Native Texan Joel Black has experienced a meteoric but hard-fought rise on the L.A. cocktail scene. He moved here from in 2002, armed with an acting degree from KD Studio in Dallas. Black started slinging drinks in the Valley, and before long, he moved over the hill to Comme Ca, where New York bartender Sammy Ross convinced him that working behind the bar was more interesting than appearing in front of the camera. He briefly worked at Copa d’Oro before Cedd Moses hired him as GM of The Doheny, when Black was only 26 years old. Black recently discussed his background and approach while crafting cocktails and pouring rum at Caña, where he works as GM.
Would you consider yourself a bartender or mixologist?
That’s a fun one. I don’t care. If you want to define the terms, bartenders make drinks. Mixologists create drinks. Am I mixologist? Yes. I create drinks. That’s what I do for a living. I consult for 30 something restaurants across the country, where I create custom drinks programs using custom ingredients. At this point of mixology and creating cocktails, I base everything off of my classic background. So I’m a bartender in that sense. I take classic recipes and maybe mess with them. I take the classic balance of a gimlet or a daiquiri – which is the same drink with different spirits – and use that balance. Then I do different things, like making coconut bitters and doing a coconut daiquiri, which I’ve done before. I like doing things like that to add different little modifiers to the classics.
What’s your approach when creating a drink?
I was trained by Sammy Ross, who’s out of New York, who was trained by Sasha Petraske, who’s definitely a cocktail fundamentalist. He definitely researches the oldest recipes he can find. He still adds his own way to make them better, but it’s all about the ingredients and the basic background of cocktails. So that was the best way that I could have started, was to learn the basics. It was like a chef who learns how to cook French food before he goes off into fusions. So I took that. I worked with Sammy for about three months. This was when I opened the bar Comme Ca in West Hollywood, and just loved it and dove into it. I’d been bartending but never had this approach, or so much fresh juice. Before I was slinging drinks in the Valley, making Cosmos and Long Island iced teas and not really knowing too much, so I get into this world and just fell in love with it. I fell in love with the flavors and fun, the tinctures and the bitters…I love making bitters…I live in Southern California, with the best produce at my fingertips for most of the year. I should play with that, take that classic background…Maybe it doesn’t work, but most of the time it does.
Any specific examples?
One of my older drinks is a Gin and Tarragonic. It’s a spin on a Gin and Tonic. I have quinine from tonic water, which gives you that bitter anise-y flavor, and I have gin, which is a pine spirit. At this point I was very young in my career. I go into the walk-in, in the kitchen at Comme Ca and start smelling things. At this point I didn’t even know what tarragon was. I went to Mike the chef and said, “What’s this?” “Tarragon.” “It smells great. It smells exactly how I want for the spirit.” That’s exactly how that drink came about. It was one ingredient based on how gin tasted and the profile I got from that and how the tonic water tasted. I found an herb that I thought tied in very well as far as similar flavor profiles, but helped to pull them all together. I found the Fever Tree tonic water, and ended up using that with fresh lime juice and Drambouie to give me sweet honey notes. It ended up being a big success. I won a big competition and ended up being able to compete in Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans in 2008. Gin and tonic is a classic drink, but it takes what’s embodied in it and kind of exploring it and playing with it and breaking it down, breaking down the flavors and adding other flavors to complement and add a little bit more complexity, which is kind of how I developed my style.
How’d you become so interested in cocktails?
Because I really loved to drink and it was an excuse…No, just kidding. Through Sammy. Honestly, when I did my training with Sammy, he inspired me. My degree is in performing arts. I always tell my story. I moved out here for acting and fell in love with bartending, which is the opposite of most people in L.A. They’re bartending just to pay the bills, whereas I wanted to be an actor but ended up bartending and not turning back.
So what was the point where you knew you weren’t turning back?
The point was probably midway through the training program with Sammy, and just seeing how I was at the beginning of something that in my heart I felt was going to grow and people would really appreciate. And seeing how I’ve been in the service industry my whole life and always have loved it, I saw that you can do these great things that not a lot of people are doing with drinks, and you can be creative. And I’ve always liked cooking and making cocktails, even when I was making bad cocktails, I tried to make them the best I could. To get the education behind it, I could think like a chef. Whatever’s out there than you can eat, you can use in a drink and explore that and play with it. When I did, I was excited to make my own drinks. Some of them turned out really pour, but once I got educated in my base and background of flavor, and balance of cocktails, and shaking styles and dilution techniques, and the different types of ice you can use, then it started to all come together for me. I was creating drinks that people really seemed to like a lot. I fell in love with the fun of it. It’s fun working in a bar. It’s fun making drinks. It’s fun to be creative. I’m a creative person. Obviously wanting to be an actor and have that outlet, I just found that through making cocktails, and getting to talk to people and hear their stories, which is a whole other aspect. I love talking to my customers and hearing their stories. I’m interested in people. Just the combination of it all, I really love this business.
How do you think acting helps you in what you do now?
I know how to read people very well. Being creative, as my teacher said, all actors aren’t healthy, happy, well-adjusted people. We’re all a little crazy and think outside of the box. Just having that background, not really following any rules. I take rules and like to break rules, just being a free spirit. There are some mixologists who just make classics, and that’s good for them, but for me, I want to explore and have fun. That’s what actors want to do. They never want to have the same job. That’s why I wanted to be in the Army one day, or a fireman another day. You want to explore different aspects of life. Through cocktails, through the culture and the history of booze, it’s been around forever, so there’s so much to explore and have fun with. There are so many stories behind it, and it’s just fun.
What was your first cocktail related job?
I made my first drink at 18 years old at a theatre in Dallas, Texas. No liquor license. We made drinks upon donation. Long story short, we ended up getting shut down because it was completely illegal. I was 18 years old, and I was taught how to pour Jack and Cokes and gin and tonics. So that wasn’t my first cocktail related job, but booze related job, at 18. From that, I got very interested in being behind that bar. When you’re behind that bar, there’s a perception of the bartender at the bar. I started as a busser and a waiter. The bartender is always the king of the restaurant. Everybody wants to be friends with the bartender. There was that mystique behind it that I thought was really cool. Once I got back there and was making drinks for people, and people were laughing, I got to actually know people better. It’s the age old thing, bartender as therapist. They want to talk to you and tell you their stories. That helped me fall in love with it. From there, I was waiting tables, still 18 at Ozona Grill & Bar on Greenville Avenue in Dallas, Texas. I was young. In Texas, they let you bartend at 18, but most places won’t let you. They let me get back and train with the guy. From there, I was learning margaritas, Tom Collins and Cosmos. I took that and moved to L.A. and was waiting tables again.
Where were you waiting tables once you got to town?
Mexicali. I was waiting tables and took a brief detour for six months and was playing professional poker. The bank roll was running low, so I got a job. One of my friend’s, his girlfriend was managing a restaurant in the Valley, which is La Frite. I totally lied and said I had more bartending experience than I did. I would call my bartender friends and say, hey, “I’m in the middle of a shift and don’t know how to make a kamikaze. What do I do?” I kind of B.S.’d my way through bartending for about a year, and at that time, I was reading all the books I could, but at that point, I didn’t know who Dale DeGroff was, or David Wondrich. I wasn’t reading the right books. I was reading Bartending For Dummies. I was learning the Cape Cods and the drinks I needed to know to maintain my job in the Valley. From there, John Coltharp, who’s my lead bartender, we were working together there. I trained him at that bar, and he was reading Imbibe, and he showed me. He went over to Sona restaurant, and told me, “Hey, they’re opening this new spot called Comme Ca.” He brought me over and got me the interview. I started the training program there with Sammy [Ross]. There were 17 of us. It was like a reality TV show. Everytime I’d come back, somebody would be cut. That’s when I knew it was serious. My first day to go to the job, I was half an hour late for my training. I was like, “Oh, this is not looking good.” By the end, I was the first one there and the last one to leave. I was earning Sammy’s respect. He knew that this kid likes it. He gets it. I did. From that point, I was kind of touching on Imbibe, and Sammy was giving me books like Jiggers, Beakers and Glass, and introducing me to the David Wondrich books, and different cocktail books, and then I was getting into the history. He was teaching us Bee’s Knees and actual Gimlets, the natural daiquiris.
Tell me how this opportunity came about.
I don’t want to talk too much about The Doheny and that venture not working, but that’s kind of how it came up. I got approached by Cedd, the owner of 213 Hospitality, and John Coltharp, who’s lead bartender of Caña now, who wanted to do a rum bar. But not do a specific style of rum bar like La Descarga or make it a tiki style bar like Tiki Ti. We just wanted to celebrate rum as a spirit in every facet and every corner of the world. There are rums from America, there are rums from Spain, there are rums from France. All around the world, rum is the spirit that’s been made for years and years and years. And it’s a spirit that’s derived from basically waste. People didn’t want to waste the molasses when they were making sugar and they finally decided, let’s ferment this and see how it works. Boom. Rum is born. It’s a cheap product to make and it helps to take care of waste. It’s almost like a recycled spirit because of how it came about. John Coltharp had the whole whiskey thing going and got super into rum…We wanted to touch on every great aspect. You see our menu, we start with Cuba and start with one of the most traditional rum drinks, which is a natural daiquiri, which is rum, lime, sugar, simple, easy, beautiful to drink. Go from there to one of Hemingway’s favorite cocktails, the La Floridita Daiquiri, which Hemingway drank at the La Floridita bar in Cuba. Then go to an Añejo Daiquiri, which is just an aged rum version of a classic drink. So we wanted to keep it very classic, very neat, nice and fresh, and just do the very basic at first because rum is such an up and coming spirit. When John first told me about the idea, I jumped on board. I thought it was a great idea. Rum is a fun spirit with pirate stories, the open sea and sailors. It’s a spirit that’s been all around the world, and I thought it would be a lot of fun.
What was your approach putting together Caña’s list of rums and cocktails?
Our approach was making sure that we have A) tons of rum back here from all over the world, and B) not focusing on too many things, and separating the menu by category. Having the tiki, having the Brazilian drinks, so you could take a little trip around the rum world and get the flavor of how people were drinking this spirit.
Who would you consider a mentor?
Sammy Ross is my mentor. He trained me along the way. And then from there, I went to work with Vincenzo Marianella, who’s amazing, at Copa d’Oro. And then, I worked out an arrangement with Cedd to work at The Doheny. It was my first GM job, at 26. I was psyched. From those guys, I totally learned my background and got my roots, and then developed them with Marcos Tello and Eric Alperin and the whole cocktail community…I learned a lot through Sporting Life and us just talking to each other. You’re got to read this book, or read this article. It just grew from there and just keeps growing every day.
What’s your first cocktail memory?
Vodka and Powerade when I was 15 in the backseat of a Bronco with my brother.
How did that turn out?
I got a bloody nose, because we started wrestling with friends, as 15-year-olds do when they’re drunk, and being rambunctious. My parents never knew. We had a 14, 15, and my brother was 16 years old, just completely drunk on vodka and Powerade.
My first cocktail memory on the more sophisticated side would be a Gold Rush. I love that drink: Bourbon, lemon, honey. Simple and delicious.
Where was it?
That was training with Sammy.
Who are some other bartenders or mixologists that you really respect around town?
Julian Cox, for sure, who’s my business partner and one of my best friends. I actually helped get his career started at Comme Ca, brought him on and taught him some mixology. He went to flourish and runs the bar at Rivera.
What do you admire about Julian Cox?
I like his boldness in flavors. He’s the same as me, in that he finds certain ingredients that maybe shouldn’t be used with certain things and makes them taste great. He has a great passion for tequila and mezcal, and he makes great mezcal cocktails. Mezcal’s kind of a funky spirit, kind of a volatile spirit. It’s not easy to mix with. Some Scotches are meant to be drunk straight, and that’s how you appreciate them. He takes these funky spirits and makes great cocktails. We try to push the limits, not stand still in our practice, and push our craft forward and be creative and not just say we have these rules we have to go by. He does a drink that uses an ounce of Angostura bitters in it. Nobody does a drink with an ounce of Angostura bitters. It’s a funky drink, but he does there. He pushes those limits, and I respect him immensely.
Eric Alperin, who runs The Varnish, and is the Vice President of the USBG. He’s very influential in our community, does tons of consulting work, works for brands.
Any bartender, whether I know them or now, who wants to push our profession to get it back to where it used to be, who respects the profession and is not just slinging drinks, is somebody that I respect. Marcos Tello, Eric Alperin, Vincenzo Marianella and John Coltharp are all guys I deeply respect in the industry.
Where do you like to drink when you’re not at Caña?
Rivera’s across the street, so that’s convenient, and I know I’ll get good drinks. The Varnish is amazing. Tiki Ti is fun. I appreciate what they’re doing, and what they’ve been doing for so long. It’s kind of off the beaten path, but if I’m by the beach, Copa d’Oro. They do everything right and fresh, and have that farmers market vibe with ingredients. You can get a ton of different taste profiles there and get a ton of different ingredients.
What’s a great rum cocktail for people to make at home, and what would the recipe be?
A daiquiri. It’s the essence of a rum cocktail, and it’s simple. It’s fresh lime juice, simple syrup (equal parts sugar and water) and rum. It’s two ounces of rum. I like to use a light rum, unless you want an añejo daiquiri, if you want a dark rum. Zaya 12-year is a beautiful rum, one of my favorite sipping rums of all time, that has a sweetness that carries through a daiquiri. An añejo daiquiri will sweeten it up a little bit more, and you’ll get more wood tones. In a daiquiri, if you use a basic light rum, I use Matusalem, one ounce of fresh lime juice and three-quarters ounces of simple syrup, and you’re good to go.
If you could only drink one more cocktail, what would it be?
My last cocktail ever?! If it’s my last cocktail before 11 AM, Ramos Gin Fizz. I’m not a bloody Mary guy. Ramos Gin Fizz is an art form. If you make a great one, you’re an artist. More times than not, you’ll get a bad one, so a great Ramos Gin Fizz, for sure. It’s a pain in the ass to make, it requires labor and love, but the finished product is something to be proud of. If it’s after 12 PM, Rye Manhattan. It’s a great drink. Rye as the spirit, with Angostura bitters.
Any particular rye?
Rittenhouse 100 proof. If you want my favorite, and I’m going to die, I want Rittenhouse 23-year-old rye whiskey, with Carpano Antica formula sweet vermouth, exactly three dashes of Angostura bitters. Stirred. If you shake it I’ll punch you in the face.