The Father of Our Country was a Mixologist

Egg Nog has always been a holiday tradition, but it’s always been the store-bought variety that makes its way to most homes. A couple of years ago my friends Dana and James Pike mentioned a special home-made version that most definitely packs a wallop. The recipe comes from none other than our first president, George Washington himself. The Father of Our Country was indeed a mixologist. While you can easily find the recipe online, we’ve posted it at IEShineOn.com as our Cocktail of the Month for December
, along with a few other holiday delights. Cheers!

 

Cole’s and The Varnish, Revisited

All it took was one trip to Cole’s Pacific Electric Buffet and the speakeasy bar The Varnish in downtown Los Angeles to know we would soon return. So when Beth and I joined Susan, Gordon and Kristen DesCombes in February to celebrate Kristen’s birthday, we knew our journey into LA would not be without an encore visit. IMG_0809

It was just after Christmas that our group, along with Lauren DesCombes, dropped by Cole’s for French Dip sandwiches, only to find our way into the back-room Varnish speakeasy bar – two of the top cocktail bars in LA.

After several stops around town to start the evening, we headed down to Sixth Street to Cole’s, minus Kristen, who had an early morning ahead. A Los Angeles institution since 1908, Cole’s claims to have originated the French Dip sandwich (Philippe’s, which also opened in LA in 1908, makes the same claim). Cole’s was founded on the ground floor of the old Pacific Electric Railway Building and is the oldest restaurant and bar in downtown LA. Through the years, it has seen its share of famous and infamous patrons, including 1940s-era gangster Mickey Cohen.

It was getting fairly late, and the restaurant’s rush period was already past. The front section and bar were still open, but the side room was already empty and dark. At the back end, the inconspicuous door to the hidden lounge remained unlocked. Inside The Varnish, more great old jazz and blues filled the air as our waiter quizzed us for our beverage preferences. The best thing about The Varnish is that you don’t need to order a specific cocktail, but simply let the waiter know the kind of drink you like. The wait staff and artists behind the bar then collaborate to create something special. Merely state your spirit of choice, as well as the style of beverage you favor (refreshing, heavy, sweet, etc.), and moments later you have a cocktail customized to your liking. Susan ended up with an Eastside, featuring vodka, lime, cucumber and mint. Gordon’s drink was the La Paloma – a mixture of tequila, lime, grapefruit and soda in a glass rimmed with sea salt. Beth had a virgin Raspberry Fix with muddled raspberries, lemon and soda water (regularly mixed with vodka). I enjoyed a Peacock – a blend of Cognac, Amaro ChiCiaro liqueur, sugar, Absinthe and garnished with a lemon peel. Very nice.

IMG_0812The speakeasy of the Prohibition era gave customers a back-room retreat where they could secretly enjoy their favorite beverages and other activities away from eye of the law (or perhaps along with the local peace officers). While more of a novel theme for today’s bars to pay tribute to “The Noble Experiment” of 1920-1933, the quiet and hospitable environment found at the speakeasy of today is very appealing and enjoyable.

As we examined the lounge, we realized we were the last customers in the house. It was time to quaff our final sips. We had exhausted our capacity for mid-week adventures, so Beth and I headed back to Upland. We agreed that it won’t be long before we head downtown again in search of more great cocktails and bars, and with more friends in tow to relish the experience.

(Note: we have already made plans for another visit to Coles and The Varnish in the days ahead)

Now You See It, Now You Don’t

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The combination of creativity in mixology and the recent re-birth of classic cocktails has elevated the spirits trade to new levels that I’ve not seen in my lifetime. The bartending profession has grown up rapidly from recent generations, when bartenders banged out drinks in rapid-fire succession. The craft of mixing cocktails has definitely changed since then, with establishments making their beverage presentations a priority, with fresh ingredients, quality spirits and complex recipes, rather than only offering concoctions filled with “house” liquors, pre-mixed packaged mixers (like sweet-and-sour mix) or soda from the fountain. Sure, those drinks remain popular today, because that’s what so many of us grew up drinking (and because they are easier to order and quicker to mix – and they aren’t THAT bad).IMG_0816

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Today’s emphasis on excellence is bringing unprecedented success and popularity to top-quality drinking establishments. Many are capitalizing on inspired themes, including a number that have brought backdrinking’s golden age of the pre-Prohibition era, when bartenders were the center of attention at popular restaurants and bars, much like chefs at many of today’s restaurants. Bartenders who were masters of their craft held near-celebrity status.

There are a number of top-notch bars in downtown Los Angeles showcasing mixologists at the top of their game. So as a sequel to our December expedition to downtown watering holes, Beth and I joined Susan, Gordon and Kristen DesCombes and Kristen’s friend Zach Timm in another quest to find some of LA’s hidden whiskey bars.IMG_0808

Our first destination was the Seven Grand whiskey bar on Seventh at Grand (yeah, that location was easy to figure out). One of the trendiest and most-talked-about bars in Los Angeles, Seven Grand was packed the last time we dropped by. But a reasonably early evening visit in the middle of the week made this trip much more relaxing and afforded us a spot at the bar. We were treated to an up-close view of the awe-inspiring whiskey wall, in which the bartenders need a library-style rolling ladder to reach the upper levels.IMG_0797

As I took the last sips of my carefully crafted Old Fashioned, I went in search of a new speakeasy that was allegedly located somewhere in the building. Sure enough, the door to the Bar Jackal

ope was along the hallway leading to the restrooms. After reading the instructions on how to enter, we rang the bell and were greeted by Pedro Shanahan, the spirit guide for the new sipping lounge and tasting library located in the dimly lit back room. Pedro said the secret room had only been open a couple of weeks, so we felt privileged to be among the first to experience the truly top-shelf whiskeys not found in most bars.

If you’re not into sipping straight whiskey, Bar Jackalope serves only three cocktails – Manhattans, Old Fashioneds and Japanese Whisky Highballs – all crafted with hand-carved ice. The point is to sip personally selected amazing whiskey with tableside hospitality. The strategically lit shelves of a whiskey “locker” cover one of the walls, where customers keep their personal bottles of prized spirits under lock-and-key, ready for their return visit. Off to the side, a phonograph-style record player pipes out 1920s jazz and blues, and a door to the patio area gives guests the opportunity to slip out for a cigar. A book-cart filled with volumes about whiskeys separates the “whiskey library,” allowing only small groups to occupy each table in the 18-person capacity chamber. In fact, the rules on the door allow only parties of five or less, meaning our group was divided in half and spent the visit on opposite sides of the cozy quarters (albeit less than 10 feet apart).

IMG_0798A look at the whiskey menu demands a second glance. Several different Pappy Van Winkle bourbons stood out, but I still couldn’t bring myself to sample the expensive hard-to-find bourbon, despite the fact that this might be the only time I’d have the chance. I’ve seen reports indicating a single bottle of Pappy Van Winkle goes for hundreds (and even thousands) of dollars, depending on the age of the bourbon.

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Instead, Pedro suggested the 2013 Four Roses Limited Edition Single Barrel bourbon, of which one of his regulars claimed is the best bourbon he has tasted. It blew me away. The 12-year-old bourbon was very rich and smooth, boasting notes of vanilla and caramel. Pedro advised sticking with single barrels and recommended Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit Single Barrel, a 101-proof bourbon that was complex but not nearly as rich as the Four Roses sample. I thought I was done for the night, but Kristen passed along the rest of her glass of Old Forester 2013 Birthday bourbon, which was full, bold and filled my mouth with wonderful flavors. Lucky for me, she had an early morning ahead.

Pedro and the Seven Grand Whiskey Society also host monthly tastings, designed for all levels of experience. While we weren’t part of that during our visit, Pedro was an excellent guide through the journey of high-end spirits that we sampled.

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Claremont Heroes

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Mike Kuch mixing drinks at Heroes and Legends

Long gone are the days when downtown Claremont went to bed when the sun went down. The city of Claremont – specifically the Claremont Village – has truly become a destination location over the past couple of decades. The expansion of “Village West”  and crowd-driving events such as “Friday Nights Live”  has made it almost impossible to find a place to park on a Friday evening. Live music fills the public areas, and the downtown area remains alive well into the evening.

Much of the revival can be attributed to the addition of the Metrolink station years ago, which has inspired the opening of a number of restaurants and other places to enjoy a beverage. New eateries throughout the community have seemingly played off of each other and created a synergy that certainly appears to be working. Now, the Claremont Courier even publishes a blog monitoring local nightlife called Claremont After Hours.

One of my favorite places continues to be Heroes and Legends on Yale Avenue. Perhaps the reason is the “Cheers” environment where “everybody knows your name” (rather than Norm on Cheers, the “Dude” is my brother-in-law Dave Bosson), or the generous portions or the big beers, it’s always been one of our “go-to” places.

With the recent resurgence of classic cocktails, and the explosion of craft beers, Heroes is staying current. Much of the credit belongs to waiter/bartender Mike Kuch, who has helped build an admirable beverage menu to satisfy today’s discerning drinkers. In fact, I’m often torn whether to opt for a craft beer or well-crafted cocktails when I’m there, especially if Mike is working. Classic cocktails have a complexity that those who have not tried them would be surprised to discover. I highly recommend “Mike’s Manhattan.”

IMG_0007_2I decided to go with bourbon on my last visit, and Mike prepared several different cocktails that are classics that most people my age know best as something our parents drank.  Not anymore. My friends and I have developed a great appreciation for these traditional concoctions.

My first drink of the evening was a Manhattan, made with Bulleit rye whiskey, Antica Formula sweet vermouth, Angustora Bitters and a bar spoon of cherry juice. I prefer rye in my Manhattan, and I’ve developed a preference for Templeton Rye at home. Regardless, Mike makes a nice Manhattan.

Next up was and Old Fashioned, featuring bourbon, sugar, bitters and muddled orange and cherry. I closed the night with a Whiskey Sour consisting of bourbon, lemon juice, simple syrup and vigorously shaken egg whites to add froth before topping with bitters. Mike shakes the drink twice before pouring it – once to blend the egg and sugar, and then again once the bourbon has been added.

Len Seligman joined me with the Manhattan and Old Fashioned, but ventured to a variation of a Negroni, in which Mike substituted bourbon for gin. As expected, it included Campari, sweet vermouth and an orange wedge garnish.

Meanwhile, my friend Stan Van Horn was happy with his Manhattans, electing not to taint his palate with conflicting flavors. Can’t blame him, but the other cocktails were also delicious.