Aidan Demarest has been a central figure in the rise of downtown L.A.’s cocktail explosion. The Boston native and longtime actor was the opening GM at Seven Grand. He also worked at The Doheny and as the beverage director for The Edison, where he launched the nationally influential Radio Room guest bartending series. Now he’s getting ready to open First & Hope supper club in the shadow of Disney Hall, focusing on champagne cocktails. He also has a new venture, a consulting company called Tello/Demarest Liquid Assets, with trusted barman Marcos Tello. Demarest recently sat down to discuss his background, approach, and of course First & Hope.
How did Tello/Demarest Liquid Assets come about?
Honestly, the most exciting times in both of our careers is opening bars and restaurants, and not only that, but creating cocktail lists and relationships with brands. More and more, we got offers to jump to other places, and we didn’t think it was fair to the bars where we were working for us to lend our ideas to other places. We got some great offers on some exciting projects, like this one. There are a couple other things that we’re working on as well. Also, the chance to work with brands. How can we make this work where we can do all these things? That’s when we came up with the business plan, where we can branch out and say yes to everything, time permitting, and not have to make any apologies.
Where did you and Marcos first start working together?
He was part of the opening crew for Seven Grand, and so was I. It was really the birthplace for a lot of Los Angeles bartenders’ and operators’ careers. It’s sort of the Kevin Bacon of bars.
Why do you think that is?
It was an exciting time. It was kismet. Downtown exploded while the recession began. Three-and-a-half years ago, it was just the beginning of the recession. Downtown was really one of the only areas coming up. It was the baby toe for cocktails. Seven Grand was the first freestanding bar, not connected to a restaurant, that did a cocktail list of any merit. It was just one of those moments. All of us were learning. It was eight bartenders with varying levels of experience of mixology. Marcos and Damian [Windsor] had done some stuff over at The Hungry Cat, but all of us were really diving in with the commitment that we work with now, for the first time. Out of it came Damian and Marcos. Vincenzo [Marianella] had created the list over there. Later on, Eric Alperin came out from New York and was there, and at The Doheny. We were interested in the new way of making drinks and running bars.
How many years ago was that, four?
It seems like a lifetime ago. It’s amazing that we’re like the grandfathers of the whole thing and it’s four years ago. Four years ago I was digging around Bar Keeper or going to the Rose Bowl, trying to find absinthe fountains, digging around online, which was brand new. It was a research project online, at least for me, and thinking outside the box for a bar.
How much more room is there for growth in Los Angeles?
A ton. Because I’m immersed in the community, there’s still only 10 great bars in Los Angeles. When you compare that to New York, Chicago or San Francisco…San Francisco and New York especially. It’s fascinating to me that there are ten, but there’s a lot more room. The suburbs have not yet felt any of the waves of mixology, and they will. Orange County, San Diego, all of these huge packed cities have zero cocktail community going on, or just baby ones. The right bars, just like Seven Grand did – Seven Grand was a beautiful bar with a lot of whiskey that just happened to make some good drinks, and later brought in New York mixology. There are 45 bars in Los Angeles that are still open to that.
How did you become so interested in cocktails?
I had been in the business for 15 years before cocktails became a part of it…I always had loved spirits and I always had loved the creative aspect of spirits, even when I was pumping and dumping on Sunset Boulevard bars as an actor for years. I had always been interested in where flavors could go, but really, I got interested in spirits first, and for me the natural progression was you didn’t want to bastardize a beautiful spirit with a poorly constructed cocktail. My interest and my passion came with looking for more knowledge about spirits. With Seven Grand, my agenda was the most brown spirits that I could find. I loved being a librarian of a spirits collection. Mixologists – which I am not – then take those spirits that I bring to the table and go somewhere with them.
If you’re not a mixologist, then what are you?