L.A.’s top cocktail bars have become increasingly specialized, with spots like The Varnish focusing on classics, Copa d’Oro and Library Bar relying on the market, and La Descarga featuring rum. Downtown, three bars from Cedd Moses and 213 are committed to specific spirits. Seven Grand is a whiskey bar, Caña will soon focus on rum, and Las Perlas is a lime-hued haven for tequila and mezcal. The man who’s leading the mezcal charge for 213 is Las Perlas general manager Raul Yrastorza, a NoCal native who was first inspired by cocktails while molding El Carmen’s tequila program. He spent eight years running Ivar nightclub in Hollywood before 213 lured him back behind the bar. Yrastorza worked at Cole’s Red Car Bar before crossing the street to Las Perlas, a bar that’s been in the works for three years. On the eve of the bar’s opening, he took time to discuss his background and approach.
Do you consider yourself a bartender or mixologist?
Most mixologists are untrained bartenders. Anyone who thinks they’re making a handcrafted cocktail and calling themselves a mixologist is quietly labeling bartenders as hacks. I just don’t think the term mixology has a place. It’s like a chef, would you call them a chefologist? A bartender is a bartender. There are all levels of bartending. Mixologists kind of anoint themselves this term because I think they think they take a little bit more care or they read a couple books on history and it makes them better, and I think that’s wrong. Eric Alperin uses the term chef. I like that better.
How did you become so interested in cocktails?
Through the kitchen. I love to cook, and I also love to create, because I’m also a photographer. Cocktails were a way for me to pay my way through college. You find that you can make more money when you make a better cocktail, or at least have passion for good service. Good cocktails, it’s part of the lineage.
What was your first bartending job?
I covered for a bartender who was sick at Tony Roma’s. I was bussing and barbacking one night and they just threw me there, and from then on it’s been since I was 20.
When did you know that you wanted to be a bartender for a living?
After I did El Carmen. El Carmen was the first tequila bar in Los Angeles, and Sean MacPherson kind of gave me the reins and said “Hey, create my program.” Once I saw the success, that’s what my hunger was. Financially, it wasn’t it, but it was more the fact that I could put my hands on something and it was new to Angelenos and they gravitated to it and it was fun to know that was my baby. That’s why they went there, because of the choices that I made.
What was your approach to putting the list together for Las Perlas?
Ron Cooper, who produces the Del Maguey Mezcal product, I’ve known for a long time, almost 14 years. He’s an amazing artist here in Venice and now lives in Oaxaca and Taos. He’s always had this great philosophy: “the hand of the maker.” And that’s the philosophy here. Instead of saying handcrafted cocktails, everything is created by the hand of the maker, and it’s origin is the blood, sweat and tears of mezcal. It’s not a highly produced, highly machined mechanized beast as tequila. If you go to Oaxaca you’ll see everything’s like what you might find in the Catskills, total moonshine stills making this product that takes 10-14 years just to grow and just another year to produce. When you see the love and the work that goes into it, by these families, there’s no other spirit in my mind that’s truly artisan, which is an overly used word, but it is a handcrafted spirit. I’d do great winemaking after it, and then Scotch, where that much care is put into it.
Why do you think more bar owners haven’t decided to feature mezcal so far?
Because just like tequila, you first have to get past your college years, Jose Cuervo, tequila as a mixto. It’s not a flavor profile Americans are used to. We tend to gravitate towards neutral spirits, also, very sweet tiki, tropical-style cocktails. We don’t really understand tequila. Now that the palate has changed in Los Angeles, the culture that originally started with El Carmen, people now get tequila. They understand the different ranges. The problem with mezcal, it’s like you drinking a beautiful single-malt Scotch and think trying something that’s salty, or has got a lot of peat in it. It’s flavor profiles of smoke that most people aren’t used to. Also the gimmick unfortunately, marketing wise, is putting a worm in it, and most people don’t want to drink something that’s got a bug in it. Now that culture’s changed, and that’s part of my job here.
As far as using mezcal in cocktails, what’s your approach there?
Finally you have a spirit that allows you to create a cocktail that’s almost like a meal. You’re eating a meal. We’ve got several cocktails whose origin is right out of the kitchen. The Poblano Escobar, it’s muddled Poblano chilies with pineapple and cumin, with a little lime juice and agave nectar. You can’t get anything more right out of the kitchen than that. Or even the Juquila, which is balsamic vinegar and a Mexican sugar (piloncillo) reduction. Take that down to its end state until it’s almost a syrup and you’re using vinegar in cocktails. That’s unheard of. There are only maybe two other places in the United States that do that on a regular basis, successfully. You’ve got that with strawberries, dried red peppers and mezcal. That cocktail that you’re having is almost like a drinkable sauce that has been put on the mole or drizzled on some great fish that you caught off the shores of Baja.
When you’re in Asia or Mexico, there’re no grocery stores. You go to open air markets, and the smells, you cannot imagine how unbelievable the smells are. From all the different spices, the peppers, to the grilling of the food, to the smell of blood because you’ve got blood dripping on the ground because it’s fresh meat that was butchered. You have all these great smells and colors. It was about putting that all together, trying to visualize that smell. Oh that’s Oaxaca. Oh that’s that open air market. Oh that’s what it smells like to stand next to a still in Oaxaca, where you’re stepping in dirt that’s sticky because it’s got espadin syrup all over it.
What was the collaboration like with Julian Cox on the cocktails?
It was great. We joke about it all the time. He and I are like out of the Godfather. I’m the old guy and he’s the new guy. He’s got the fresh ideas and I’m not set in my ways, but I’m making sure that we need to stay focused on the lineage. He’s like, let’s work on that but let’s add the frill and step out of the box. It’s been great. He and I have learned so much from each other, with me being able to remind myself to be young again and he understanding how much further he can go. It’s been great.
What’s your first cocktail memory?
Is this the cocktail memory or getting drunk memory?
I guess it could be either
How about I give you two. My first drunk memory is the first time I ever drank. It was Jack Daniel’s, and I haven’t been able to sip or smell Jack Daniel’s ever since. My senior year in high school, if that’s what drinking was about, I would have swore it off.
My first cocktail experience was actually in Mexico. I sat with a gentleman who was our driver. Everyone was off doing their tourist thing, and he sat down and ordered a Paloma. They gave me a bottle of tequila that was about half-full, a glass of fresh squeezed lime juice, a bowl of limes, a bottle of tequila and a salt shaker. I sat there and watched him. He poured some tequila, and then he squeezed some limes in there. He filled it halfway with Squirt, put some salt on top of the Squirt and drank it. It was hands down the best thing I ever had. I watched this guy basically make a poor man’s margarita. It was spectacular. I’ve been hooked on that style of Paloma ever since.
Are you going to have a Paloma here
Yeah, we’re going to have a Paloma here. It’s going to be a little bit of a twist though. You can’t get really good Mexican grapefruit soda in the United States. I think that it has something to do with, that you can’t have pulp in it. The FDA or somebody says you can’t have it unless it’s quarantined for a period of time, so I’m going to use fresh-squeezed orange juice, a dash of agave nectar to give it a hint of sweet, some grapefruit bitters and some soda. I’m probably going to do that in a siphon, tweak the formula so have a siphon sitting on the bar when you order a Paloma, but the tequila in and spray fresh grapefruit soda into your glass. When we get there it’s going to be awesome.
Would you say that you have any cocktail mentors?
I really look up to Ron Cooper, Steve Olson, Wyatt Peabody, and if there’s a bartender that I respect in town, it would definitely be Eric Alperin. He and I get along really well. I like how thorough he is, he pays attention to detail, and he’s passionate like I am. We bonded. We’re at two different ends of the spectrum. He’s classic and I’m definitely out on the fringe, but he was here the other night and I asked him to come in taste the cocktails, and he was thoroughly impressed and happy, which was good for me, because it was like the final sign-off. Ron and Wyatt and Steve Olson gave me the sign-off, but that last one was the best. Now I feel confident in the program.
What are some other bars that you enjoy drinking at in L.A.?
When I like to drink, I go to dive bars. I go see Snow at Frank N Hanks on Western, between 4th & 5th. I go there because you get a dirty glass with okay tequila and a Pacifico, and it’s completely opposite. It’s kind of like the Wild West, one of the last dive bars in town. Snow’s this 65-year-old Vietnamese lady who owns it, she’s the only one who’s allowed behind the bar and she serves everyone, it doesn’t matter if it’s ten-deep on a Saturday night, she’s back there making sure that all the money goes in the till. It’s just really old school. That’s my favorite place to drink.
What’ a great simple mezcal cocktail recipe for people to make at home?
Get yourself some Bittermens Bitter Truth bitters, get the Xocolotl mole. Basically it’s super easy and it’s mind blowing how good it is. It’s a sugar cube at the bottom of the glass. Soak the sugar cube with the mole bitters, about three dashes. You don’t want a lot of bitters, just enough to get that sugar cube soaked. Splash the soda in there and muddle it. If you don’t have a muddler, use a spoon. You don’t want to get it to a syrup, you want to make sure there’s a nickel’s worth of sugar on the bottom. Fill the glass with some good ounce, about two, two-and-a-half ounces of good mezcal, like Don Maguey Chichicapa. Stir it, get it a little cold, take a grapefruit twist, just pass the oils over it and serve it…It’s super easy to make, and it’s absolutely phenomenal.
If you could only drink one more cocktail, would it be a paloma, or would it be something else?
As long as it’s a full bottle of Squirt and a full bottle of tequila and a whole bunch of limes, I will have a Paloma and that would be it, so I could nurse it for awhile. It wouldn’t be one, it would be several.