Ben Browning grew up in a small Missouri town called Kirksville and worked in a series of “country bars” before fulfilling a lifelong dream by moving to Los Angeles. He started on the Sunset Strip at House of Blues and transitioned over the hill to La Loggia, where SBE recruited him. At Foxtail, Browning trained with noted mixologist Ryan Magarian. His mentor left SBE and Browning took the company’s cocktail reins. Browning since spearheaded the cocktail program at Bar Centro, the centrally located bar in José Andrés’ gastronomic pleasure palace. He’s earned a loyal following for producing modern cocktails using fresh fruit, juices and herbs. I caught up with Browning at Bar Centro on May 20, where he prepared three different cocktails while discussing his background, approach and future:
Do you consider yourself a bartender of a mixologist?
I’d say both. Just because you’re a mixologist doesn’t mean you’re a bartender. I serve mixed drinks but I serve vodka sodas too. I do everything. I’ve gotta prep. I’ve gotta clean.
What’s the difference between the two?
Mixology is balancing spirit, sugar, acid, water, putting those together to make a palatable cocktail. Bartending is running a bar.
How did you become interested in tending bar?
I started doing it about ten years ago. I worked at bars through Missouri and Colorado. I’d pour beers and shots of whiskey at a lot of country bars. As I started to get more and more into it, I started managing places and worked in really nice restaurants. Then I got more into mixology.
The guy I really learned the most from was Ryan Magarian. When I moved out to L.A. I was playing around with a lot of stuff and really liked to work with fresh ingredients. My girlfriend at the time was a chef, so I’d always play around with different ingredients. I got recruited by SBE when I was working at a restaurant in Studio City called La Loggia and started training with Ryan Magarian. I worked at Foxtail, a restaurant and bar that served cocktails. When Ryan stopped working for SBE they asked me to come over here and do the drink list.
What was it that he taught you?
He basically taught me so much about mixology. Balancing the acid, sugar and water to make a great cocktail. You need all those things to make a balanced cocktail.
What’s your first cocktail memory?
The first time I ever had a drink was when I was five years old. My whole family was in Amsterdam. We were on the way to Africa. We were staying in a hotel there and my dad wanted us to try beer and champagne thinking that we would not like it and never try it again. I took a sip of Heineken and a sip of some really dry champagne. I remember I didn’t like the champagne but I liked the beer. To this day, I drink beer more than cocktails.
What style of beer is your favorite?
I’m a Newcastle guy. I’m an ale guy.
[Browning prepares cocktail #1]
What’s this first drink you’re making?
Jalé Berry. It’s jalapeno, blackberries, Aviation Gin, Cointreau and fresh squeezed lime juice, a touch of simple syrup and lemon peel on top of it. When you taste it, you’re going to taste the blackberry and the heat from the jalapeno.
Why the name?
Jalapeno and blackberry. So it’s Jalé Berry…I was actually inspired by a cocktail that Ryan Magarian did called a Burning Mandarin. It won the L.A. cocktail contest. It was Serrano chilies and vodka, cranberry juice, lemon juice, orange juice. I liked the whole pepper idea and just started to play around with different things together.
Serrano’s a little spicier?
Yeah, and it’s a little more acidic. It’s smaller but it’s definitely got more pectose.
Do you have a current favorite spirit or liquor that you’ve been playing with?
I really like gin and I like whiskey. Those are my two.
What is it that you like about them?
Gin just because it’s complex. It’s kind of like a seasoned spirit. Here’s how I explain vodka and gin to people. If somebody says I don’t like gin, I say vodka’s a piece of meat, and gin is a piece of meat that’s rubbed in spices. It just makes a huge difference making a cocktail. It makes it more complex.
Do you use vodka in any cocktails?
I try to stay away from it unless somebody’s really adamant about it. But most of the time I can change somebody’s mind.
How often do you change the cocktail list and what would it depend upon?
To tell you the truth, I don’t really rely on a cocktail list. We have it. A lot of people who know the bar and know me will just come up and ask me to make them drinks, customized drinks. I’ll ask them up front for three to four ingredients that they like and I’ll balance out a cocktail. I’m most well known for that. If people come here, I’ll ask them what they normally drink and get an idea of likes and dislikes.
With your regulars, do you have a pretty good memory of what they like and don’t like, and what they’ve had?
Yeah, but most of my regulars like me to show off. They give me the freedom to be creative and make them new things.
You were here from the beginning. What was the goal with Bar Centro?
My goal was just to make the most amazing cocktail lounge in Los Angeles and we pretty much pulled it off. We’re the most successful restaurant in L.A. at the moment. Our numbers, nobody comes close to us. We outsell The Abbey. We only do dinner. We’re doing $50,000 a day. We’re killing it.
How would you describe your collaboration with beverage director Lucas Paya?
Lucas is really great. He’s one of those guys who knows a lot about wine and he has some really great concepts. With my expertise in balancing drinks and his creativity, we just made a really great team.
What’s a recent cocktail that you came up with and what was your approach?
A recent cocktail was a takeoff on the Diablo I call a Son of Sam. It’s made with mescal instead of tequila. I take a lot of drinks and try to spin them. I don’t really stick to the normal. I really push the envelope.
Is there a cocktail that you think is past its prime, that you’d rather not see anymore?
I get a little tired of apple martinis, lemon drops or cosmos. When people order that I just make them something different. Try to give them a much better cocktail. Obviously you’re going to get some people who are diehards and if they want that, I’ll make them the best one that they’ve ever had. But at the same time, I really like to see people try different things.
Is there a cocktail that hasn’t quite hit yet that you think deserves more attention?
A lot of the cocktails that we’re making have really gained in popularity. Right now, cocktail immersion the past three to four years is really blowing up.
Who’s another bartender or mixologist in town that you really respect?
Pablo, over at STK, he’s really great and was trained by Ryan. Daniel Nelson downtown is really great. [Fellow Bar Centro bartender] Brian is really great. He’s got a lot of talent. He has very different style from mine but his drinks are amazing.
How do your styles differ?
He was trained by somebody who gave him more of the Sasha Petraske kind of training. I was trained in classic cocktails, but I was also trained in a lot of new stuff to push the envelope. He does a lot of classic cocktails with vermouth and whiskey and chartreuse. It’s just two different styles, but it works well and makes our bar that much better.
Other than your bar, what’s another bar that you like to drink at, and how come?
To tell you the truth, when I go out I’m so into the whole cocktail thing at work that when I go out I like to get away from all that and go and have a beer, just hang out with my buddies and drink beer. I don’t really get drunk because I ride a motorcycle most of the time. I usually limit myself to two beers. If I’m going to drink something, I’ll usually drink Newcastle and a Jameson. Or a shot of tequila and Newcastle. I’m a fan of Partida Tequila.
You were talking earlier about possibly having a bar of your own in the future.
Yeah, I’ve been asked to open a lot of bars. Different investors. The former CEO of HBO is having me open a bar down in the Bahamas for him with Matt Damon and George Clooney. It’s a Nikki Beach concept, a private island. I have a couple contacts myself where I can team up with a few people I know in the culinary world and have a simple but great bar menu and just amazing drinks.
Have you thought of a name?
Are you not sharing it?
Not quite yet. It’s very, very simple but nobody’s thought of it. I’ve got two different bar concepts I’m working on right now. As far as that, I’ve just got to get everything together, squared away, and the ball will be rolling. I’m getting ready to leave for a couple months for this show. We’ll see what happens.
What’s a great simple cocktail for people to make at home, and what’s the recipe?
A really great simple cocktail is a very common sour. Take 2 ounces of spirit, ¾ ounce of fresh lime or lemon juice. Either one, then add ¾ ounces of simple syrup. That’s 50-50. 50% water, 50% sugar. Mix that up, it takes no time at all. Mix up the ingredients, shake them and pour them over ice. Any spirit will work with that.
[Browning prepares cocktail #2]
What’s this drink?
This is a Johnnie Walker Julep. I use a little bit of Johnnie Walker Black, a little bit of lemon juice, a touch of simple syrup and Angostura bitters.
Why do you use Johnnie Walker Black in here and not some other varieties?
I can make it with any whiskey. I just like this scotch. It’s a little more masculine, has a little smokier flavor. It’s 12 years old. It makes for a manly cocktail. I have a lot of guys say I don’t want something too sweet. You get a lot of guys who say they won’t even drink out of a cocktail glass. They’re insecure. It’s funny.
[Browning prepares cocktail #3]
What’s the third drink you’re making?
I brought this over from Foxtail. It’s one of the most popular cocktails there, one of the most popular cocktails I’ve ever served. This drink will be the next big thing in cocktail history, I think. It was invented by Ryan Magarian. It’s called an Uva Bella. This is a crowd pleaser. I’ve never met anybody who didn’t like this.
What does it involve?
It’s muddled white grapes, Plymouth Gin, St. Germain elderflower liqueur, fresh lemon juice, simple syrup and some orange bitters. It’s amazing. I haven’t found any drink that comes close in terms of mass appeal. Everybody likes it, from guys to girls. It’s not too sweet. It’s perfectly balanced, but it still packs a little punch. You’ll have to see for yourself.
Browning’s last day as Bar Centro’s Bar Supervisor will be on May 30. He’s leaving to film a high-profile reality show that will air in the fall. He’s also working to promote Marquis Platinum, a vitality drink.