The world is flat. Thomas L. Friedman’s metaphor for the global economy also applies to the cocktail world. Increased communication channels, the rise of the internet and guest bartending stints have led to unprecedented exchange of ideas. At the forefront of the movement are bartenders like Christy Pope and Chad Solomon, who rose through Manhattan’s ranks before relocating to Los Angeles to help Audrey Saunders, chef Mark Peel and GM Jay Perrin launch The Tar Pit. The duo recently joined me at their Art Moderne cocktail palace to discuss the transition.
Food GPS: How did you familiarize yourself with the L.A. scene?
Pope: We’ve been out here various times over the years for consulting projects, so we had a pretty good idea for the landscape, cocktail wise. We’re very familiar with Eric [Alperin], who we worked with in the past. He’s doing The Varnish. We obviously know about Cedd’s places, and Marcos [Tello], with what he’s done with The Sporting Life. We know about Copa d’Oro and Vincenzo [Marianella] and all the various things that are going on. So we were pretty familiar with the landscape. It seems like an exciting time to be here.
Solomon: Christy and I also came out here a couple years ago, when we did a project with Hennessy. We did numerous stops around the country. We came here and already knew Marcos at that point, but started to meet some of the other players. Also, Sammy Ross had come out from New York and done Comme Ca, and we were here during that opening, so we knew all the Comme Ca bartenders from that original crew. We met all the Seven Grand guys. We met Damian Windsor at the Hennessy event. And after Marcos really started to organize The Sporting Life, every year, we saw all of those guys in New Orleans. Between those elements and coming out here and checking in with everybody, we’ve had standing relationships with everybody and knew these bars.
Food GPS: What’s the difference between the L.A. and New York cocktail scenes?
Solomon: The only difference between here and back east is that New York has had a longer time to grow. What’s interesting about L.A. is that in the span of two years, it’s grown at lightning speed. The existing players are here. The next layer of expansion with cocktail bars is going to be, in short order, saturated in terms of the volume of bars.
Food GPS: Are there elements from the New York cocktail culture that you’d like to see here, that don’t exist yet, or that you’re bringing?
Solomon: We have our approach to cocktails, but L.A. has taken on a bit more of the New York technique when it comes to cocktail making, much more than the San Francisco influence. San Francisco and New York, ten years ago, were two very different animals. Because of communication, relationships, because of the internet, that line has been blurred to the point that there isn’t that big of a difference…Creatively, we’re looking to play with other spirits, and give them more attention. We’re always looking to push ourselves into creating new flavor profiles. On the other side, our focus is changing the guest experience. It’s been so much that the experience is academic, the cocktail’s being worshipped, the bartender’s become deified, and not necessarily in a good direction, so we kind of want to let the air out of the tires a little bit and be like, hey, this is cocktails, this is fun.
Pope: One thing that L.A. has historically on the cocktail scene is the Hollywood element…You look at the ’30s and ’40s, there’s a lot going on here in L.A. with cocktails, and that feeling of glam, that beautiful ode to Hollywood, is something that’s really inherent here, and something that helped us influence the way we wanted to The Tar Pit to feel and be, which was kind of this throwback to the supper club, Hollywood glamour, having Bogie and Bacall, or Bette Davis, at your bar. There was just that certain element of glam that greatly influenced cocktails. We want to help revive what was naturally inherent in cocktails from that era.
Solomon: At the same time, L.A., after Prohibition, was ground zero for tiki.
Pope: Very true.
Solomon: Don the Beachcomber opened here in Hollywood. That was a totally different take on bars and cocktails. There was a whole new fun element that is inherent here.
Food GPS: How did the two of you become so interested in cocktails?
Pope: I’d been working at Milk & Honey. I got hired the Thursday before 9/11. Because of the way that downtown was after that event, it was very slow, so I needed to not only work at Milk & Honey. I applied for The Cellar Bar, and that’s where I met Chad. We would talk when we were working, and started telling him about Milk & Honey. He started visiting and saw what we were doing at Milk & Honey. This was the first year that it was open. We were all getting a feel for this thing called the cocktail. People like Dale [DeGroff] would come in and tell stories. You’d want to go home and read about that, so we started going back in history. For me, it was all about finding the back story to certain liquors and certain cocktails, being around people like Dale, and someone like Ted Haigh coming into the bar, hearing that there’s this great pre-story to this thing called the cocktail that I hadn’t known much about…All of us who worked there started egging each other on…We all kind of organically grew together in that sense. Being really wrapped up in the history and taking charge to learn more about it is what really interested me in cocktails. Obviously there’s the artistic element of mixing drinks, understanding balance and flavor, what a certain spirit brings against another, and all that. I would say, for me, my general interest in cocktails started from a historic angle.
Solomon: For me, bartending was a sheer accident. Before 9/11, I had been working in film production in the city for two years. 9/11 happened and they stopped filming indefinitely at that point. A buddy of mine said, “Hey, you should jump behind a bar in the interim, until production starts up again.” He told me about this place called Milk & Honey, which was already an urban legend. It’s a secret bar that stays open until the last guest leaves. He mentioned, if you get a job there, there are rules, and it’s very particular, but if you work there, you’ll learn how to make these amazing cocktails…Sasha didn’t need anybody at that point…The Bryant Park Hotel had just opened, and it was the new boutique hotel. Christy and I interviewed on the same day. In the next couple weeks, we had a shift together and started talking. What else do you do? I work at this place called Milk & Honey. I told her about my experience there. Shortly after that we started dating. She took me into Milk & Honey and I went and sat at the bar. Joseph Schwartz was bartending and he made me a Silver Lining, which is his drink. It wasn’t like a light bulb going on, it was like being struck by lightning. To watch Joseph work, he was very purposeful…He was very detail oriented, and his drink tasted like nothing I had before. I had been bartending for a couple months, and the question was, “Why is he doing this, and I’m not doing this? How do I get my drinks to taste like that?” It just started the questions…We had access to all this stuff at the Bryant Park, and all of eau de vie on the back bar, the entire Marie Brassard line, things that you didn’t see. Prior to that, I liked to drink gin, I liked to drink whiskey, I liked to drink tequila, but not in cocktails.
Shortly after that, we met Dale. Dale opened the door in a number of ways in the interest level. The history and back story got me hooked, line and sinker. I just wanted to learn more, and when I communicated like that with people, and they responded to it, responded in such a positive manner. There was this visceral connection to what you were drinking because of this back story, it inspired me to want to learn more, so you could communicate that. We really dove in and sought out Gary [Regan] and Ted [Haigh] and Robert Hess, and we met all these guys early on and developed good friendships with these people and were able to be mentored along the way. We met Audrey, and Sasha was a great teacher. We were in the right place at the right time and kept feeding this interest. It kind of compounded in the perfect manner.
Pope: I tell everybody that I learned to bartend backwards. Most people in a bartending career have worked in various, numerous places, and the first things that they learn to make are a kamikaze or a Cosmo, or a lemon drop, whatever that might be. The first cocktails that I learned were flips or cobblers. It was six years into my career before I ever made a Cosmo because the types of drinks that we were making at Milk & Honey were those early cocktails that the whole industry was founded on. A very intrical point to me was after being at Milk & Honey and soaking in the culture and absorbing what that was about, and taking the time when I went home to read more and learn more and order vintage books on line, and things like that. I remember the first time I was working on the floor, I had come to this old book called “Just Cocktails,” this beautiful book we found online, and we started looking through all these old recipes, and a lot of recipes none of us knew. I would go in, and me and Joseph happened to generally work together. Me and Joseph would make different ones, and I remember this one called a Casino, and it just looked so good, and we made it. It was so delightful. Then I gave it to a guest, and they just went bananas. It was like the most rewarding feeling to know that something I researched and looked after and thought looked good – and then Joseph and I played around, because sometimes with those older recipes you have to tweak them a little bit, they’re written in ways that don’t translate to today, so we tweaked it out – and to have that person be so genuinely happy over something that you helped deliver them, it’s just a rewarding experience. It just feeds you to continue on that path.
Food GPS: Would you consider yourselves bartenders or mixologists?
Food GPS: How come?
Solomon: I guess you could say mixology is a component of a bartender’s job. There are certain people – and this is an argument that’s never going to stop – part of our problem with the word mixologist, is that there’s an entitlement, and right now there’s no established standards. Anyone can call themselves a mixologist, and it’s kind of hollow. There are bartenders who practice different levels of mixology, but being a bartender is an all-encompassing job. There are a number of hats that you have to wear, and tasks and skill sets that you have to juggle as a bartender. I guess if you’re just a bartender and just creating drinks, and just doing trainings, then mixologist consultant/consulting mixologist kind of makes sense. I think bartender is a fine moniker that we’re proud.
Pope: I think bartender encompasses everything that the trade and the craft is. Being the ultimate bartender is a very lofty goal. If you look at the people who are consummate bartenders, they have great personalities, they put people at ease, they’re adept physically at what they’re doing behind the bar, they’re adept mentally with the choices that they make when they give people drinks, they’re adept at being able to mix with skill and ease, and they do it with a smile on their face. If you look at bartending as a trade and a craft, then I just think bartender encompasses the whole aspect of what you really want to be able to deliver.
Food GPS: What was the process like collaborating on the cocktail menu at The Tar Pit?
Solomon: First of all, Christy and I have been working together going on nine years now. We met Audrey in early 2005. We knew who Audrey was. We were very familiar with her. We met her one night at Milk & Honey, and I happened to luck out and be hired at the Flatiron Lounge, to get on deck to be on the opening crew at Pegu. So this all started back then. Audrey and I started to forge a professional relationship, a creative relationship, and very strong friendship where we connected on a creative level. We understand how each other’s minds work on a creative level. That relationship has always carried through, even though I left Pegu, and we devoted each other to Cuff & Buttons consulting, that relationship has always been close and in contact, and at a certain point, after a couple years of consulting for Christy and I, and after looking around at what we wanted to do and how we wanted to move forward, we wanted to go to the next level of ownership, especially traveling around and seeing all these opportunities in different places, we had a much clearer perspective on the board of what was out there, and so we decided to sit down and partner with Audrey to move forward. So that’s how that started. Then in terms of collaborating on the menu, essentially what’s happening is two worlds coming together within this group. You have the Audrey/Pegu side, and you have the Milk & Honey side, and I happen to work in both families. Out of all the New York bars and ideologies, approach to drink making, I’d say that they’re the closest, and there are a lot of shared ideals, and so it’s a very natural fit.
To a degree, there’s a hybridization creatively, coming together, and when we get together, the Night Marcher being a perfect example of us kind of working as a group. We had a germ of an idea for a drink. We knew that we wanted to revisit tiki, but we didn’t just want to do faithful revivals of Don Beach or Trader Vic drinks. We wanted to take our own spin on it. We all agreed that we wanted to create new flavor profiles. In the post, some of those drinks were more juice heavy. We wanted to get away from the juicy juice element to be a little bit more spirituous, spicier, but we also didn’t want to limit ourselves to the South Pacific. We were interested in moving forward with flavors from Latin America, the Caribbean, from Southeast Asia, all the way through the Middle East. There are a number of tropical climates throughout the world with very interesting flavors to bring into that style of drink making. The Night Marcher, we had this idea and really just started Audrey’s Jamaican Firefly, her fresh version of a Dark and Stormy, and plugging in from there. The way we work creatively is kind of a round robin. Somebody would add something in, and then we’d all digest it as a group, and somebody else would throw something at it. How about this, or that? We have a reputation for when we go to create a drink, creating endless versions of it, to get it dialed in. It’s kind of round robin, constantly tweaking, this works, this doesn’t, and constantly making minute adjustments until it’s dialed in.
Pope: Cocktail creation, and really the entire project creation, the key word for the three of us has been fun.
Solomon: We get together and laugh and kind of egg each other on and build upon what someone else lays down until somebody goes, you know, I think it’s there.
Pope: No idea is a bad idea. The sky’s not the limit. We’re shooting for Mars. You know what I mean? There’s a funny saying that Audrey has whenever you’re tweaking out drinks, and you’re not quite sure where to go next, and you really have this far out there idea, she’s like, “Alright, do you want to push it over a cliff?” We’re always looking to push it over a cliff. Sometimes it really works, and sometimes it totally falls apart. It’s that element of playing to really make the Rubik’s Cube fit.
Solomon: The creative process is a lot of fun. We really enjoy it, and that’s where a lot of ideas are born from.
Food GPS: How often do you anticipate changing the menu?
Solomon: We’ve always been, and continue to be, pretty set on seasonal. Since this is the opening, we will – especially now that we’ve got open – we will look to make probably more changes in a frequent manner, and keep adding until we reach a certain level – then it will change seasonally.
Food GPS: What was your first cocktail memory?
Pope: I have several kind of along the way that are integral memories. One of my first memories was the first time I went to Milk & Honey. I was living on the Lower East Side. I lived in Chinatown, and Milk & Honey is on Eldridge Street, which is on the Lower East Side, and I’d walk down Eldridge Street to get to my apartment. This is right when Milk & Honey first started opening, and that was a pretty desolate street. There wasn’t a whole lot going on Eldridge. If you go there now, Lower East Side is hugely popular, and there’s a ton of establishments, but at the time, Milk & Honey was a lone solider. Obviously, it being a more hidden destination at that. My roommate at the time, he was a musician and worked in the same area, he had been in a couple times and kept telling me about this place and he took me, and he very secretly stuck me around the corner and he made the call and I walk into Milk & Honey for the first time, and we had very simple drinks. I had a Moscow Mule, and he had a tequila and grapefruit, and the Moscow Mule blew me away with the fresh ginger. That was the first time I ever had a real fresh ginger drink, you know, where Sasha squeezes the ginger. And the tequila and grapefruit was astounding. It was the first time that someone had squeezed real fresh grapefruit. Something as simple as tequila and grapefruit was life changing. None of my bar experiences up to that point had paralleled the beautiful simplicity that was in front of me. I was just sitting there talking, and the whole feel and vibe of the place was really great. Sasha was talking about how it was getting busier and he’d have to find somebody for the floor and I was like – I was doing other things in my life, I was a DJ and never thought about working in a bar – but that moment of being wrapped up in those drinks and being in good company – really feeling that vibe – I was like, I’ll do it, I’ll be your floorperson. That’s how I got involved in the Milk & Honey family.
The next integral cocktail moment for me was, I took a class with Dale DeGroff at the Culinary Institute, and he took us through a tasting, a three night course, 12 cocktails. The one that really struck me was the Blood and Sand, just the idea of sweet vermouth, Cherry Herring, Scotch and orange juice working together in that way, and being so delicious, that just opened so many doors in my mind. And then as I got more integrated into the work I was doing at Milk & Honey and seeing what everybody was doing when I started wanting to participate by doing all the things bartenders were doing behind the bar, that story of the Casino, where I was taking my own time and researching the history and lore of different drinks, and finding this recipe that I thought looked really good and I was working with Joseph, playing around with it, and just finding this perfect balance for it and giving it to someone and that person being so genuinely thrilled that I had given them something they never had before kind of opened a door. That was the moment that I thought, I can go this path.
Solomon: For me, it would be what I said before, being served the Silver Lining, the texture of the egg white, the glass with the big piece of ice, Joseph and his suspenders and his arm garters, it was an encapsulating experience. Especially in New York in those days, you had bottle service culture was waning at the end. You already had the tech crash, but bottle service had been the big thing at the end of the ’90s. The Meatpacking District was not even really on the map yet. There was nothing really over there other than Florent. The old Sex Club had closed, and Pastis was there. It was still like the red velvet days with doormen. Who are you? Are you on the list? Milk & Honey was a very radical, 180-degree counterpart to that. There was a democracy at the door. If you can behave yourself in an adult like manner, then you’re welcome here. I don’t care who you are. The idea of the bar wasn’t built on cocktails, it was built on intelligent conversation, with good company. The totality of that environment was without a doubt memorable.
Food GPS: Who are some other bartenders that you think are especially notable or inspiring?
Pope: There are a lot of them out there today. For me, obviously my personal mentors are Sasha Petraske, Joseph Schwartz, Audrey Saunders. I’ll include Chad. Even though we’ve been working together along the way, he’s very much a mentor in that we bat off of each other all the time. As far as looking as people in the industry, I love seeing what Eric has done here at The Varnish. I’m so thrilled to be working with Marcos Tello. He’s really done so much for the L.A. scene out here. What’s Richie’s doing at Dutch Kills is awesome. Having worked with Ryan Magarian, I really appreciate the work that he’s done on a consulting level. I know I’m forgetting people, but off the top of my head.
Solomon: It’s been interesting, because the entire first wave of bartenders who inhabited Milk & Honey in the beginning, and the entire opening staff at Pegu, if you look at everybody – with the exception of Wilder and Elizabeth, who have gone on to successful music careers – everybody else has stayed in the business and they’ve all grown. From the opening crew at Pegu, everybody is doing really amazing work. They’re all fantastic bartenders. Other people who aren’t part of those groups, our friend in London, Tony Conigliaro, is somebody who is incredibly fascinating. His creativity and the work that he’s doing is some of the most interesting, without a doubt. I think Marcos, up and coming, is really the embodiment of the consummate bartender, who embodies all of the skill sets, is a really fantastic host at the bar, and it’s been really exciting to watch him grow and to have him on board with us here. The way Richie has expanded Sasha’s bars. Joseph is somebody in particular for me and Christy, he doesn’t get a lot of credit, and he’s kind of the unsung hero, but he is Little Branch. When Sasha was away in London, opening Milk & Honey for a year-and-a-half, Joseph was the heart and soul of Milk & Honey, it went from being…
Pope: He didn’t just foster me, he fostered Richie and Eric.
Solomon: Joseph is behind the scenes, but he’s been…
Pope: Huge presence…
Solomon: And he doesn’t really get a lot of credit. Eric obviously for coming out here. Those are all of our friends and typical answers, but still, they’re doing great work. One thing that’s interesting on the M&H side of the family, is the way Richie has taken Dutch Kills – and it was kind of an expansion of Little Branch – is he’s really taken the Petraske model and done his own thing with it. Dutch Kills is his thing, and he’s done some great things over there.
Pope: It’s interesting to watch people collaborate. Richie and Giuseppe have collaborated well. The whole thing about this is finding your best partners to collaborate with. That’s what’s been fun about this. Me, Chad and Audrey to collaborate on this level to tweak out The Tar Pit.
Solomon: Ryan Magarian, also, we worked with him and his approach to consulting, the amount of detail and the thought that he has put in, it’s so much deeper than, okay, we’re going to go teach you these recipes. Or I’m going to create this menu for you. I don’t know another consultant, of all the consultants we have worked with, who approaches it in the same way that he does. We really benefited by spending three years with him thinking about just the way you go in and teach somebody, and get them motivated to inspire them. He does some really amazing work. His influence is really important in L.A. because of what he did with SBE. Those are bars that are 180-degrees different from the cocktail houses that we come from, very different clientele, and yet he’s taking craft cocktails and acclimating a totally different clientele to this, which has made this better for everybody, especially with us coming in.
Pope: As interestingly, not only is it a different clientele, but it’s a different caliber of bartender, in that you have bartenders – we’re lucky in that we have people who seek us out who are very interested in this craft and looking to grow and they know this is something they want to stick around in for awhile – and Ryan tends to work with bartenders who have a lot of other avenues in their life that they’re looking at, and this is something that they’re doing for the time being. When you’re working with someone that maybe this isn’t the career they want to keep forever. Maybe this isn’t the style to engage those people, and he has a very adept ability to make people do that.
Food GPS: What do you think is a great simple recipe for people to make at home?
Solomon: I think the most basic things. A simple sour. A simple daiquiri. An Old Fashioned and a Manhattan. You’ve all got three-ingredient wonders there that are so simplistic, and if people haven’t had those, they’re kind of revelatory.
Food GPS: What’s your Old Fashioned recipe?
Solomon: Two ounces of spirit. Generally an Old Fashioned is thought of as a whiskey drink. It can be rye whiskey. It can be Bourbon. It can be rum. It can be an aged tequila. An Old Fashioned is an incredibly versatile template to work with and fun to play around in. Cognac. Find what works for you. A very simple recipe is two ounces of spirit, a quarter ounce of a 1:1 ratio of simple syrup or a sugar cube.
Pope: You can play around with the sweetener. It can be agave or honey.
Solomon: Instead of simple syrup, maple syrup, honey, agave nectar. You can use Demerrera syrup as opposed to a white sugar syrup. Just playing with your sweeteners is fun. A couple dashes of bitters. And then manipulating a citrus twist. Is it a lemon twist, an orange twist or a grapefruit twist? So depending on what the spirit is, it’s kind of a Rubik’s Cube of constantly turning it and seeing. We’ve exploited that. We’re always plugging things into that. Even though it’s a spirituous drink when it’s made and balanced out, we’re big fans of measuring. It’s so simple to do. Measure your ingredients. Stir and you end up with the right amount of dilution, even though it’s a spirituous drink, most people find that palatable.
Food GPS: If you could only drink one more cocktail, what would it be?
Pope: “What’s your favorite cocktail?” I must get asked that question five times in one night. It’s impossible to say one cocktail. Even if I was given that choice right at this moment, if you could only have one more for the rest of your life, it’s such an of-the-moment decision. It’s just where you are that day. Do you want something soft and silky with an egg white? Are you in the mood for something citrusy? Do you want something stirred and strong? It’s kind of where you’re at, what you’re feeling, what your needs are for that moment, and your favorite cocktail in that moment is always going to be different.
Solomon: My regular answer is, and this is kind of cheeky, it’s the one in my hand. Where am I and what am I doing? It would be very tough choosing between an Old Fashioned and a daiquiri. An Old Fashioned and a daiquiri are simple drinks, but both are delicious in their own right.