Interview: bartender Billy Fanning (CASA)

Bartender Los Angeles

Photo courtesy of Billy Fanning

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 Billy Fanning, bartender at CASA in downtown Los Angeles.

1. Do you consider yourself a bartender or a mixologist? What’s the difference?
Definitely a bartender. Mixology is simply one aspect of bartending.

2. How did you become interested in bartending?
I was working at a delftware store inon the beach in Scheveningen, Holland. I was 18 and I was getting paid 5 guilden per hour ($2.50) to keep the ‘clog closet’ organized (just picture me in a 3-foot high attic with a couple hundred pairs of clogs). Right next door was the biggest club in the city. Despite the fact that I couldn’t even get inside on most nights I occasionally got to talk with some of the bartenders, many of whom were American. Seeing a job that combined good times, great money, and pretty girls – I quickly realized that I might like bartending more than wooden shoes. I got a job in that same club as a food runner and worked my way up to what would become my career. It was only years later that I began appreciating the business side of the industry, as well as the other aspects of bartending, such as mixology.

3. What’s your first cocktail memory?
Drinking a full cup of whiskey at a party in high school… in one gulp. It’s amusing to me because little did I know that 10 years later I would still be enjoying whiskey neat (maybe a few ice cubes). The difference of course being the quality of the alcohol and the fact that I am sipping this time around.

4. What’s your current favorite spirit or liquor?
Scotch. It epitomizes what spirit production can and should be. For all the credit that is given to what bartenders do with these spirits, the truth is that the most pure form of creating amazing flavors and textures occurs during the production process. Every detail, from the method of drying the grain to the size of the storage container has such a profound impact on the final product. And most of methods and procedures employed take years instead of seconds, making it an art form on another level and something to be appreciated.

5. Which cocktail is past its prime?
Nothing. People should drink what they like. I think the only thing that has passed its prime is pretentious bartenders saying they hate serving sweet martinis. Get over yourself and make the customer happy. 

6. What’s the cocktail of the future?

None. At this point the market is so over-saturated with new spirits and new recipes I honestly think it is impossible for any recipe to become the drink of the future on a large scale and or for any significant amount of time. In my opinion, the staples at this point will always be the classics: gin and tonic, vodka and soda, Scotch on the rocks, and good beer.

7. Describe one of your original cocktails. What’s it called and what was your approach?
The Margarita Lavanda – Lavender Margarita – at CASA is a twist on the traditional margarita that uses house made lavender simple syrup. The lavender essence provides a fragrant floral aroma and gives the cocktail a subtle sweetness that contrasts with the tangy citrus flavors of fresh squeezed lemon and limes.

The approach to the Margarita Lavanda was to infuse a traditional margarita with the floral notes and sweetness of the lavender flower. It stems from our concept to serve made-from-scratch cocktails that incorporate freshly squeezed juices, herb-infused simple syrups and agave. It is fun, different, and something that customers will talk about and remember. At the end of the day it is all about the customers and their experience.

8. Do you have a cocktail mentor, and what did they teach you?
There is no one person that I can call a mentor. Instead I would say I am inspired and constantly learn from other bartenders and chefs I have worked with. At CASA, the made-from-scratch philosophy for our cocktails is inherently linked to the kitchen and the chefs. Working with chefs throughout my bartending career has taught me that the freshness and quality of ingredients makes the difference between a good cocktail and an exceptional cocktail in taste, flavor and balance. Fresh squeezed juices always taste better than pre-made mixes and the extra effort is worth it. Infused simple syrups are time consuming but the extra hint can complete a finely crafted cocktail. Just like a great dish, a great cocktail is all about balance.

9. Outside of your bar, what’s your favorite bar in town and why?
Cedd Moses’ private club, The Doheny. They are true historians of the classic cocktails, taking a very graceful approach to modernizing some of the drinks from the 18th, 19th & 20th Centuries. I derived a lot of inspiration from their passion and we try to bring some of that same enthusiasm to the drink menu at CASA.

10. Who’s another bartender or mixologist you respect and why?
Gaston Martinez of Nora’s Cuisine in Las Vegas. He has an incredibly developed palate that when he adjusts a cocktail slightly it changes the taste and balance of the cocktail immensely. He also employs the philosophy of culinary cocktails that we’re doing at CASA with fresh squeezed juices, herbs and nectars. Gaston is one of the best bartenders in Las Vegas and my favorite to visit when I’m out there.

11. If you had a bar of your own, what would you call it?
It would be a little neighborhood Irish pub called O’Fannin’s. To pay homage to my original family name before they moved to from Ireland to the United States and had their name changed.

12. What’s the best simple cocktail for people to make at home, and what’s the recipe?
A simple cocktail for people to make at home is a margarita. Many people think a margarita is difficult to make from scratch so they tend to buy margarita mixes but those are just processed sugar versions of the real thing. It’s very simple to make a margarita with fresh squeezed juices. It is worth the time and tastes fresher and more authentic.

Classic Margarita

2oz. Milagro (silver) or Gran Centanario Reposado (for a smokier beginning)

1oz. Agave Nectar (should not have the consistency of honey, but the viscosity of maple syrup)

You can increase the viscosity by heating 1 cup of boiling water with 2 cups of agave nectar- stirring vigorously.

2oz. Fresh Squeezed Limes

Garnish with an orange

Three ingredients- the slight pain is getting the agave nectar right, but you will have a margarita that friends will knock on your door in the middle of the night for.


Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

Blog Comments

Scooby Snack Cocktail Recipe

[…] Food GPS » Blog Archive » Q&A with bartender Billy Fanning (CASA) […]

is that first commenter legit? haha just wondering..anyways, interesting. Sorry, but I think any customer that likes sweet martini drinks ought to rethink their drink selection. I think a good bartender can and should direct someone to expand their knowledge of cocktails.

[…] Online Gourmet Foods added an interesting post on Q#038;A with bartender Billy Fanning (CASA)Here’s a small excerpt…is so over-saturated with new spirits and new Brecipes/B I honestly think it is impossible for any recipe to become the Bdrink/B of the future on a… […]


Food GPS » Blog Archive » Q&A with bartender Billy Fanning (CASA)

[…] Food GPS » Blog Archive » Q&A with bartender Billy Fanning (CASA) […]

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