Age was beside the point when Steve Livigni first worked behind a bar. He made cocktails for friends in high school and couldn’t wait to start mixing drinks for a professional clientele. In college, he started at the Four Seasons Santa Barbara Hills and transferred south to Beverly Hills before working with spirit brands like Jinro and Brown-Forman. Just when he was getting the itch to get back behind the bar, that’s when Cedd Moses called. Livigni ran The Doheny for 213 Hospitality from April 2008 to September 2009, which is when he took a sojourn to Latin America. We recently met at La Descarga, where Livigni now works as General Manager, and he shared insights about his background and approach.
What is it that inspires you about cocktails?
I think it’s just people enjoying them, seeing people come in, making drinks for people, and them smiling. The creative process is fun, the shopping, and dreaming cocktails up, but when you hand a glass to somebody and they look back at you and say, “This is one of the best drinks I’ve ever had,” that’s really rewarding because they’re going to have a good night. It’s immediate gratification for something that’s totally yours and creative. If you can help people have a fun night, that’s the whole joy of working in bars and restaurants.
Do you consider yourself a bartender or mixologist?
Nowadays I’m not fully behind the bar as much. For brands and the other night, and various things around town, I get to get behind the bar and actually make drinks for people, which I really like doing. Sometimes I really miss being back there full time since I focus so much on operations. I’m a bartender to start off with. I’m not really sure of the difference between those two things, but if you’re behind a bar and making drinks, you’re a bartender.
What’s your first cocktail memory?
Well, I remember the first time I drank hard alcohol. I was 17. A very close friend of mine and I used to throw high school parties, but more sophisticated. He had a bar in his house, and luckily his mom would travel out of town a lot, so we had this really beautiful house with a pool and a wet bar, so I’d always be making drinks. The first time I remember being passed out drunk was on a bottle of cinnamon schnapps. Aftershock is the name brand. We split a bottle of Aftershock and had it with Dr. Pepper. I don’t know if that’s a cocktail really – Dr. Pepper and Aftershock – but that’s the thing I really remember having a bad hangover from and throwing up from.
One of my first real cocktail experiences – my dad was a fan of Sinatra and the whole martini culture – I immediately started gravitating toward stirred vodka and gin martinis, lots of olives, lots of onions, and that kind of worked itself into drinking Scotch and whiskey and making the progression to being able to drink spirits neat. I just felt like that was an important thing to be able to drink a spirit in front of someone…your girlfriend’s dad or your boss or something and be able to sip on something and not cringe. It was important, even at 18, 19 and 20 to be able to handle myself in different situations. At the time, wanting to get into politics too, I knew I’d get into situations where politicians were drinking Scotch at a table, and I wanted to be able to fit in with that, so I worked hard, struggling through drinking Glenlivet to get to the point where I could drink it neat.
What was your first cocktail-related job?
My first paying job was just working in restaurants, and serving drinks to people when I was a teenager, serving beer as a waiter. I started working for the Four Seasons Santa Barbara when I was 18, and I’d always wanted to bartend. I had these inclinations, bartending in high school at parties. My house was always filled with booze that friends would buy me when I wasn’t 21. I was always naturally hosting people, interested in drinks and that whole culture. So I started working as a waiter at the Four Seasons, and I was constantly hounding them about training to bartend because I wasn’t 21. One of the bartenders left when I was mid 20th year, and I just hopped behind the bar and already knew how to make all the drinks…As soon as I turned 21, I got another bartending job in downtown Santa Barbara at a really high volume place. I just never stopped working in bars and restaurants since then.
What was your major at UC Santa Barbara?
Do you think that helps you at all in what you do?
Yeah, I think so. A lot of politics is socializing and meeting people. Talking about politics specifically, that’s something that’s always happening in bars. The history of bars is basically people would discuss politics. Politicians would come in and win elections by buying the bar a round of drinks. That kind of fits with being in a bar. But, yeah, schmoozing, selling people on things. That’s what politics is, more or less. In a lot of ways, it helps out here. There isn’t a constituency to answer to, but, yeah, it helps play a part.
How did the La Descarga opportunity come about for you?
I actually talked with Mark and Johnny Houston about getting into this space last summer before they were really working on La Descarga, once Blacklite closed. Mark wasn’t really sure what was going on with the space, or with the CUP and ABC license. So there wasn’t a whole lot he could do. When I left The Doheny in September, I took off for like a month and went to Latin America and just hung out. I got back and worked on some projects for Brown-Forman and Infinium and The Hungry Cat. Then Mark called me back up in October and was like we’re developing something in the former Blacklite space, and he knew I was interested in taking it over because I wanted to buy it from him. He told me about the concept they wanted to do and I was all about it. Havana, cigars, cocktails, dancing, Latin music, all the things he was talking about were definitely things that I wanted to be involved with. That was a pretty easy decision to come on board and execute it.
What do you enjoy drinking when you go out these days?
Mostly whiskey. If I’m at somebody’s bar who I know makes great cocktails, I’m always happy to drink them. I guess probably Rivera is the place I go the most to have drinks, or I go see Matt [Biancaniello] at The Roosevelt when I have a chance to get up there. The only two cocktails that I have are Manhattans – and I go to Musso & Frank quite a bit; Manny makes for – whatever reason – these magical Gibsons. It’s just stirred gin in a glass, and for whatever reason, they just taste amazing. On the oft chance that I can ever get over to Tiki Ti, which is closed on Sunday and Monday, and those are my days off, basically anything on their menu, I’ll drink. You can’t help but smile when you’re drinking the cocktails there because they’re so sweet and so strong.
Would you say that you have any cocktail mentors?
Most of the people that I’ve come to enjoy working with or being around are mostly in the past couple years. When I started bartending, which was 11 years ago, there wasn’t anyone that I was working with who was really teaching me anything. A lot of the guests that I had at the Four Seasons – I worked at a really beautiful private club at the Four Seasons called The Coral Casino, which was an old cabana club on the water. It was a much older clientele – 60’s, 70’s, 80’s – so those people when I first started bartending were drinking old cocktails that are becoming so popular now. Old Fashioneds, Manhattans, Gin Fizzes, Slings, Punches, those were common things that old people were ordering from me. I had to look at the books and figure out how to make these drinks. These old people were like, “This isn’t how you make a Rob Roy.” In a lot of ways, that first clientele was kind of my mentors, because they were teaching how to make drinks. Young kids at the clubs were ordering apple martinis and shots. They kind of taught me how to make old classic drinks. At the time I was like, “Why would anybody want to drink these?” Now people like drinking Manhattans, Old Fashioneds and Gin Fizzes again. There have definitely been some inspiring people in the past couple years. Working with Eric Alperin at The Doheny was like, he’s a really passionate guy and is obviously at the top of his game making cocktails, so it was nice to work with someone like that. Pablo [Moix] and Daniel are guys that spend so much time reading and learning about spirits, but at the same time don’t pontificate about it. They’re not so geeky that they’re constantly talking about it, but when you get in a conversation they really know their stuff. I didn’t really train with anyone, so there’s no real mentor, but the old people I first started serving kind of taught me the fundamentals of making drinks that I use working forward.
Tell me about Top Notch. How did that come about and what does it involve?
It’s Daniel Nelson and myself. Like anyone who knows a lot about spirits these days, or cocktails, we get approached by a fair amount of companies to do cocktail creation or educations, all kinds of things for brands, throwing events and stuff. So we were both kind of getting hit up independently, and sometimes together to do things, so it just kind of made sense to put a company together. Sometimes we work for people completely independent of each other, and sometimes people want both of us to do events or educations. We’re pretty different personalities, but we’re very close friends. Daniel’s kind of like the wilder one of the two of us. He and Pablo are two of the best off-the-cuff cocktail makers I’ve ever seen. Put them behind a strange bar with clientele that they don’t know and they’re sure to make everyone in that room happy. There’re a lot of guys who have their set go-to cocktails, but they’re not necessarily great in front of a bunch of strangers. Those guys are absolutely fantastic doing that. He’s really great at that part of it, and I think I’m probably better at dealing with people, dealing with the clients, speaking in public, doing education. So it’s kind of a good yin and yang to host events and work on the cocktail side of it.
What are you currently working on?
Well this is really keeping me super busy…And Daniel’s really busy. He’s now the head of education for Leblon, so he’s doing a ton of work for them. We worked a bunch of events and parties at the end of last year. We’re probably going to be working with Kabuki, which is a chain of Japanese restaurants, working with their master sake sommelier on doing some Japanese inspired cocktails as soon as we have a bit of free time, but I’ve been so swamped with this, and he’s been so busy with Leblon that in the past 60 days we haven’t had a lot to work on…It’s hard to take on any more clients, but it’s a fun thing for us to do, when we have time to do it.
What’s your approach when creating cocktails?
The most important thing when making drinks is, “Who are drinking your drinks?” It’s not so much like, can I show off by using unknown spirits, bizarre things, or things that only fit my palate? To me it’s really important that you take into consideration who you’re making drinks for.
What’s a great simple cocktail recipe for people to make at home?
I really enjoy stirred cocktails, Manhattans in particular. A pretty simple cocktail that I’ve really been enjoying lately, and all of the ingredients you can find at any nice spirits store, is called a Pancho Villa. It’s an ounce and a half of Casa Noble Reposado tequila, half an ounce of Aperol, half an ounce of Carpano Antica and three or four dashes of Fee Brothers peach bitters. Stir that out, strain it and garnish with a very small orange peel. It’s like a Manhattan with energy. It’s got a little bit more sugar from Aperol. Sugar gives you a buzz like anything else does, so it has a warming effect. The tequila’s seemingly hotter and has more spice to it than whiskey does. So it’s nice and bright and energetic. You really can’t mess that up if you get the proportions right.
If you could only drink one more cocktail, what would it be?
Probably a perfectly made pina colada on a pool deck in Tahiti or Hawaii. That would be a nice way to finish it off I guess. I don’t know if that’s the only cocktail that I could ever have moving forward, but my last cocktail, that would be pretty nice on a sunny pool deck somewhere sipping a pina colada would be nice last drink to have.