Cocktail culture is thriving in large part due to a passionate contingent of exceptional bartenders and mixologists. This feature places a spotlight on the craftspeople behind the bar, and not just the structure itself. Meet Eric Alperin, co-founder of The Varnish in downtown Los Angeles.
Josh Lurie: Do you consider yourself a bartender or a mixologist? What’s the difference?
Eric Alperin: Bartender. When you’re behind the bar executing a series of tasks which include drinks, you are “tending” to the necessary details to make the machine of the bar run smoothly. In essence you are an engineer in an engine room. The word “Mixologist” has a lengthy debate behind it. Dale DeGroff brought it back into fashion to signify who the real cocktail innovators were during his time. The bartenders who were furthering the craft. He wanted to differentiate himself from the pump and dump bartenders. I on the other hand feel like if someone calls me a mixologist I should either be curing cancer or on the other hand it sounds like I should be playing with Play Doh. If you feel the need to call yourself a mixologist, reserve it for when you’re in your lab experimenting w/ molecular stuff and such….
JL: How did you become interested in mixology?
EA: When I was about seven my mom threw a surprise 40th birthday for my Dad. She made me the bartender. I had so much fun trying to match the requests of the adults to the sparkly bottles on the bar. Wow. That sounds romantic. It really happened, but I’d have to say that when I graduated college I needed money and didn’t want to be a waiter because it felt like playing fetch (that’s not a dis to any waiter, I’ve worked with some amazing ones that work the floor like a dancer). At the bar, people come to you. You’re on stage and you’re a facilitator to making people happy…
JL: What’s your first cocktail memory?
Does a 40 of Old English Malt liquor count? First time I got drunk in high school in someone’s driveway…
Seriously though, it was a Manhattan. In college there was a martini (I hate “tini”, it must die.) bar called Clydes and it was my first elegant experience with a proper cocktail. The Manhattan came out ice cold w/ a sidecar! (A small shaker with a “dividend” of booze…)
JL: What’s your current favorite spirit or liquor?
EA: I’m giving the comeback of Genever a fighting chance. (The original Dutch gin. Malt wine based spirit) Bols Genever has bravely brought it back in a more accessible distillation. The Europeans are more open to it, but in the States it’s still an acquired taste. When I experiment with it I like to treat it like a whiskey. The malty quality lends itself to that avenue.
JL: Which cocktail is past its prime?
EA: Cosmopolitan. If well mixed it’s a solid cocktail, but now it’s not the only cocktail people know. Thanks to the current cocktail movement…
JL: What’s the cocktail of the future?
EA: Sazerac. One of the first cocktails ever created, Antoine Peychaud mixed it in the mid 19th century with Sazerac de Forge et Fils Cognac. Then phylloxera killed much of the grape crops in France intended for Cognac production and so Americans turned their palettes towards rye for their Sazeracs. Brandy makes it sweeter, rye gives it spice. In my experience the USC girls like it with brandy and the boys usually the rye. It’s awesome to get college kids into classic cocktails! Vodka & Red Bull is a tragedy… I’m pleased to be helping in bringing back classic cocktails. They should be drunk and experienced more often. Old methods are the way of the future…
JL: Describe one of your original cocktails. What’s it called and what was your approach?
EA: I’ve worked in the Batali/Bastianich family of restaurants since my time in NYC and out here I opened the program at Osteria Mozza. I like playing with Amaros and Grappa in my cocktails. Grappa’s a tough one, but I managed to do a twist on a Pisco Sour which I call an Apricino Sour. I wanted to make the Italian firewater, (grappa) conducive to a cocktail. I took an egg white for texture, 1.5 ounces “Grappino” grappa, 3/4 ounces fresh lemon and 3/4 ounces Rothman and Winter Orchard Apricot liqueur. Dry shake to emulsify the egg, then a solid ice shake and strained into a cocktail coupe. A drop of Angostura bitters on top. Yum.
JL: Do you have a cocktail mentor, and what did they teach you?
EA: My friend and business partner Sasha Petraske. I worked for him in NYC. He just gets it. Visit any of his places. In terms of how I view cocktails now he’s my kool-aid. We’re opening a place together in Downtown LA, The Varnish.
JL: Outside of your bar, what’s your favorite bar in town and why?
EA: I used to live on Blackburn Ave in WeHo. I really enjoyed getting away from cocktail geekdom and doing beers and shots at either El Carmen (Tequila neat and Taquitos!) or St. Nicks. My safe go to is a 7&7 w/a lemon twist and at St. Nicks they serve them to you in a pint glass for $7 which is totally and completely retarded. I get half way through my second one and it’s time to wheel me home or anyone for that matter.
JL: Who’s another bartender you respect and why?
EA: Damn…that’s a tough one. It may sound corny, but all my fellow barmen offer me something. I’m a big fan of style and it may sound sick, but I really enjoy seeing a bartender getting in the weeds to the point of going under, because he/she has to fight back and you see ones true colors, they can’t fake it. It’s a pretty glorious way to witness the human condition…
The last place I worked in NYC was Little Branch and that crew taught me so much about myself behind the bar: Joe, Sammy, Mickey, Richie, Christy, Becky. I’m opening a bar because of my time there!
Also in May of this past year I took a program/certification called Beverage Alcohol Resource. Legends like Dale DeGroff, Dave Wondrich, Paul Pacult, Doug Frost, Steve Olson, Andy Seymour. These guys are invaluable resources and have become friends.
JL: What’s the best simple cocktail for people to make at home, and what’s the recipe?
white sugar cube
4 dashes Peychaud Bitters
2 oz Brandy or Rye
Stir w/ ice
Strain into a chilled whiskey glass w/ a rinse of Herbsaint or Absinthe.
Spray and garnish with a lemon peel.
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