When I met bartender Jason Bran, he was behind the bar at Test Kitchen, prepping Hello Kitty cutouts to accompany a Japanese whisky cocktail that he planned to serve during Haru Kishi’s guest chef appearance. In one sense, the Seattle native had come full circle, since one of his first bartending jobs was at Umi, a Japanese restaurant that still serves a number of the cocktails from his opening list. He moved to Los Angeles in 2006 and worked at venues like STK and XIV before settling in at The Roger Room. He’s still there on a regular basis, but took a two-night departure at the Beverlywood pop-up, which is where he shared insights about his background and approach.
Of course the theme is Japanese and French, so this is just going over a green tea whiskey sour that I made, with matcha syrup.
Is that the most recent cocktail you developed?
Yeah, all these are cocktails I developed just for this particular night. I’m always working on some level to do something, but it’s cool when you get a theme to work under, or some sort of idea…In a lot of Japanese places, you don’t see those ingredients in the cocktails, so I wanted to take the opportunity to show people something different. In this case, it’s French spirits, traditional cocktails, and Japanese ingredients integrated with American cocktail technique.
Describe one drink, and your approach.
For the whisky sour, I just wanted to do something different. Damian Windsor does something like this at The Roger Room. He uses maple syrup on the Japanese Maple, with Japanese whisky. I just felt like matcha green tea goes with whisky really well, so I just made a syrup out of it and then decided to do a sour with it. And of course it gets a Hello Kitty hat on top.
For the Shiso 75, I infused shiso into Plymouth gin, then just lemon and champagne. I think that’s really awesome. I’m always happy when you can clearly identify the ingredients, or even both. You get the gin at the start and the shiso at the end. It’s very layered flavor, and I’m delighted with the way it worked out.
What brought you to L.A.?
Seattle’s small. There’s only so much you can do in Seattle.
You were already bartending up there?
Yeah. I bartended in a nightclub that was also doing fresh fruit and cocktails at volume. I’ve had the fortune – I would go to the Zig Zag Café and sit at the bar and stare and watch Murray [Stenson] work and learn so much. I would just sit there and taste spirits and try a bunch of cocktails. I got really into it when I first started bartending.
What was the name of the club?
The first place I worked was called Bada Lounge. I was barbacking there and started bartending. The owners tore it down and decided to open a sushi restaurant, Umi. I wrote the cocktail menu for Umi about four years ago, and it’s still relatively intact, as far as what we opened with. It’s great because I got to do a regular cocktail menu and a cocktail menu with Japanese ingredients, using things I thought were fun and interesting, that I’d never seen in cocktails before. We also did a menu with sake too. It’s a sake place, so I helped on the sake list and we did sake cocktails. I hate the idea of saketinis, but I’m really happy with the balance I found in the end. I was using fresh, natural flavors. It was just something like cucumber, with sakes that go well with that. A light cucumber note in addition to the notes of the sake. I’m really happy with that menu. I’m happy it’s still there.
Where did you go to school?
University of Washington.
What did you major in?
Business Administration, with a concentration in Finance.
Do you feel like that helps you at all in what you’re doing?
No, for me, in college, I started bartending because I needed to make money on a full-time basis. I was paying for my own tuition. I was working full-time and just couldn’t do that anymore, so I got a great opportunity to start bartending. I took it. It feels like a good fit for me. I appreciate the craft and feel passionate about making good drinks and doing a good job. I’ve never touted myself as the best mixologist. I’ve never wanted to be known as the best mixologist. I’m not one to make amazing, life-changing cocktails…My passion is about the execution, the techniques, making sure the techniques are good, getting drinks quickly, not having people wait forever for something that’s delicious, and of course proper craftsmanship.
People being able to balance drinks, I feel like that’s one of the things that has always been an issue for me since I moved to L.A. Like Ryan Magarian did a lot of training for SBE, and everything is jigger, jigger, jigger. I’m very anti-jigger. I use it occasionally and believe in it as a tool, but 90% of the time, I watch people jigger and they’re jiggering incorrectly anyway. It just doesn’t prove anything to me. If you go to Zig Zag Café, with somebody like Murray…Have you been there?
No, but I’ve heard that he doesn’t use jiggers.
No, he’ll just pour a bottle like this…whoop. But that to me, that’s mastery. That shows me that he knows exactly what he’s doing. I’ve never gotten a cocktail from him that was unbalanced or terrible or any of that. He’s just amazingly proficient and he knows it like the back of his hand, as he should. He’s been doing it for so long. If you jigger, it’s kind of like a crutch. Eventually, there’s a time and a place for it, but if you don’t ever expand outside of that world, really you’re just somebody who doesn’t know what you’re doing.
If you’re not the best mixologist, are you even a mixologist?
I prefer to not be referenced as a mixologist, but I never fight it. I’m pretty passive about it. Same thing as if you walk into a bar and ask for a vodka tonic and they don’t even carry vodka. I’d rather not fight the fight sometimes. People have their tastes and their references. Some people are open to changing their mind. Other people are set in their ways. I try to be passive with that. If somebody bills me as that, there are times when I focus on it and say, “I don’t want to be called a mixologist. I prefer to be called bartender.” I respect people who are mixologists, but I kind of see it as two camps, too. Mixologists are the guys who take a long time. Bartenders are the guys who can still do the work and just bang it out, get it done for you, make it look effortless and still be efficient at the same time and still focus on what they’re doing. You’re still going to get a great cocktail.
Did you become interested in cocktails or spirits first?
I think it was cocktails. Cocktails led me to spirits.
Do you have a first cocktail memory?
Yes. Again, Zig Zag Café. Seeing the cocktail menu there was just amazing. I remember going crazy with it. The Last Word was definitely in there, but the one to me that really changed the way I felt about it was the Tailspin. Just seeing how amazing it could be to just take spirit and stir it and how amazing that could be. Of course there were a lot of Old Fashioneds around. Of course that was a good drink, but I was into gin a lot, so it really opened my eyes to just how much a spirit could be really dynamic. It opened that door to my appreciation of spirits.
The biggest thing for me was sake. When I started learning about sake and learning how generations of families spent their lives crafting one particular spirit. That’s pretty amazing when you think about that. They have that much passion. They believe in it so strongly. Then I would see that most people here don’t know anything about sake.
One of my first jobs here, I opened, with Steven Arroyo, a little sake and izakaya restaurant, [Happi Songs]. I had an awesome sake menu. It was successful, really well thought out, really well selected. It took me a long time to find the sakes, but nobody cared about it. Everybody just wanted hot sake and sake bombs. It made me want to cry.
Where did you go from Happi Songs?
I went back to bartending. I went over to STK and opened that bar. It didn’t work out. I’ve been known to be pretty particular about the programs that I choose to associate myself with. At that time, I just needed a job. I worked over at XIV, which was great because I got to work with some of the Michael Mina people, like Noah Ellis, who is incredible. Being able to work with him and Jordan [Kahn] and to be able to just talk about different ideas I had and theories, just brainstorming. You could sit down and just eat with those guys or drink with those guys and come up with tons of ideas and try to put those into execution. I really enjoyed working with them, but the cocktail program, along with the food program at XIV, didn’t seem to take precedence. It just didn’t feel like a good fit, and I got the opportunity to go work with Damian [Windsor] at The Roger Room. I was like, “I’m never looking back.” I think The Roger Room will be where I retire. That will be like the last bar I work at. It’s a great program. I’ve got great co-workers. To work with Damian is great. I spend three nights a week there.
When I first moved here, there were a lot of mixologists that I met, that I didn’t necessarily get along with. I don’t know if “not get along with” is the right term. I just didn’t identify with them. Joe Brooke is one of those guys I can sit down and hang out with. Damian Windsor has always been one of those guys. From the moment I met him, he was not trying to push himself as being the best guy in town. I say this stuff, and I hope it’s not taken out of context, but it’s this really weird thing in our industry. There are so many great people, a limited amount of spotlight, and intense competition. People get competitive over something that’s not that important. At the end of the day, if we all work together and we all are friends with each other, the better the chances of people turning their attention towards what we do, that we’re all professionals, and getting more appreciation from the people who sit at our bars. I’ve never been competitive like that.
Who are some of the other bartenders that you really respect, either in town or not?