Skyler Reeves is a Michigan native who earned his stripes on the L.A. nightclub circuit before taking a chance on Tony’s, a bar on downtown’s eastern fringes owned by nightlife impresario Cedd Moses. The space has hosted a drinking establishment since the ’30s and the cherry bar dates to the ’50s, when the landlord discovered it on a hunting trip to Utah. At Tony’s, not only does Reeves oversee the 150 different spirits, he also hires DJs and coordinates ping pong tournaments. While prepping for service dressed as Don Draper, Reeves discussed his background and approach.
Do you consider yourself a bartender or mixologist?
How come, and what’s the difference?
This is where I need to watch my words. The word mixologist, I think it’s important that it’s existed and raised so much press, but I consider myself just a real good bartender. To me, being behind the bar is supposed to be fun. A lot of what we do is not about the drink.
What was your first bartending job?
I was a waiter and a barback and sort of faked my way through a few bartending shifts. I’ve been a busboy since I was 15, but my first real bartending job was at a club called Shelter. That was about seven years ago. It was definitely an exciting time, a fun time.
How did that happen?
I was a barback at a little bar in the Valley called Clear. I had started bartending, but making that transition’s always tough and I realized it wasn’t going to happen at that place. So a friend of mine knew a friend who knew the owner of this place, and I went in and applied and really pushed myself and ended up getting it. I ended up staying with that company for six years. That was the first club for SBE.
Then you worked at Villa?
I worked at SBE for six years, worked all different jobs and worked at 10 different venues. Then I moved to Villa. One of the former owners of SBE kind of branched off. I was the bar manager there and that’s when I really started getting a taste of having a great drink program. I think that was, for a nightclub, the best drink program. It always gets overlooked in the mixology community because it’s a nightclub, but we had fresh lime juice, fresh squeezed lemon juice and lemon sour every single day. It’s still a nightclub, it 100% focused on that, it focused on bottle service, but if you go there and get a margarita, it’s a great margarita. From there I came down here.
How did this opportunity come about for you?
Cedd Moses. I met him through some friends…I had been working in Hollywood for many years and doing the big nightclub thing for a long time, and I got pretty burnt out on it. So I started talking to Cedd, and we started talking about a few different opportunities. The timing wasn’t quite right, and this came about. I came down here and I thought it’s further east than you think it is, it’s in this trippy up and coming neighborhood. It’s one of the most beautiful bars I’ve ever seen and I thought, it’s such a change for me coming from big Hollywood night clubs, but I thought it was kind of perfect for me. It really renewed my interest in the whole industry and made me more excited to come to work again. Cedd’s also great about giving me and other managers the freedom to express their own skills and vision for the place.
What differentiates Tony’s from other bars?
We do not have a cocktail list here. The list is really the wall, the chalkboards. Over 150 spirits…There are a lot of recognizable ones, but there are lots that people haven’t seen before. I really like to get people trying new products that they haven’t normally have…Every place has a cocktail list now, which is great for bartenders and great for mixology, but it can also come across sometimes as pretentious or something. Being out here in this location, where we are, and me really going after a neighborhood bar, to me a true quintessential neighborhood bar wouldn’t necessarily have a list or menu, cause everyone kind of knows each other. We have that feel. We do great cocktails here. We specialize in classic cocktails. A lot of people ask for the list, which I think is great. They say, “Can I see your cocktail list?” I say, “You know, we don’t have a cocktail list. If you had a cocktail somewhere else that you liked, I can probably recreate that. Of give me a spirit to start with and give me direction to work with, then we can go in that direction too.”
What are the typical reactions you get when you say that?
People like it. Sometimes people are skeptical or something, but that’s why we have a bowl of fruit, and the squeezers and tools are out. Most customers are educated enough now to see that and go, “Oh, they do good cocktails.” Myself and some of the other bartenders are pretty good bartenders and can turn someone pretty quickly. If somebody’s skeptical, say, “Oh, let me just try something for you.” If they hate it, make them something else, but they usually end up liking it.
Are there certain signature drinks you feel like you’ve become known for since you started here?
Manhattans and Old Fashioneds. It’s not the most creative thing in the world, but we’re not trying to be overly creative with the program. We want to be straight forward.
Where does the Bacon and Eggs cocktail fit in?
Because of the revolution of cocktails, I do like to feature that. I want to be known for great straight forward drinks. Then, in addition, once in awhile we’ll do the Bacon and Egg, or we’ve got tangerines right now that are really good so we’ve been playing with a few different recipes. Bacon and Eggs is a gimmick. It raises eyebrows. It’s also a good talking point.
How do you make the Bacon and Eggs cocktail and what was the approach?
I like bacon, and there’s a liquor called St. Germain that you probably know that we joke is “bartender bacon.” You put it in a cocktail and it makes anything better. It’s hard to screw up a recipe with St. Germain. The stuff is so versatile. Bacon in the kitchen is kind of the same way. You want to make it better, wrap some bacon around it. I love bourbon too, and I’ve heard of bacon infusions. I’m definitely not the first one to do it, butthe drinks that they come up for with bacon infusions that I’ve seen and read about are cool, but then, I’m like, “Bacon and eggs is one of my favorite things.” It’s basically a whiskey sour. I take Buffalo Trace bourbon, infuse it with bacon, cold filter it a couple times cause you’ve got to get all the fat out of it. People totally cringe. If somebody’s reading this, they’re probably cringing about it, because it sort of seems weird to be drinking it, but it’s not. It adds a savory saltiness to the bourbon. We take about an ounce and a half of that bourbon, a little lemon juice, a little simple sour and an egg white, shake it, top it with some Angostura. It’s a good one. I’m working on a bacon garnish.
You were saying that you’re going to crisp up the bacon…
Yeah. Next time, I’m going to take the bacon that has now taken up a lot of the bourbon, fry it up and get it nice and crispy and garnish the drink.
Do you have a first cocktail memory?
That’s a tough one. I’ll have to get back to you on that.
Do you have any cocktail mentors?
I try and learn something from anyone that I’ve worked with. There are a lot of great people who are friends of mine, you know, Eric Alperin, Marcos [Tello], Daniel Nelson over at The Doheny, those are all great guys. As far as mentors, I try to take something from every situation. Anyone that knows more about me about anything that I’ve ever worked with.
What are some other bars that you enjoy drinking at around town?
I like Seven Grand a lot. They have a great whiskey selection. I’ve been there many times. I love to go to live music shows on my nights off. Because I’m here so many nights, I like to go check out a band at Dragonfly, or The Whisky or Spaceland, places that aren’t necessarily cocktail centric. I like Roger Room, The Varnish and places like that, but like I said, I like to takes things away from all different aspects of the service industry.
What’s a great simple cocktail recipe for people to make at home?
When I get that question here at Tony’s, I always recommend an Old Fashioned with this whiskey called Stranahan’s. It’s sort of our featured drink here. Stranahan’s is a Colorado whiskey, and I think this bar has kind of a Colorado feel to it, with a Western style back bar. It’s made from 100% malted barley from Colorado, so that’s kind of how Scotch starts out. It kind of has a chocolatey, orangey dry chocolate and orange note to it already, so it works great in an Old Fashioned. The way that I make my Old Fashioned here is with a sugar cube, Angostura bitters, orange peel and a maraschino cherry and a splash of water, all muddled together. That’s sort of the newer of the Old Fashioned recipes. Muddle that altogether with this Stranahan’s whiskey and stir that up, use that Colorado whiskey instead of bourbon or rye, which is what you’ll get elsewhere.
If you could only drink one more cocktail, what would it be?
I would say it would be a Thomas Handy Manhattan. It’s just a really expensive, really great rye, and it’s rare where you can splurge for it. The stuff’s hard to get, but it makes a fantastic, fantastic drink.
Then going back to the first cocktail memory.
The first thing that I ever drank was Sapphire tonics. My drink – everybody has their drink – that was my first drink. I still go back to it sometimes. All of my friends in college all drank gin, which was rare for us at the time. There was this bar in Boulder, Colorado, called the Rum Hut. It was a Caribbean bar and the bartender there was Cashin. He had some great, great cocktails. He had a great rum list, probably had 50 rums or something, which 10 years ago was ahead of its time. They did mojitos there that were legit, great. Nothing pre-made. I remember they’d get so busy they’d stack towers of pint glasses with pre-made, a little bit of mint, lime and sugar, not muddled. They’d go through ten of them in a minute. Just grab that glass, muddle, muddle, muddle, and mix it up. I used to go there and drink way too many of them. I think that was probably my first legitimate cocktail that I’d really look forward to.
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December 9, 2009 at 7:06 PM
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November 9, 2009 at 9:26 AM
very cool, i’ll need to check out Tony’s the next time I’m over in that part of Downtown. Seems like a logical after-dinner spot after a meal at Church & State.
November 6, 2009 at 7:27 PM
please keep me abreast of any new drinks or just good drinks and any great bars or clubs. thanks