Interview: bartender Juan Sevilla (Big Bar)
1927 Hillhurst Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90027
Juan Sevilla’s father was a bartender at legendary Beverly Hills restaurant Chasen’s, but it wasn’t until he joined the Air Force that he jumped behind the bar…at a tent city. He began his cocktail and spirit education in earnest at The Edison and transitioned to the Soho House before accepting the head bartender position at Big Bar in Los Feliz, which shares 230 seats with Tom Trellis’ adjacent Alcove Cafe & Bakery. I recently caught up with Sevilla at his “office” – the ivy-framed Alcove patio – to learn more about his background and approach.
Do you consider yourself a bartender or a mixologist?
I consider myself a bartender.
How come, and what’s the difference?
The bartender controls the bar and does a lot of additional work. A mixologist, for me, it was a term that at a certain time was necessary to separate from bartender. It did a lot to bring attention to cocktails with fresh ingredients, and going back to classics, but as more and more bartenders were going back to that, they started to come together in a sense.
What originally sparked your interest? Was it spirits or cocktails first?
I first started learning about spirits and cocktails at the same time. I was really fascinated by the whole process. You’ve got the field worker who’s chopping up agave or picking grapes for cognac, to the distiller, things that happened years and years ago. Now you get the finished product and it’s given to you to try and do something with it. They kind of came hand in hand.
How did you become so interested?
When it was first presented to me, that whole process sparked my interest. Being a part of that finished product is really appealing to me, being able to create or replicate something in such a cool way made me want to learn more and more. I’m still trying to learn as much as I can.
Do you have a first cocktail memory?
Yeah. I guess as a kid, sneaking booze out of the house and mixing it to make it drinkable. Probably like a brandy I found around the house and throwing some Coke in it. I guess that’s my first memory of a cocktail.
What was your first bartending job?
My first time making drinks for people was in a tent city while I was in the military. We weren’t allowed to have it, but we smuggled in booze. It wasn’t a paig gig, but we took turns making whatever we could with whatever we had. Bartending, I did a lot of catering in college. Catering and bartending for different companies.
What was your role in the Air Force?
I was on a cargo airplane moving from A to B. It’s called a Loadmaster, I guess is the official name for it. Weight and balance, balancing out different types of cargo.
Where were you stationed?
Pacific Northwest, but I was hardly ever there. It was more like a traveling gig.
Where are you from originally?
Los Angeles. Actually, this neighborhood is kind of home. The Dresden, down the street, my dad used to park cars there. My mom had a clinic that she ran next door to The Dresden later on. My dad ended up bartending at various industry jobs. He ended up bartending at Chasen’s in Beverly Hills. He spent several years there as a bartender. I never thought I’d be bartending. Maybe it was supposed to happen.
Would you have any cocktail mentors?
Definitely. My first education was from Marcos Tello at The Edison. I learned a lot from him. When he did the training there, that’s when I first started learning more about cocktails. Also, in L.A., I feel comfortable talking to and getting advice from a lot of people. Just going to The Varnish and talking to Chris Bostick, Eric Alperin and Alex Day. Just little things they talk to you about really helps me learn a lot. The other side of it, the bar operator, Uncle Aidan [Aidan Demarest] has really been a big help in events and in other things that have to do with operating a bar.
Who are some other bartenders you really respect, and how come?
Erick Castro from up in San Francisco. Damian Windsor. Julian Cox. I just really look up to them and what they’re doing. They’re doing bars that are just really exciting. I can drive over and have a great drink and see some cool stuff happening.
What are some other bars that you enjoy drinking at, and how come?
I like La Descarga a lot. Great drinks and it’s a lot of fun. There’s always something happening. It’s a great nightlife vibe. The music’s awesome. The way they did it, it’s really cool. I really like The Roger Room. I really like The Varnish, a smaller bar like that. The bar that I go to around my house is a pub/bar called The Black Boar. I just have a beer. That’s my neighborhood bar that I go to a couple times a week.
What’s a great simple cocktail for people to make at home, and what would the recipe be?
Ward 8. Rye whiskey. I would use Sazerac rye. I think it’s a solid rye whiskey. 2 ounces of rye, ¾ lemon, ¾ orange and ½ ounce of Grenadine.
If you were going to have a last cocktail, what would be in the glass, and how come?
Maybe a Martinez. It’s one of the first cocktails – when I was learning cocktails – that really stood out, just the balance of it, gin with equal parts sweet vermouth and maraschino. At the time, when people ordered drinks from me, nobody would dare put equal parts vermouth and gin. I’d never tried anything like that, and it really got my attention.
Who would make it?