Interview: bartender Devon Tarby (The Varnish)

Bartender Los Angeles


It seems like Italian style cocktails are becoming more popular these days. Why do you think?

For one thing, I think that the fact that these things are available now in the U.S. has certainly affected things. You could find Averna or Fernet fairly easily, but now you can find all these beautiful amaros coming into the States, and I think people are getting excited about it. Also, artisanal, craft things are so popular right now, so the idea of these beautiful proprietary blends of all these beautiful things – no one amaro tastes the same – and they’re all made by families, and they’re all made in small batches and handmade, and I think that appeals to the cocktail community. And they’re fun to mix with. They’re really, really fun, and there are so many things you can do with them. I’ve done sours with them where you just kind of get a hint of herbaceousness and something that will finish bitter in an otherwise ordinary sour that you’re kind of like, “Oh, what is that?” or a Manhattan style cocktail, same kind of thing, where it’s kind of a wink and a nudge taste.

Any there any misconceptions that you feel people still have about cocktails?

I think people get a little nervous sometimes, especially when they come here and don’t want to sound like they don’t know what they’re talking about, and I think that’s not their fault. I think that’s the fault of too much of an attitude of a bartender being behind the bar for their own pleasure to actually take care of a guest, which I think is really – I think the whole cocktail community in general has been geared about not being that way in L.A. I wasn’t really a part of it when there was alleged snobbery – “Oh we know all these things about cocktails and you’re just a layman. You’re asking for the wrong thing.” I didn’t see that much of it myself. I’ve heard people talk about it. Of the people I see, I think everyone is getting back into the real reason we’re here, which is to take care of people and give them the experience, and have fun. It’s not rocket science. We’re making drinks, and I think we all take pride in what we do, and that’s a wonderful thing. I think I see people come in sometimes and they get nervous. It’s just a drink. You can ask for whatever you want.

Is there anything you think Los Angeles can still use in terms of the developing cocktail scene that might have seen in other cities?

Just having good cocktails be a given. Not every place has to be a cocktail church, as Alex likes to say. It would be great to be able to go into a restaurant and just order something simple, and it’s going to have fresh juice in it, and it’s going to have good spirit in it, and whoever’s behind the bar took good care to make it. You see that a little more in other cities, but I think it’s going to happen here, places like Bar & Kitchen, you can get an amazing cocktail at Bar & Kitchen, they’re getting some really fun stuff. It’s not, “Oh my god look what we’re doing with these cocktails” kind of attitude. It’s like, “Yeah, everything we’re doing is good. It should be. We want to take care of you.”

Bartender Los Angeles
Who are some other people that you’ve never worked with before that you think would be interesting to work with, and how come?

In L.A. or anywhere?


People who I’ve never worked with who I would like to work with? Misty Kalkofen from Boston, who’s amazing. Every time I ever go home I see her and every time she comes here we have this fun bi-coastal friendship. She, again, is so gracious, and whenever I’ve sat at her bar, so attentive to detail to everyone around her, and so professional, and clearly enjoying herself. I think I really appreciate focused creativity. I would say the same thing about Alex. I think that’s something I’ve been learning from him, largely. It’s hard sometimes – I’m sorry, I’m going off on something else.

That’s okay.

You get excited about an idea and you want to put all these flavors together and it’s really hard sometimes to just focus and restrain all of that, and remember that a cocktail should be balanced and taste good. So I think Misty, I would love to work with her.

In this city, I’ve been fortunate to work with a lot of awesome people. I’ve gotta say. Everyone here, I’ve been able to work with some awesome people. Zahra Bates is another person who’s like, she’s so humble and sweet and watching her behind the bar is amazing. She’s so precise and so in charge of her space, which is really a cool thing to watch.

Where and what do you like to drink when you’re not working?

Usually whiskey. Some good rye. I love Rittenhouse. And I’ve been at Harvard & Stone a lot lately. I feel like I’ve never been there and not had fun. It feels like a big clubhouse. There’s all these different spaces you can hang out in, so depending on what type of mood you’re in, you can have a totally different night, and there’s always good music, and good whiskey, and fun cocktails. I also really like my house, my roof. My roof is a nice place to drink for sure. That’s always a good one, Old Fashioneds. I always have tools to make Old Fashioneds at home. I always have an orange and lemon, and bitters and a sugar cube, if nothing else.

Even if your fridge is empty?

Yes, which it mostly is.

What’s a great simple cocktail that you’d recommend people make at home?

I think a great Tom Collins, which is lemon juice, sugar, gin and soda, or along the same lines, a Rickey, which would be lime juice, sugar, rum or gin and soda. Really simple, any citrus.

What’s the key to a great Tom Collins?

Equal parts lemon juice and simple, and shake it a little bit so it gets cold and not too much soda. You don’t want to dilute it too much.

If you could only drink one more cocktail, would an Old Fashioned be in the glass?

Yes. And you know why too, because an Old Fashioned is so simple, which, that’s beautiful in itself. It’s simple and it tastes good – what’s so special about an Old Fashioned is how special people treat it. I feel like any bartender that you see make an Old Fashioned, everyone has their own way of making it, and I feel like that cocktail in particular, because you have your own way of making it, it feels special when you’re making it. It’s kind of like giving someone a hug.

Who would you want to have make it for you?

Eric. Watching Eric make an Old Fashioned is like watching someone meditate. He’s going to kill me for saying that.

Where you drink it?

I’d drink it right here. I would. I love this bar. I love it so much. It does not get old. Working here has actually made it better. It’s my home.

You still come in on off nights?

Yeah, totally. I try not to, but I do.

Address: 118 East 6th Street, Los Angeles, CA 90014

Joshua Lurie

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

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