asian bartender could learn about wine. I still can’t believe that I am one of 23 people that got in out of hundreds that applied. Yay me! I feel so much pressure to do well because I want to represent the spirit world. There is an overwhelming amount to learn about different regions and grape varieties. Viticulture and vinification are similar to that of agave and sugarcane distillates that we have at Donna. I find it very fascinating. The more applied knowledge you learn, the more you can grow as a bartender and as a person, and relate to your guests. That’s why some people go out to drink, right? It is to connect. Everyone is so into their social media these days. Behind their computers, their phones. They’re not looking up and looking at each others’ faces to connect. Being a bartender, you’re able to have that connection with people. 

It is also humbling to serve and to make mistakes in front of people.

I used to be so scared of failing, and now I take every failure as a learning experience. I mean, I failed my first wine test and cried my eyes out about it. My fiancée, Natasha, was like, if you knew all of this, why would you be taking the class? So with that in mind, I accept that I am going to fail and that’s okay. It is how you bounce back from failing.

[When you mess up an order], APOLOGIZE PROFUSELY! Give them free shit! People LOVE free shit!  I usually like to send a round of something special, be it a snaiquiri or something fun. Light shit on fire [laughs].

 

Sometimes, I feel like I’m spread so thin and ALWAYS working so much that there’s no way for me to get inspiration, but there’s inspiration everywhere. It’s New York FUCKING CITY! If you’re a creative person, you can find inspiration anywhere. For example, the first time I tasted Estancia Raicilla, I was like whoa, I got a lot of cheese like lactic acid and tropical notes. It reminded me of this incredible empanada I had that was filled with guava and cheese. I knew that I was going to make a cocktail inspired by this fucking empanada.  So there’s a cocktail at Donna that has Raicilla, Cognac, Mexican rum, guava, lime,  and a dash of Giffard Mente Pastille. I called it Battle of Puebla, because it’s when Mexico got their independence from France. The name made sense to me because of the French and Mexican spirits that go so yummy together. 

I LOVE a slightly dirty AMASS 50/50! I make it with AMASS Dry Gin, Manzanilla sherry, blanc vermouth, and a dabble of dirty olive juice. I call it “the shift drink” and it is my go to. Sometimes when I have a lot of time on my hands I will make my own Gibson onions and do a little 50/50 with that yummy juice. 

I’m going to be working on a sommelier’s certification so that I can try to bridge spirits and wine together.  The dream is to do more cocktail styling for photo shoots, travel more and bartend while I travel, maybe put Donna on the map. I think the end game is to live bicoastal and maybe live in another country?  Share and learn cultures and views with people. I mean, that’s the way of life, right?

Photos by Shannon Strugis
Interview has been edited and condensed for clarity

After Hours with Derek Stilmann

After Hours with Derek Stilmann

[With going out], I’m pretty eclectic in that sense… it really kind of depends on the night. It’s like asking what’s your favorite cocktail? It depends on what time of day it is and how I feel. Some of my favorite Miami staple spots that I float around are Better Days–if you want to get your party on, that place is always a good time, always fun. In that same area, you know, you have Jaguar Sun, which is super cool–just like eclectic music and really well-balanced cocktails. If I go up north a little bit to Valentino’s spot Le Sirenuse, and I go to the beach, you know [The Broken] Shaker and Sweet Liberty. But I mean there's so many great places now and it’s hard to just pick one.

What draws me into a bar is the authenticity... Going to a bar and knowing that someone cares.

There are dive bars I love because it’s great hospitality. There are fine dining cocktail bars that also have exemplary hospitality. To me, it’s just I wanna feel… what a bar should do is take me away from regular day life.

There’s so many interesting cocktails out these days. At Sylvester, we are working on a fermented sangria. We use all of our oxidized juices and oxidized wine, and then we basically ferment that for a month with honey. Then we are cutting it back with some fresh citrus and some spirit, typical sangria style, and it’s just fun. It’s weird. It’s delicious. We wanted something that would reuse products that would just have gotten thrown away. If it’s another bar, that’s something really fun and interesting… I really have enjoyed Valentino’s three version martini, which has those three different paints giving it three different experiences of a martini. It’s a fun interpretation of a classic martini, or in this case classics.

I mean to me, I think everyone’s opinion is important. When testing out a new cocktail, I like to give it to a variety of people to get their opinions and to see what they think. What I’m looking for isn’t a universal opinion that it’s a great drink, but more that they appreciate it or find it interesting. Hopefully, someone will love it. Everyone is uniquely different with their palate, but  I think cocktails that are well-made are universally appreciated to some degree.

[To get inspired,] I like to go and walk on the beach… no [laughs]. For inspiration, I don’t know man, anything that gets me jazzed. It’s more of a feeling. I wish I had a place I could just go into and be like, “Oh, I feel it.” But outdoors for sure. The ocean is something that inherently is important to me, that I feel a connection to. I’m a Miami boy, you know–I’ve been born and raised on the water. But for me inspiration is a vast thing. I get it from music. I get it from art. I get it from food. I get it from people. I get it from culture.

My whole competition I just finished up with was about this symbiosis of anthropology culture and microbial culture and how the two are connected from the beginning of time to now, how those lineages stretch over our existence, and how important they are. They give weight to things that are valuable in my life. And that’s been really big for me, because that has been the main inspiration that I drive from which is... it’s vast. You know, that is everything. But on another level it’s also [laughs], funny enough, it’s microbial… it’s very small. You can really hone into those things and that thing can be a very singular aspect of it. It just depends on how close you want to put that microscope.

I mean when it comes to travelling, culture is in your face… you get to experience things that you don’t see on a day-to-day basis. You get to almost live another life. Everytime I come back from travelling, I'm a different person. I absorb new identities that are, you know, found in different cultures around the world. And that may be cuisine, that may be music, may be rituals. And I think those things are important.

These things to me are important and are exciting in life, because I find value in things that have been created over time by other people and that have a ritual to them. They have weight.

I think the idea that your cocktail has to be so complex [is overhyped]. I think simplicity is something that’s coming back. I think the idea that you need to have eight ingredients in your cocktail is unnecessary these days. And I'm a garnish guy. I love garnishes. I love garnishes. Because I think they can be fun, they can be playful, but they need to have purpose. And I think a lot of the time they aren’t used as such and are more of a novelty thing. Which can be good too, but I think that gets overused.

I’m excited to see more… well, two things: one, fermentation, because culture and I love it. I just love fermentation. I think that it’s the future. I think it’s where we come from and I think it’s where we’re going back to. And the other thing is, I think I want to see more chef-driven [drinks], in the sense that it comes from the culinary aspect of bartending and that is an understanding of your product and what you’re using. I think a lot of us don’t get enough value and understanding of the produce that we’re working with and how to use it… It’s like, if you’re a chef, make me eggs and make me chicken. Can you do that well? And it’s like, I guess we have the daiquiri. Well let’s talk about the lime, you know? How are we squeezing that? What kind of limes are we getting? But as chefs say, “Shit in, shit out.” I’d like to see more care and understanding of the ingredients being put into the cocktail. And in turn, this will allow us to make better tasting cocktails without having to throw the kitchen sink at it.

Interview has been edited and condensed for clarity

After Hours with Jodi Calderon

After Hours with Jodi Calderon

I’m always invested in bars. Like 14 days of the month, it’s just intense training and intense logistics work of making the bar successful. We spend the beginning just creating a bar template, making sure it’s cohesive with the city itself and what the client wants. And then I go in and kind of do the techy stuff making sure that there are no typos in the menus… making our infusions, teaching the bartenders the bar mechanics.

When I come back home, I’m usually at the gym. I really enjoy going to the beach and spending time with friends. I think that’s the thing right now. [When you’re spending] 14 days on the road, you realize that you need to spend time with your friends and your family… But, I think if I were to indulge or imbibe in drinks and food, I really like going to the Normandie Club, because duh! It’s always home base. Death and Co LA, too–it’s super intimate, really sexy. It’s a nice vibe to really connect with people. Republique for food. It’s unreal–the food and beverage program over there are so connected as far as the kitchen is really communicating with the bar team. And when there’s really good food and really good drinks, I think it just makes your soul feel good. Because you’re not picking one or the other–you’re enjoying both at the same time. Also pizza. I’m a sucker for Domino’s. Domino’s thin crust [laughs].

I’m usually an observer, and just really like to absorb my surroundings. So [what really gets me is] if I see an atmosphere where there’s just really nice dim lighting, great music, the space is full but not too loud where I’m screaming just to get my order in. But it’s connecting with the bartenders as well–just seeing what they like, what they’re into, what fuels them. And especially if it’s a place with food… I’m a bear at heart, so I love to eat all the time. I will never say no to good food and a good cocktail… There’s a lot of amazing talent and amazing atmosphere out there where it’s like an oasis… Like Death and Co–you just kind of forget you’re in LA for that hour that you’re there. I had that same moment when I was in Fort Collins, Colorado during my recent trip for work. I really felt like it wasn’t snowing outside or negative 5 degrees. It just felt really warm. There was so much hospitality–really genuine, good service… That’s how we grow and connect our personal experience to what is there physically.

I just recently made a Martinez with AMASS–that’s my absolute favorite because I feel like that’s me in a drink. Just equal parts gin, sweet vermouth, orange bitters, and a little bit of maraschino. Stirred in a Nick and Nora with a lemon twist is my absolute favorite. Nice and silky, very robust, but also savory at the same time. So that’s a stirred cocktail. If I were to be a shaken cocktail, it’d be a daiquiri, hands down. Aged rum, lime, and like, sugar. Done. Super easy. So I’m a little bit of both–it just depends. And then there's a moment, too, where it's like, okay it's Sunday—

I’m going to have a High Life and a shot of Cognac if I’m really in the mood for that.

As far as mocktails go, I really love me a nice ginger beer. The Normandie Club has a really good one where it’s just fresh ginger juice with a little bit of sugar cut with lime and topped with a nice seltzer water. It’s really nice and robust and effervescent and bubbly. I’m really into the spicy citrus mocktails. I mean, also doing something like a Piña Colada without any of the spirits. Something like Coco Lopez with a little coconut water. Maybe a little coffee and cinnamon over crushed ice. Okay, I’m going to have to get one now… Just kidding [laughs].

My guinea pigs are probably a few of my friends who are not really into the cocktail scene. I feel like they have a pretty wide range of palates and go to a lot of different bars–they’re very versatile, very open. So if they do the nod where they sip and go “Ooh, yeah,” then I’m like tight, it’s cool, it’s going to reach the masses. If I’m really getting critical, I usually go to my colleagues at Proprietors because we R&D [research and develop] all the time. After this, I’m going to R&D and help develop a menu. I mean, that’s kind of the range, where you have people that taste very critically and then you also have people, like friends, family, whoever it might be, who just taste to enjoy. Which is the main focus, right? When we create cocktails, I taste critically so everyone can enjoy them, no matter if you’re into gin, scotch, mezcal, just to kind of see.

Lately, with my position now at Proprietors, I’ve become more of a prep person. I really treat it as a culinary background, so just going to farms, even farmers markets, to be hands on really sets the produce as important. I think that’s where I’m really drawing all the inspiration from. If I’m doing an infusion, or even creating a cocktail, [I have to ask] what time is it, what season is it, how am I feeling, and how do I want to execute it. It’s really going back to the basics of just respecting the fruit… Doing infusions with things like cinnamon and fruit, just to alter the produce a little bit without breaking it apart… That’s always my philosophy when teaching other people or other bartenders–respect the fruit, respect the produce, respect the prep. Because without the prep, you can’t make drinks.

We do a grandfather of cocktails at the Normandie Club, which is my most recent bartending job. The thing I’m most proud of–that was a banger a couple of summers ago–would be the Collins, where it was a tequila base with just a little bit of pineapple gum, which is a rich pineapple syrup, and salted tamarind. And then a little bit of lime and soda water and a rim of Tajin. The inspiration for that cocktail is that I’m from Inglewood. Me being Filipino, I was pretty much raised by the Hispanic community, and I wanted to honor that… Creating that cocktail just helped me translate that so I can share it with people in K-Town. To this day, people are like “Hey, can you make this?” And I’m like “Ohhh I’m so sorry, we don’t have tamarind! [laughs].”

At the moment, I’m really pulling from who I am. I’m Filipino, so I really like ingredients that are tropical, savory… Using smoked banana leaves or rice… I’m pretty sure if you were to cut me open, I’d taste like a coconut and a mango [laughs]. Food and beverage really brings everybody together and bridges those gaps. And we also need that to sustain ourselves and fuel ourselves to get through the next hour or two.

For me personally, I'm super vulnerable in the industry. If you're having a bad day, you have to ask for help. You can't do it alone... You have a team."

You have barbacks, you have other bartenders, you have your manager. You have to ask for help. So that’s what I’m seeing now. Bartenders are really taking care of themselves… That’s why I kind of stopped drinking. Or not really stopped drinking, but started drinking in moderation. Because it’s my choice, it’s my body. And like yeah, I can enjoy this, but there has to be a reason. Like I want to celebrate us, I want to celebrate this connection that we’re having.

I think the thing that keeps me into it all the time is that being in a bar is one the last few places where you can connect with other people that are strangers. The coffee shops used to be like that, but everyone’s on their laptop, always on their phone. But at the bar, there’s always one person standing behind the bar and someone new will always come in–a guest, [someone who’s] never been there before. And you have the ability in that moment to get to know them and give them what they need. It’s really about connection–also intuition as well. There’s so many times where I’m so grateful if I’m on the opposite side of the bar and maybe a bartender kind of senses that I’ve had a tough day or they sense that I’m quiet, so they’re really trying to pull that extrovert out of me. And I'm like dang, you really broke me–I’m going to talk to you now. Because, respect–I like your vibe, I like your energy. So good on you, you know. And that’s what it’s about.

You know, what’s crazy is I can’t even imagine myself doing anything else.

Like I can’t. I think about it all the time. You wake up every day feeling fired up and you’re like… Let’s get it. I mean, it’s either this or the military. I think the true validation happened on the last day at the  Normandie Club. My whole family came out for my last day for my final last call and they stayed until 2 am–my parents are freaking old, like 65 plus… And when I finally called last call at like 1:30 and I saw my family I was like dang… I did it. That’s when I knew that I couldn’t even think about anything else. My parents were telling all kinds of stories about me and I was like, “Stop talking about me! Don’t tell them that story!” It was really nice to put two worlds together. I don’t think my family ever saw me behind a bar. You kind of explain to them what you do, but they don’t really understand what you do until you show them.

I think in our society today we’re just so all about the self, which is true–we should really look inward. But also, when someone is coming into a bar and they’re asking me for a vodka soda–just like straight up where they’re like “Vodka soda”–I’m like, “Hey, how are you? How are you doing today?” Kind of like slowing it down a little bit. It’s just one of those things where… You came to a bar to really connect. I’m down to give you what you want, but also I’m like “Hey what's up, give me a high five. It’s okay. Like you want a hug? You seem like you need a hug. And a vodka soda, so I’d be happy to give you both.” I think that’s probably the only pet peeve… We’re all living in the same fish bowl. Like, chill. It’s okay. Your friends aren’t even here yet. I’ll give you a vodka soda after this hug.

When I first started bartending, it was just paying for college. And then just making sure everyone was having a good time. When I got older, I saw it so differently… Now I just want to make really good cocktails and make sure everyone’s drinking responsibly, that they’re knowing their limits, that they’re just in the moment and super present.  I just feel like I kind of grew up overnight. Like, yesterday [laughs]. You start to appreciate all the little things… I always tell people you have to have fun first and then safety second. Because if you’re doing safety first, no one is having fun [laughs].

I mean all we have is now. Tomorrow is never guaranteed, as cliche as that sounds. If you’re going to do something, do it with commitment and love and honesty and awareness.

Photos by Ian Flanigan at The Normandie Club in Los Angeles

Interview has been edited and condensed for clarity

After Hours with Amy Kovalchick

After Hours with Amy Kovalchick

My girlfriend and I, as soon as we both tried AMASS–you know, of course I’m not going to fake it as something I like just because I’m friends with Robby [editor’s note: Robby is AMASS’s East Coast Sales Director]–but to be honest we really did enjoy it very much. We love the packaging, we love the taste, we love the story behind it... It’s great. We tell all of our peeps that come into where I work the same thing [laughs].

My lovely lady Pam who lives with me–who knows Robby–we’ve been together now 7 years. She’s also in the industry, but she does the finance side of things. So we’re both in the industry but totally different realms of it. We’re homebodies, for sure, because for being in this business, I mean I’m not going to lie, I’m a little bit older. I’m turning 45 this year and I’m proud of it. So being in this industry, and I’ve been in it now for 20+ years here in New York, back in the day I’d have to tell you that I love to go out to where all the cool kids go–you know, you want to go to
the place to go. But now on days off, we always want to seek the new spots, the new restaurants, what’s fun. But honestly my nights off are weekends, and I’m one of the very rare bartenders that has weekends off.

I feel like taking Saturday and Sunday off back-to-back in this industry is definitely harder to do and it takes some time to do that, but I do enjoy my weekends.  And [Pam and I] usually go to a local neighborhood spot. There’s a place actually where we met Robby that used to be called Prime Meats. Now it’s still owned by the same group but is called Frank. They serve good Italian food, have a natural wine list, a great bar program–they’re just very neighborhoody. Honestly it’s the kind of place I could just roll out of bed, be there in 5 minutes, and have a good meal. You know, it’s usually knowing who’s behind the bar.

That’s what I look for, to go somewhere where I can feel like I’m at home.

Where I work, we’ll do our daily lineup meetings where a lot of the times our manager will ask [what we look for in a bar or restaurant]. We just like to talk and see if any of us ate anything new, explored any new restaurants, and honestly the staff 9 times out of 10 will say that we’ll go back to a restaurant because of the atmosphere or the staff, and how we feel when we’re there. And even if the food was not exceptional or was subpar, we’ll still go back because the experience was so good.

I like where I work because we’re geared towards wine and beverage, but we’re geared towards food as well, so we get a very big dinner crowd. It’s nice because we’re usually calling “last call” at midnight–long gone are the days for me of 2 to 3 AM [laughs]. We had a couple of guests that came in last night and it was amazing. My eyes locked with theirs and vice versa–we
really looked at each other–and they hadn’t been in since last year because they live in Charleston. And they said, “Oh my god, I’m so happy you’re here. We remember you from last year!” And I remember them too, so we had this huge hug and everybody was introducing everybody and they stayed and it was fun. So when they said that it meant so much, like I’m doing something at least a little okay because we had that connection.

I’m a fan of cocktails that put twists on the classics, where you don’t play around too much with it. Most recently I was with my girlfriend Pam at [this place]—sorry, I’m blanking on the name—and they had a gin martini, pretty much a normal martini, probably like 2:1 or 3:1. They used dry vermouth, but they balanced it with olive oil. And it was amazing. Like, dee-licious. So we’re going to go back because it stuck out in my girlfriend’s head. She’s a big martini drinker, as am I, but she is a bit more. And I’m being honest, I’ve been doing this for a long time and I’d never had a cocktail with olive oil. It was very unique. And it worked. It worked very, very well. It gave [the martini] a subtle savory note to it and just balanced everything out so well. It looked cool on the top too because it was olive oil, so it was floating. We should all have one. We should have one with AMASS Gin. AMASS is so botanical, so I think it would be very good with olive oil. I’ll try it.

Where I work], we had our fall/winter cocktail list that went up probably late September. Obviously you’re always playing with stuff you have behind your bar—it’s great to have a lot of things there so you can test and sample. And the first thing I do [when I’m coming up with a new cocktail] is I stick to a classic cocktail and try to think outside of the box. You want to try and figure in where you’re working too. I work in a very small restaurant called Fedora in the West Village of New York, [which is] a very central location. So we get a big neighborhood crowd and we get the occasional tourist, so you’re getting a big mix of everyone. And the neighborhood crowd is very geared toward the classic cocktail, while the tourist crowd, you know, they like variations on things and different creations. So that’s the first thing that I think of when it’s time to make a new drink. I’m like, what is a guest going to want, what is the neighborhood looking for? I get a feel for what everyone’s been ordering, like maybe the prior month before, and then I go out, for instance, to the neighborhood spot I was telling you that Pam and I go to for dinner.

Mind you, I’m not at all ripping off their recipes. But that’s what bartenders do–you’re looking around seeing what everybody’s making and then you’re trying to make it your own or maybe just get influenced. So I start with that first. Then, Pam and I have a nice little mini-bar here in our home, so I’ll sometimes play around and make mini shots of what I’m making and she’ll taste it and say “Yeaaah, maybe add this. “ For instance, last year we went to Miami for my birthday—a nice surprise from my lady, let me tell you—and Pam and I actually came up with [this drink] that can maybe fall into one of those interesting cocktails we were talking about. I didn’t want to say it because it was mine and I thought that was weird. I didn’t want to sound like I was trying to be this egotistical, but a lot of guests that came into the Fedora thought it was interesting and fun. When we were in Miami, my boss Ted–he’s our general manager–really wanted me to come up with a variation on a daiquiri. I was like, well okay let’s do this. The Hemingway Daiquiri obviously is the classic, so I thought “I’m not even going to touch that.”  And my girlfriend and I, we were sitting by the pool, which I wish I was right now, and it was so cute because Pam, who is very into savory things and loves herbs,  looked at me and said, “Honey, what if you infused the rum with oregano?” I was like “What?!” And I’ll be damned, we go home, we have rum (we used a light rum), and we infuse it overnight, probably for a good 12 hours. All I did was use the infused rum and just the same specs–we did simple [syrup], we did lime, and it was like...guests loved it. We were infusing oregano rum every day [laughs]. And it was fun, it was a lot of fun. It was really good. We named it “Meet Me in Miami” because that’s where we thought of it.

[After I come up with a drink], what we’ll do is I’ll go into work and make it for some of my coworkers. We’ll all taste it together and give each other feedback. I love where I work because we’re really a small, tight-knit family. And none of us care to give each other opinions, which is why, to this day,  even if I come up with a cocktail that’s mine, quote unquote, on the menu, I always give credit to everybody around me because everybody is helping each other. Our final, go-to person is Nick, our beverage director, because he has to deal with things that we don’t think about. He has to deal with, “Okay, maybe we can’t use this rum for that cocktail because it costs a lot to get.”  That’s why Nick is our final go-to because he then can help us find a way to figure out what to order, what not to order, and how to keep the costs down for our restaurant. It’s a fun process–I love creating cocktails.

I’ve been lucky. I moved here and stumbled into hospitality by accident, which I think a lot of people do. And then you learn to grow how much you love it.

Like I told you, I’m turning 45 this year and I’m not at all embarrassed to say I’m a bartender. It’s a pretty awesome spot, you know, in the West Village in New York City, because it’s a great job. And 20 years ago I never would have thought I’d be sitting here having a conversation with a lovely human on the West Coast about AMASS gin and working in the industry. I just never would have thought my life would have ended up here. I work with a lot of people that are younger... there’s one girl who I think I could actually be her mother [laughs]. But it’s fun because some of the crew around me looks to me for advice and they have questions because they know I’ve been able to see how the industry has changed so much. I mean, when I moved here to New York, I was pouring Jack and Cokes. Like that’s what I got. This whole wave of mixology and craft beer and natural wine...it all just started to blow up.

I actually had this conversation with Robby recently. I thought that I was losing my stuff because I felt like people 20 years younger than me were ahead of me because they came up with all these wonderful spirits and knowledge. And 20 years ago I was pouring a shot of Jameson and a Guinness. It’s been a lot of fun because I had so many fun teachers and guidance and just the crews. 20 years ago, from my first bartending job, I kid you not, probably 3 of the girls I worked with I’m still extremely close with now. That’s why I stuck around—it’s just so much fun meeting new people every night. Your job is never boring. Of course you have those days where you don’t want to be there. I mean, of course. You know, “I don’t feel like mixing this drink tonight.” We all do it. I’m sure you didn’t really want to call me at 8 am. But it’s like, you know you just have to do it and then after it’s over, you’re like, “Oh, that was pretty amazing.” You get something good out of it. It’s been a fun road, I have to say. I could talk to you for hours and tell you some stories.

Photos by Shannon Sturgis at Fedora in New York City
Interview has been edited and condensed for clarity

After Hours with Will Thompson

After Hours with Will Thompson

On nights when I go out, I like to eat and drink at mom-and-pop type places in the neighborhood. Small Cuban spots, Puerto Rican spots. I like going to Beaker and Grey a lot on my time off. I hang out the most at my bar, unfortunately, but I like going to places like Mama Tried, The Sylvester, and Blackbird. With most of the spots I go to, it’s just about the vibe and the people. Not even necessarily the people running it, but just the people working there. A perfect spot like that is La Trova. Tons of hospitality, man. Those guys over there are amazing.

I don’t drink cocktails that often when I go out, but I drink a lot of classics—so earlier, I had a 50/50 martini. I think anything made by Derek Stillman at The Sylvester is interesting. That guy goes hard. I can’t put my finger on just one thing that’s interesting that he’s made because everything he makes for me is interesting.

I test out my cocktails on my staff—I make them suffer. They have to learn the hard way. Vanilla Sky says, “You can’t enjoy the sweet if you’ve never had the sour.” So they have all the sour ones first until they’re finally like, “Okay shit, this one’s good.” Honestly, I go back and forth with the staff a lot. I want them to learn, I want them to be creative. And if there’s anybody that I really want to taste my drinks so that I feel bad about how bad they are, it would be David Perez from Blackbird. He’ll definitely tell me the truth about my drinks, so I never ask him. That guy doesn’t give out compliments for anything. It’s the best and the worst.

I like bars that make you feel scared when you go into them.

If a normal human being feels like, “Man, I don’t think we should be here,” that’s where I feel most at home. I think, “This beer looks old... I want it.” I don’t know why. I just like places with character, so I get attracted to bars that seem like they have a story. They have a little soul to them.

When people say, “I’ll have a Long Island Iced Tea, but make it strong,” I tell them, “You know strong means expensive, means more money, means more booze? You get that, right?” and they say, “Come on man, hook it up.” So the way around that is I grab some Wray and Nephew, some overproof rum, and I’ll make their Long Island with that. I’m like, alright cool, you wanted it strong–be careful what you wish for. I’ll give them that and say, “Hey look, it’s tradition here to take a shot of this,” so now on top of that they’re going to get another shot of Wray and Nephew.

I look at chef books a lot for inspiration. I rely heavily on reading about the minds of chefs over the minds of bartenders–I like learning how and why it is that they pair food together and then I try to expand from there. Another thing that I look for when it comes to getting inspired to make something is whether it can be fun. I think for the most part people want something they can drink–they don’t want an experiment, they don’t want anything that’s too sweet or over the top. They want a place to come to lay back and they don’t want to have to overthink what they’re drinking. They just want to talk to somebody and have a good time while being able to enjoy what they’re sipping.

So if I can make something with a funny name that’s going to get them to talk about something and get their mind off of whatever it is they’re trying to get their mind off of, that works for me.

It’s not that I’m kissing ass or anything, but at the moment I’m feeling inspired by gin, especially old Tiki-style stuff–that has a ton of gin in it. I like stuff that’s bright and refreshing. Long drinks, ya know–Collins. I just want to try different things with simplicity. Lately, I’ve been wanting to use gin and rum because those two have a lot of oomph and flavor. You can find a lot of backbone in that stuff, and making something that’s easy and simple, that’ll go down 3-4 at a time, that’s where I want to go.

One trend I’ve noticed lately is right now, people for some reason are wanting to put these big ass rocks inside of coupe glasses. I don’t know why. It seems like a liability issue, like someone’s going to chip a tooth. If you’re going to make me anything on the rocks, put it in a rocks glass. And if you’re going to put anything in a coupe glass, I’ll enjoy my coupe with my pinky up. It’s like, how do I drink it? With a straw? I paid a lot for these teeth, man.

I think people in Miami are starting to care about quality, though. They’re starting to care about what is in their drink–they don’t just want something that’s sugary and is going to mask everything. And I think it’s great being a part of this renaissance where you have stuff that started off in Miami Beach with the Shaker Boys and the Regent–those guys were killing it back in the day and it just fluttered over to this side of the water.  Downtown, Brickell... Hell, Better Days... There was nothing around here really during that time. We’re lucky enough to be able to showcase that aspect of quality in an environment that’s laid back.

And then you have other amazing places like Blackbird and Mama Tried that are trying to boom in this culture. Mama Tried is a newer spot, and you can see that they’re making a difference and that people are going not just because it’s a cool vibe, but because they’re getting quality stuff. And it’s exciting to see in Miami, because clubs are great and it’s cool for everyone to go to them, but it’s also cool to see these local watering holes and people caring about what’s going on.

Photos by Celia Luna at Better Days in Brickell, Miami

Interview has been edited and condensed for clarity

After Hours with Peter Barriga

After Hours with Peter Barriga

I’m somewhere in between a creature of habit and someone that’s willing to experiment. If I hear about a new spot that has great tacos or fried chicken or sushi, I always want to try it. And by going to these places, I get the opportunity to think of new ideas for cocktails, for food pairings, for dinners. But other times, a night out for me is going to my local dive bar where the bartenders know exactly what I  want. I think because I’ve written so many menus and worked with so many people, I really love the simplicity of being in a dive bar, like La Cita. I love Bar Clacson. I mean, to me, they have the best cocktails in town. At least from what I remember. I don’t really drink cocktails that often anymore, though--I’m more of a Miller High Life and a shot of Fernet kind of person.

I think I don’t really have a typical night because I’m always in a new place. Here’s a good example: this Monday, I went up to [McGrath Family] Farm and got to talk to a lot of farmers that are producing food for more experimental chefs. They’re growing produce and herbs in a way that’s good for the environment—it’s regenerative—and they’re trying to take care of things. I’ve always thought the best cocktails and the best cocktail menus are ones that have stories behind them. Because you can gain a customer for the rest of your life simply by creating a memorable experience. That’s what I’m always after—having a good experience.

I’ve recently gotten more into cooking. I don’t make cocktails at home anymore, really. Instead, I have a very nice spice cabinet. I like to work with fresh ingredients and splurge on cheese and oils and dressings. I love getting up and cooking for myself and my kid. That’s really fun for me now. This year, I tried to master cracking eggs open with one hand. Being able to crack an egg and actually make a good, over-medium egg for my kid, because that’s how he likes his eggs, was important to me. I like to challenge myself constantly and try to be technical in cooking as well as bartending.

I don’t bartend constantly like I used to. I do guest spots, and I collaborate on menus and, if I have to step behind the bar, I can. But I don’t do shift work anymore, where I’m going in and clocking in at any place. People ask me all the time, “Why not start bartending again?” And the truth is, I’m close to being 40. I have a 12-year-old kid. There’s not a lot of people in our industry that have an almost-teen.

I’ve gone many, many years where I’d come home and be home for a couple minutes before I’d pass out, or I’d just eat dinner and go to sleep and wake up, be a dad for 15 minutes, get him to school, and then have to go back to work. I missed out on a couple years where I was doing 80-hour, 100-hour weeks to make sure that the bar was up and running.

It’s hard on almost every aspect of your life. It’s hard on your family life, hard on your social life. But some things are a little easier.

I hung out with some of my friends at work because they were at work. Sure, a lot of the time we were working, but we were also hanging out. It’s a lot easier to do that behind a bar than it is when you have a desk job.

Now, if I’m hanging out in DTLA, usually I’ll scroll through Mezcalero, because that’s where my pals are. In some cases, I’ve actually gotten friends jobs at bars I go to. I always like seeing people that I have brought up in the industry or taught to some degree. They teach me new things--I’m not as hip as I used to be, you know. So, that’s part of the draw for me. The other part is that I like being at bars that are busy. I like seeing how to make things more efficient, and I’m constantly looking at how bars can be better. Most times, if I go to any restaurant or bar, I want to watch the bartenders. I never comment, obviously, on how things could be improved. But when I get a new contract or account, I can implement what I saw into the new place.

Working as a bar consultant, I see a lot of trends coming and going. For example, there’s a big agave trend right now in DTLA. But that trend in DTLA is not the same one that is in Ventura County, or the Inland Empire, or Orange County, or San Diego—it’s very specific. I think that in cocktail culture right now, we’re all on the verge of being “mixologists.” And I hate that term. I think right now, making a basic drink taste good is almost more important than crafting a cocktail with 17 ingredients in it that most people aren’t going to taste. And not to mention, you have to keep a business up and running. We need to get drinks out quicker in order to keep people satisfied. Hospitality is a big part of it--it’s not all about the bartender that wants to put out a cocktail with over a dozen ingredients in it.

Whenever I would train bartenders, I was always looking for someone that wanted to be a “lifer,” someone that wanted this to be their career. You know, I went to school, I have two degrees and I don’t use either of them. I made a decision, a firm decision, that I wanted to be a barman, whatever that meant. Whether that was being a bar manager, a beverage director, a consultant, a brand ambassador--I wanted all of it. And I think that’s important. Can you make a cocktail and give people attention and have a conversation? Whenever I trained any bartender, I always told them, “Try to be their only bartender.” You only have one person that does your taxes. You only have one optometrist. You only have, hopefully, one lawyer. And that’s the person that you always go to. It’s not that your bartender pours a better shot of whiskey than someone else, but at least they know what kind of whiskey you like.

I really like teaching people, which inspires me to keep learning. It’s really hard to teach people something when you don’t know the ins and outs of it yourself, so I try to learn the differences in the spirits I like. Take gin for example. You have AMASS, a modern-style gin that is using so many different great ingredients that are, to some degree, California ingredients. It’s just a beautiful gin. But then, I also love a London Dry, like Ford’s Gin. It’s a different style of gin. Completely different. How do you explain that to someone?

I think what drives me is the fact that I don’t know everything.

I want to learn from the top chefs, I want to learn from the world-renowned bartenders, I want to learn from the local farmers. I want to meet the mezcalero and the distiller that is making the juice, making me a living, technically. I just don’t want to be mediocre.

This is a hard industry to be in and not stay stagnant. You have to find new ways to challenge yourself. I love it when people say I can’t do something. I’ll find a way.

Photos by Ian Flanigan at Mezcalero in Downtown Los Angeles

Interview has been edited and condensed for clarity

After Hours with Boo Hooligan

After Hours with Boo Hooligan

On my nights out, I try to focus on either new, fresh spots with fresh ingredients, going to shows of bands I love or want to check out, or hitting places with unique concepts I haven’t experienced yet. I like to go visit my industry friends wherever they work.  I never get to see anyone because I work so much so it serves as kind of a “tradesie boomerang” for them always coming to see me.

If I’m downtown, I’ll go to see the gang at Mezcalero, or go see my friend Christina at Wokcano, or I’ll head by to see the homie Trafton at ACE [Hotel] or ERB [Everson Royce Bar]. I also have always loved going to The EdisonLas PerlasBar Clacson and  Slipper Clutch... It’s Bar Clacson in the front and Slipper Clutch in the back. It’s awesome. My friends work in both of those bars. It’s in the back of the La Cita parking lot, in the Grayson building. Right where the Grayson sign is, is Bar Clacson. And if you go through the bar to the back door it’s Slipper Clutch. Clacson is craft cocktails and [Slipper Clutch] is a game bar – it’s punk rock, pinball and pool. Their thing over there is they do housemade sodas and their cocktails are on a gun system. Their old fashioneds are on a gun, their margaritas are on a gun... Even their jack and coke is one button. And their coke is not Coke, it’s their coke.

In Hollywood, my go to spots would probably be Burgundy RoomHarvard & StoneNo Vacancy, Frolic Room... but again, I love lots of places. Mark, Natta, and the amazing crew at Paper Tiger are amazing – it’s a super fun destination, and they really welcomed me in and supported me. Westside bars are cool like The BungalowMisfitBasement, and others depending on where we land and how much time we have.

I have some valley local favs as well such as The One UpIreland’s 32, Black Market, and Firefly. My boy Brad that works at Perch with me, also works atThe Sherman, but upstairs in The Attic. Sometimes we go to The Federal in North Hollywood or in LB. It just depends on my mood, appetite, location, the atmosphere we’re looking for.

As far as cocktails go… I’m pretty to the point and a simple, straight-up booze girl. Scotch, whiskey, tequila, mezcal, maybe wine or a beer here and there. I’m not one to really be demanding since I can relate to the job. Every once in a while I’ll enjoy a cocktail. I really love The Pistolero from The One Up and some of my mixologist friends make some of the best stuff so I indulge here and there.

Personally, I’m whiskey, tequila and mezcal. I love gin, I always have loved cocktailing gin, it’s super classic to me. I’m really glad that it’s coming back into the spectrum as one of the top spirits. I think that a lot of people – unless they were older and more traditional – were kind of scared of gin for a long time because they didn’t understand it and it is an acquired taste. But people, once they realized what you can do with things and the levels of options available… it’s so versatile. All gins have so many different ranges, where you can make 3 different AMASS cocktails with different ingredients and [have them] be completely different worlds. That’s what I love.

People are like, “Oh, I really just can’t drink tequila or mezcal or gin or...” Nobody ever says that about vodka, because… it’s vodka. When I hear that, I get excited and tell them,

“Well, I’m gonna make you something and try it. If you don’t like it, we’ll give you something else.”

Unless they tell me something like, “Gin makes me angry.” [laughs] [But] if it’s more a personalized palate thing… I love experimenting with that because I love opening up people to things that they feel closed off from for certain reasons. Maybe they weren’t exposed to it in the right way or they didn’t realize they could have it in ways where they actually could enjoy.

The martini that I did over the weekend for AMASS is a hot ticket. It’s called Empress. It’s muddled basil & cucumber, creme de peche, elderflower, AMASS, lemon, grapefruit, sparkling rosé and orange bitters. It’s super smooth, super tasty, and sooo yummy. It’s even better when I’m able to light it up and fire it with citrus oils.

I’ve been on my own since I was 13. The summer that I turned 15, I was throwing raves, booking entertainment, promoting, making art… just riding the wave and following my intuition. It was mad money, it’s how I paid my way through life and school at such an early age. I made some amazing friends then, many of which I still consider family, and it’s because of them I was able to find my way in this world to where and who I am now. That summer I was offered a chance to learn a craft and earned my full mixology creds. I loved it and I’ve been bartending and consulting ever since.

I love it all. I love trying new spirits, the creative aspect of it, of being able to make new things and customize them to people individually.

Plus I really just love people, the networking, and social aspect of it. Because I work all the time, pop ups and random invites are the primary ways that I get to socialize. After almost 23 years of bartending I feel extremely fortunate... I constantly get to meet people from all over the world and be revisited by them year after year regardless of what city I’m in. On their vacations, on their work trips, for their celebrations and their memorials, for some reason they always make sure to swing by and see me. People and creative freedom are my favorite parts of all of it, for sure.

L.A. is awesome in the fact that it’s a booming industry and it’s super ambitious. I love that L.A. is the most ambitious city that I’ve ever lived in. At the same time, it’s completely different from the East Coast. On the East Coast, they bring back roots and they discover things and then they work really hard at mastering it... In New York City, people put a lot of passion into their craft… They’re a little bit more meticulous about it on the East Coast.

On the West Coast, it’s a little bit looser and more about who you know. I feel like the West Coast is so involved in [the] discovery of new things. I think that’s equally as important. Here, it’s like, ‘try this new thing’ and it’s awesome because you get variety and you get a chance to experience things that you have never experienced before. The spirits industry is so crazy right now because everybody is jumping on board with distillation and cordials and making their own spirits, so everything is new and a sort of different kind of competition all the time. It never gets boring, it never gets old, and it’s always advancing. I love this city and I’m thankful to be here.

Photos by Ian Flanigan at Paper Tiger in Koreatown, Los Angeles
Interview has been edited and condensed for clarity

After Hours with Edwin Diaz

After Hours with Edwin Diaz

I live and work in Highland Park so I sometimes stay in that little bubble. I’ve started to branch out and go more into downtown and the west side. I just recently went to Bestia for the first time and that was insane. It was a bunch of delicious food. It was great. One [dish] that stood out because we would eat it when we were growing up – I didn’t even know it was called this – gizzards? Have you ever had gizzards before? My mom just used to boil them and then we’d eat them with salt and lemon. It was pretty simple. [At Bestia] they had a dish like that… it was like, "This is what these are supposed to taste like." My mom wasn't known for her cooking.

I like Hippo and Sonny’s a lot. Hippo’s got some great food, they’ve never disappointed. And their cocktail program is really on point. Clare Ward does a great job over there. Sonny’s is a hidden gem that is waiting to be put on the scene. Jon Navasartian over there has been a big influence to me personally. I would go there after work and just hang out and pick his brain. He was able to do a bunch of things all at once. I’d be like, “
Oh! This is a bartender."  That’s always fun, to go over there and hang with those guys.

I know how to tell if I want to get a cocktail there or not… As simple as looking at the back bar and seeing what’s back there. And also just reading beforehand, if enough people say that it’s a good cocktail program, then maybe give it a chance. If I’m going to a place for the first time ever, I’ll always try different cocktails to see what they’re doing. Or if it’s a new menu or a new bar program, give it a shot.

There’s cool stuff all over the place, even in Hollywood. You think of Hollywood as a tourist trap, but there’s some really cool stuff out there. A couple of the hotels, off of Hudson where No Vacancy is. You’d think it’s just gonna be a bunch of kids – and to a certain extent, yeah – but they’re still doing quality, high-volume stuff. It’s really impressive to see that execution.

I went to Cafe Birdie the other day, it’s on the same block as Gold Line. They have an Aquavit cocktail. Not a lot of people do that. The presentation was great, it had this really nice green hue to it. It’s a very spring cocktail. It was refreshing, it was light, very well balanced. It had a slight vegetal [quality] to it. The main thing was that it found a way to incorporate yuzu and snap pea… That was the one where I was like, “Oh shit, that was well done, chef.

Especially here in Southern California, you see everybody going for a mezcal or a tequila cocktail. Even at Gold Line, the number one selling cocktail is a mezcal-based cocktail. Mezcal has finally become approachable, where in previous times, you’d be like,

Oh, mezcal? That’s gross. That’s like Scotch.” People aren’t necessarily gung-ho about Scotch, right?

I spend enough time making cocktails that I don’t really drink them too much. Pretty easy right now, I’ll just sip on a glass of wine and call it a day. But every once in a while, I’ll try something new just to see what people are doing. There’s some stuff out there that people are doing that are really creative and really different. Even with garnishes, something as simple as that. Personally, I don’t hate garnishes but I hate coming up with them. That’s one of those things that never really clicked for me, like, “Oh, this would be super cool and cute,” or whatever. That’s one aspect of my cocktail creation process that I’m not completely in line with.

The first cocktail – it’s called Orbit – that one took about a month for me to really nail it. And even after that month, I had to change it to make it easy to execute at Gold Line. In contrast, the second mezcal cocktail is Spa Water. That took a week. Initially it took one try and I was like, “Oh yeah, this is great.” And then I tried it with one different ingredient, tweaked the specs one week later and was like, “Oh, this is so much better.” And now it’s done. Now I’m not gonna fool around with it. It’s a completed project. It’s over. On to the next one.

I have a handful of people, I respect their palates. They have the same high standards for the cocktail creation process. I know they’re gonna give me an honest answer, instead of just like, “Oh yeah it’s good,”, then turn around and spit it out. It’s always kind of fun to R&D on guests as well because they’re ultimately the people that are going to be drinking them. If somebody tells me it’s too sweet, especially if it’s a guest that’s telling me that, I’m like, “Oh damn, I better dial that down.” With my palate nowadays, I mostly get that it’s too bitter or too dry. That’s what I love, what my palate likes these days.  I’ll have to put a little more sweetness to round it out. It’s kind of like with food, if you oversalt it then the dish is caput. But you can always add more salt. That’s how I approach sweetness. You can always add more sweetness, instead of trying to add some other flavor to cut down on the sweetness.

Sometimes these things come together very easily and that’s great when it happens. But then sometimes you find yourself in a pickle… I have a vodka cocktail now that’s taken me about a month and a half to nail down all the specs and get it ready to be on a menu. I can put it on a menu as is but then it’s gonna speak for the program… I don’t want the impression to be, “Oh yeah, there’s one that’s really good and then there are 8 shit cocktails.” If every single [cocktail] can hit every mark and be really great, that’s hopefully what people will get from it. That’s my goal. Especially because we don’t have food, the cocktails better be able to stand by themselves.

Photos by Ian Flanigan at Gold Line Bar in Highland Park, Los Angeles

Interview has been edited and condensed for clarity

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