THOMAS WOLFE WAS WRONG

Sorry Tom.  Apparently you can go home again.  The Beachbum left Los Angeles in 2006, after a lifetime of inebriated indolence there.  Indolence came easy in L.A., but it was often difficult to achieve inebriation — especially if your preferred alcohol delivery system was the cocktail.

Four years ago, no bar in town seemed aware that there was a cocktail renaissance going on in the rest of the world.  Friends would come back from New York with tales of magical places that served cocktails spun from tea-infused gin, bedecked with fresh herbs.  We dismissed these hysterical delusions as a symptom of some airborne virus contracted on the flight home.  Fresh herbs?  In a cocktail?

Don’t get us wrong.  Great drinks could be had in Los Angeles — Sidecars at Musso & Frank, Margaritas at El Cholo, anything at Tiki-Ti — but these places had all been around forever, while new bars bungled even the most standard drinks.  And their bespoke offerings, if they had any, were the cocktail equivalent of Russian roulette:  if the concoction didn’t kill you, it would invariably scare the shit out of you.

In a city with some of the most celebrated chefs in the world, the disconnect between the kitchen and the bar was also staggering:  At one internationally acclaimed Santa Monica restaurant, the barman made us a Martini by pouring gin — and nothing else —  into a cocktail glass.  Our reaction?  We were thrilled that he got the glass right.

So imagine our surprise last April, when we went home for the first time in four years … and found ourselves smack in the middle of a cocktail revolution.

The occasion of our visit was a Beachbum Berry Remixed book signing sponsored by Zaya Gran Reserva, held at Caña Rum Bar.  The location was apt:   Caña’s head bartender, John Coltharp, is a talented Tikiphile who serves pitch-perfect versions of classic Don The Beachcomber drinks, from the original Zombie to obscurities like the Port au Prince.  When we arrived early to set up, John hit us with a breakfast Daiquiri so good we lost all interest in actual breakfast.  Not that we needed solid food after Caña general manager Joel Black’s nourishing take on the Piña Colada.  Recipe: 3/4 ounce each pineapple juice and sweetened condensed milk, 1/2 ounce each lime juice and orange juice, 1 1/2 ounces coconut water, and 2 ounces Zaya Gran Reserva rum.

Come evening the guests streamed in.  It was a veritable getting-high school reunion of our old drinking buddies, from local louche luminaries Ted “Doctor Cocktail” Haigh and Chris “Ask Chris” Nichols to Tiki Revivalists Sven Kirsten, Cass McClure, Kevin and Jody, and Kari Hendler (that’s her photo below of Cass, the Bum, and Doc in conference at Caña).

There were new faces too.  We were chuffed to chat with Los Angeles Times cocktail chroniclers Rip Georges and Jod Kaftan, Marleigh Riggins of Sloshed!, Matt “Rum Dood” Robold, and connoisseur’s connoisseur Wyatt Peabody, the writer and adventurer whose thirst for the exotic regularly leads him on treks into the Oaxacan Sierras in search of traditional village mezcaleros — mystical Mexican moonshiners who craft mezcal drop by drop, infusing it with pine needles, cinnamon bark, and even smoked chicken meat.

Since he was between expeditions, Wyatt acted as our spirit guide to L.A.’s downtown cocktail bars, many of which lie within an easy walk of one another.  These words bear repeating:  an easy walk.  Downtown has always been pedestrian-averse, a shooting gallery that made the street scenes in Blade Runner look like the Cotswolds.  But that was four years ago.  We’re not sure what happened between then and now (allegedly the pacification was a residual effect of the Staples Center, proving that bad architecture can have good, if unintended, consequences), but the walk from Caña to our next watering hole, Rivera, occurred without having to file a police report.

Blood Sugar Sex Magic sounds like a Japanese erectile-dysfunction pill for diabetics, but it’s actually a cocktail — a very good cocktail, fashioned from rye, red pepper agave nectar, and fresh herbs, all blended so skillfully by Rivera’s Julien Cox that no one flavor grandstands, except for a welcome endnote of basil.  We also enjoyed his Barbacoa (mezcal, chipotle, jalapeño and ginger, playfully garnished with a strip of beef jerky) and a palate-cleanser from the kitchen called the Caballito (a gonzo pousse-café with alternating layers of cold asparagus and hot white bean purées, topped with a fried shallot).  And who could resist a drink called the Kentucky Tiki?  Certainly not the Bum, who was well-pleased with Cox’s canny blend of Bourbon, Campari, pineapple syrup and falernum, which somehow combined to taste like a tart strawberry shortcake.

A short cab ride to Western Avenue brought us to our next stop.  Trader Vic would have loved La Descarga, a Cuban-themed club that conjures the romantic decay of Havana with the same dreamlike atmospherics that Vic used to create his faux-Polynesian lounges.  Descarga’s front door opens on a perfectly art-directed midcentury Habanero’s hovel a la Graham Greene, where a hostess in period dress escorts you into a walk-in closet lined with vintage tropical suits.  You emerge onto a spiral staircase that leads you down to the lair of mixologist Pablo Moix, whose cocktails follow the thematic through-line with vibrant tropical flavors.

In short order, Pablo hit us with his bracing Brisa de Oaxaca (mezcal, yellow Chartreuse, lime, orange, sugar), followed by an intriguing Poco de Piña (pisco, Benedictine, lemon, pineapple syrup) and a beautifully balanced rhum agricole punch called the Tropical Holiday (pictured above).  But his final trope, a dessert drink called the Bad Spaniard, made the biggest splash.  Recipe: 1 ounce each Cruzan Blackstrap rum, Averna Amaro, and Tres Leches liqueur, plus an egg yolk, shaken and strained into a cocktail coupe and topped with cinnamon.

All that rum had enabled us, as Malcolm Lowry so aptly put it, to “drink ourselves sober.”  It was then we realized that we’d been here before.  Descarga was built on the site of an old dive bar called the Blacklite, a sub-Bukowski boîte frequented by junkies, punk rockers, and transvestites.  If there were any cross-dressers at Descarga, they were too well-dressed for us to tell.

Our next bar was The Varnish, a neo-speakeasy with an L.A. pedigree:  it’s located behind Cole’s P.E. Buffet (pictured above), one of the city’s oldest eateries, which since 1908 has been feuding with its downtown rival Philippe’s over who invented the French Dip sandwich.  This makes The Varnish a perfect fit for barman Marcos Tello, an L.A. native steeped in home-town history, particularly of the liquid sort.  His original rum drinks reference Donn Beach’s rugged, full-bodied 1930s style, but Marcos puts his own forward-thinking stamp on them as well.  We were particularly impressed by his Pineapple-Cilantro Julep, but he managed to top it with the brawny MacArthur Park Swizzle.  “San Francisco has a Golden Gate Swizzle,” Marcos explained while swizzling our drink with manic intensity, “so I figured it was high-time L.A. had one too.”  Recipe: 2 ounces Clement VSOP rum, 3/8 ounce each falernum and honey syrup (3:1 honey to water, heated till honey dissolves), swizzled with crushed ice and topped with a 1/2 ounce float of pimento dram.

The Varnish’s other resident mixologist, Eric Alperin, hails from New York, but he’s got L.A. cocktails down cold.  Literally.  Eric is Mr. Freeze, an ice evangelist who brooks no compromise when it comes to chilling a drink.  “Ice is to cocktails what flame is to meat,” he told us as we toured The Varnish’s freezer space — easily twice the size of a typical bar’s — where Eric freezes water into six-inch rectangles that fit snugly into Collins glasses, when he’s not crushing cubes into perfectly oval pellets or carving chunks the exact circumference of an old-fashioned glass.

Aside from the ice, what we liked most about The Varnish’s drinks — and Caña’s, Rivera’s, and Descarga’s — was what they were not.  They weren’t Manhattan-style craft cocktails, nor were they riding the new waves of San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle.  The drinks of Coltharp, Black, Cox, Moix, Tello and Alperin struck us as uniquely Angeleno, combining SoCal-centric ingredients with the freewheeling experimentation of contemporary L.A. cuisine, along with a tip of the hat to the theatrical exoticism of post-Prohibition Hollywood barmen.

It’s a damned good combination.  And it’s about damned time.

CAÑA RUM BAR

LA DESCARGA

RIVERA

THE VARNISH

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