Portland-based bartending legend Ryan Magarian has been at the forefront of seasonal, market-driven mixology for the past decade. He’s left a lasting imprint on Pacific Northwest cocktail culture by consulting on a litany of the region’s leading cocktail programs. He’s also left a mark on L.A., bolstering cocktail programs for clients like SBE and Westside Tavern and training several of the city’s best bartenders. Magarian co-founded Aviation Gin and created a company called Liquid Relations in order to deliver “life changing cocktail, spirit and wine service experiences.” He recently shared some thoughts about his background, influences and approach.
Do you consider yourself a bartender or mixologist? What’s the difference?
I’ve always felt that the term bartender refers to an all encompassing service profession, while mixologist refers to someone who specifically practices the art and science of mixing drinks – a craft that is practiced by professional and amateur alike. Believe it or not, while most mixologists today are working or former bartenders, some of the very best I’ve come across have never taken a shift behind a bar.
How did you become interested in tending bar?
Early on in my life, I fell into the bad habit of drinking for escape and acceptance which led to my first job behind the stick (interestingly enough, working for Club Med.) Fortunately, after I returned to the States, several incredible individuals took an interest in my future in the industry and before long I found myself moving in a completely new direction; passionately championing a much healthier drinking philosophy focusing on the creation cocktail and spirit service experiences based on flavor and history, as opposed to ease of consumption and simple alcohol delivery.
What’s your first cocktail memory?
Honestly, I can’t remember what my first cocktail was, but the first cocktail/mixed drink that I can remember having any sort of lasting effect on me was a traditional Margarita made with 100% Blue Agave tequila and freshly squeezed lime juice they I had at the now defunct Bima Restaurant in Portland, OR. Definitely a first for me and dare I say, a life altering experience.
What’s your current favorite spirit or liquor to work with and why?
Gin, not only because I have had the opportunity to create my very own brand puts me in a position of endless cocktail tinkering, but because each and every gin on the market offers bartenders and mixologists a unique opportunity to create a slightly different balance and flavor experience in a wide variety of classic and modern cocktails.
Describe one of your recent creations. What’s the cocktail called and what was your approach?
The Westside Smash for the Westside Tavern in Los Angeles. I have always had a passion for savory ingredients in cocktails, since my very first days in the industry. The Westside Smash is a prime example incorporating Aviation New Western Dry Gin, Freshly extracted Red Bell Pepper juice, freshly squeezed lemon juice, fresh spearmint, and house made clover honey syrup. As with all my signature cocktails, I begin with a classic cocktail template (here a Smash) and simply inject new life into it by plugging in unique and often obscure flavor combinations. A few “shock and awe” cocktails on any drink menu are never a bad thing.
Do you have a cocktail mentor? If so, who are they and what did they teach you?
I have two. First, Chef Kathy Casey, an incredibly talented consulting chef, who took me under her wing for several years as I made the transition for bartender to full time beverage consultant, showing me not only how to effectively and humbly brand and market myself, but what it means to be a true professional in our industry. My other mentor is a fellow named Robert Hess who I become close friends with in 2000. My relationship with Robert was critical in that it opened my eyes to the importance of the cocktails rich and interesting history in not only instilling a large passion and desire to make great drinks on my own, but to have a much better shot of winning hearts and minds as a engage bartenders in trainings across the country
What’s your favorite bar in town and why?
That’s a tough question as I tend to value different bars for different experiences. I always enjoy my time at bars I’ve worked with such as Westside Tavern and The Penthouse at the Huntley Hotel because they always make me feel like a part of the family. Outside of these joints, and if we’re talking strictly cocktail bars, I especially like The Hungry Cat, Comme Ca and the Varnish in Downtown Los Angeles with so many others right in there with them.
Who’s another bartender or mixologist you respect and why?
Good Grief, there are SOOO many cats I could name here, but I guess am particular fond of my friends Chad Solomon and Christy Pope, who after receiving training and spending several years behind some of the world’s best cocktail bars, have really begun to carve a unique niche for themselves, not only as artists, but as savvy business and marketing folk. I really respect their passion, integrity, fearlessness, and total contribution to our craft.
What’s the best simple cocktail recipe for people to make at home, and what’s the recipe?
I don’t think I could ever say the one drink in particular could be the very best drink in this situation, but I think it’s incredibly tough to beat a perfect chilled and balanced Natural Daiquiri:
In a pint shaker glass add
2 oz. Neissan Blanc or Flor de Cana 4 yr. Dry Light Rum
1 oz. Freshly squeezed lime juice
¾ oz. Simple Syrup (1:1 Superfine Sugar to Cold Water, Stir until completely integrated)
Fill glass with ice, shake vigorously fro 6 seconds, and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
Garnish with a lime wedge.
If you could only drink one more cocktail, what would it be and why?
A toss up between a Fresh Lime Gimlet made with Aviation Gin and the Natural Daiquiri listed above