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 Kylee Van Dillen from Westside Tavern in Los Angeles.
Josh Lurie: Do you consider yourself a bartender or a mixologist? What’s the difference?
Kylee Van Dillen: Is “Alcoholic Beverage Creation and Distribution Executive” an option? No? Then I’d call myself a bartender—however, I don’t necessarily consider the two roles to be mutually exclusive. I say bartender because my livelihood has for many years, been dictated on my ability to actually “tend” to a bar—including but not limited to creating drinks, selling them, and giving the highest level of service possible to the guests sitting in from me. But, within this role as bartender, I’ve enjoyed using this concept of “mixology”—the intention of which is integrating both a sort of culinary discipline with artistic creativity into the production of drinks— and using it to my advantage. It allows one to provide a better product, give a higher level of service, and ultimately offer a more meaningful experience to our guests. So I suppose it would depend what a given person defines each role to be. Is an actor someone who makes a living “acting” or someone who enjoys the craft and employs the skill in their work? Lawyers may then be considered actors, and politicians would sure as hell be the Oscar winners in the world. So if we consider mixology a skill, rather than a profession, I’d choose my title as bartender who uses the techniques associated with mixology, to increase the value of the drinks I make. If ya make a better drink, ya getta better tip. The end.
JL: How did you become interested in bartending?
KVD: Because I thought I’d look cool. Seriously. All the movies that glamorize the female bartender as a sexy-sassy-smart-mouthed-bottle-flipping rock star had me hooked. That and I was tired of waiting tables and wanted to have my guests come to me for something, rather than me having to wait around for them to make decisions and tolerate the chatty-cathys who would camp at my tables all night and tip me 15%. I wanted less doting and more meaningful interaction. So, the restaurant I was working at gave me my first opportunity, however the sexy rock star dream was shattered faster than a broken pint glass. I wore a starchy white oxford button-down shirt with a black tie and a heavy white blazer. With my hair in a bun. Meanwhile, cut to 4 years later—I could have traveled the world, written a novel, or have my own sitcom by now …but it turns out I’m just a really good bartender.
JL: What’s your first cocktail memory?
KVD: I’d like to lie, but the truth is much more entertaining. My first real drink memory ever would be a drinking a bottle of Zima with an apple jolly rancher sunk to the bottom of it as a freshman as high school.
JL: What’s your current favorite spirit or liquor?
KVD: Scotch. Hand’s down. It doesn’t need a any dressing up or a fancy bow on it. No fruit, no fuss. The flavors are so varied amongst the different regions and cater to whatever mood your palate may be in. A little smoky, a little salty, a little sweet, a little buttery. Every sip takes on a different nuance and all you need is the bottle, a glass, and a couple of ice cubes to enjoy it. (yes, yes, I know a true Scotch drinker would never drink it with lots of ice, but to each his own.)
JL: Which cocktail is past its prime?
KVD: Just a “martini”. Would it be totally unfair to say there’s no real cocktail past its prime, only the kinds of people ordering them? I can respect almost any drink, however sometimes, I can’t help but think that the person ordering it may need a little upgrade. That sounds horrible, but let’s be honest—do we really begrudge the martini, or the woman saying “I want a martini.” You give her a quizzical look, hoping she’ll elaborate. She doesn’t. You hand her a cocktail menu, open to a page with tons of great choices, and she looks at you like have an animal on your shoulder and you’re speaking Swahili…underwater. You politely ask, “What kind of martini would you like? Vodka? Gin?” She waves you away “That’s fine.” You inquire again, “Which one is fine? Would you prefer Vodka or Gin?” She looks annoyed. “THAT one.” She says pointing to the empty chilled glass you’ve set in front of her in anticipation of her order. You channel all your inner yogic calm and try to maintain patient. “Ma’am….WHICH one would you prefer in your martini?” as you hold up both the Grey Goose and Tanqueray bottles in front of her, hoping maybe a visual example will help her. Now she looks at you like you just killed her puppy. “Olives AND a twist!” she says as she looks away and mutters something about you being an idiot to her friend. You sigh, defeated once again, and shake her a “martini” of well vodka, extra vermouth, 6 olives on a skewer, a fat lemon disc, and hope for the best.
JL: What’s the cocktail of the future?
KVD: Maybe, someday, in the not-so-distant future, there will be a critical mass. People will sit at bars and ask the bartender for suggestions…and then trust them. They will tell the bartender what they’re in the mood for—citrus, sweet, bitter, floral, savory, iced, neat—and the bartender can take all this information and create a drink perfectly suited to their guests moods, and it will be good. Until then, I hope that people move away from beer, vodka, and anything involving an “energy drink.” Perhaps the future cocktails wont be just a “delivery” systems of intoxication and instead people will dare to try a Gin Lemon Drop, or a Tequila Old-Dashioned, or even something as classic as an original Mai Tai (guess what, it’s not blue). Giving the less-popular spirits a chance, if only disguised as the popular drinks they feel comfortable with. Baby steps.
JL: Describe one of your original cocktails. What’s it called and what was your approach?
KVD: During the holidays, I’m a sucker for the cookies. I got my hands on a bottle of gingerbread syrup and used it in just about everything I could think of. One of the “hits” (and believe me there were plenty of “misses”) was a Gingerbread Bourbon Sour.
2 oz. Bourbon
¾ oz. fresh squeezed lemon juice
¾ oz. gingerbread syrup
½ oz. egg white
2 dashes Angostura bitters.
Add ingredients to a pint glass and dry shake for 10seconds. Add ice to shaker and re-shake for an additional 10 seconds. Strain into a rocks glass over fresh ice and garnish with a sprinkle of cinnamon sugar and/or grated nutmeg.
JL: Do you have a cocktail mentor, and what did they teach you?
KVD: I would have to credit Ryan Magarian as the first person to introduce me to the idea of mixology. When he told me I would begin to like Gin and Bourbon I thought he was out of his tree. But, much to my fortunate surprise, he was completely right. His training broke down the fundamentals of balance, and using spirits and flavors that complement each other rather than compete with each other. Cosmos were no longer “orangy-flavored-pinkish-vodka” but fresh juices in the right proportions. I had a major crush on the Basil Hayden Manhattan. From that point on, it was a lot of books, experimenting, and self-taught methodology. Again, hits and misses.
JL: Outside of your bar, what’s your favorite bar in town and why?
KVD: The Brentwood Lounge in Brentwood. Partly because I really dislike driving in L.A. and it’s a mere two-minute drive from my apartment, but mostly because of the staff and the atmosphere. It’s a fine-dining establishment but it’s open late and the ambiance is nothing but welcoming and warm. Their specialty drinks change weekly and are always interesting, but truth be told, I go there for the scotch and the wine. The bartenders are always professional but incredibly friendly and more often than not, by the time I find a seat at the bar my scotch is already waiting for me. With lots of ice. Any bartender that remembers who you are and what you drink before you can ask, is always one I want to go back to see. Did I mention there’s really good scotch?
JL: Who’s another bartender or mixologist you respect and why?
KVD: I don’t think I could name just one because there are so many who have impacted both my life and my career. I’d love to name drop a couple of the “famous” ones we all know, and while their books and achievements are certainly influential, I have yet to meet most of them. I don’t think anything can come as close to true “respect” as the camaraderie you share with your fellow bartenders behind the bar with you—the ones who help you, support you, throw you in the weeds and then help dig you out, teach you new tricks, and kick your ass from time to time. It’s an experience that, if nothing else, is totally based on respect. You’re in the battlefield together and depending on how harmonious you can be during any given shift totally dictates whether you will survive the night or not.
JL: If you had a bar of your own, what would you call it?
KVD: My Bar. Just kidding. I do have a few names up my sleeve, however I think it would be bad luck (and not a very savvy business move) to give anyone those names before I have an investor or my own funds to make it happen. If anyone is interested however, I’m open to negotiations and potential business partners.
JL: What’s the best simple cocktail for people to make at home, and what’s the recipe?
KVD: Back to the baby steps we mentioned earlier. I think a Gin Lemon Drop is one of the simplest, most versatile and refreshing cocktails to make and drink. Most people are familiar with Lemon Drops (gotta reel ‘em in with their safety nets) but the Gin adds a richer, spicier, floral and more flavorful element.
1.5 oz. Gin (Plymouth, Aviation, Martin Millers, etc)
¾ oz. Fresh squeezed lemon juice
½ oz. simple syrup
¼ oz. Cointreau
Shake for 10 seconds and strain into a chilled, sugar rimmed, martini glass.