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).
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.
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.
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).
A 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.
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.