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Joe Keeper on Cocktail Culture and Spirits in LA

<a href="http://elizabethdanielsphotography.com">Elizabeth Daniels 11/12</a>
Elizabeth Daniels 11/12

Bar Keeper, on Sunset in Silver Lake, inhabits a retro-looking storefront with a neon sign that's easy to miss in rush hour traffic. When it opened, on April Fool's Day 2006, a lot of people thought it was a bar. But Bar Keeper only started selling liquor last year. What Bar Keeper sells, and still specializes in, is unique and antique barware. The shop also deals in mixers, syrups and bitters (it is the largest collection of bitters in the state, and maybe in the country). But well before Bar Keeper got its liquor license to sell spirits, proprietor Joe Keeper had inadvertently become something of bellwether for the cocktail world.

Why did you open Bar Keeper?
I bought my house in Silver Lake in 1993, when it was not such a great neighborhood, and my wife and I were at a point where we could make some money off of it. I was working as a reality TV producer and feeling unhappy about it. So I called my dad, who's an architect, and asked him if he did what he loved or worked just to support us kids -- there are 8 of us. He said, 'I never worried about you kids, I did what I did because I loved it.' So I had that in my head and thought about it and realized I needed to make a change. I sat down and made a list of all of the things I thought I could do with my life that would be worthwhile. Then I read an article in the Wall Street Journal that talked about how kids of the '80s were missing out on the art of drinking, and this idea started forming. I loved the idea of having a store that celebrates this part of culture, that respects what was for a long time the only real mainstream deviant behavior. When I started out, I started sourcing and selling vintage barware. There's a reverence to it that people often overlook, it's almost religious.

Is it religious because of all of the different tools or because of the feeling you get when you drink?
Making a cocktail is a ritual. I mean, for some people, it's about getting drunk, and that's fun, but I believe in drinking to honor the culture, to honor the makers of the spirits and to remember how it can be fun. I didn't have a liquor license for the first five years I had the shop, so my idea was the have a shop that showcase the culture and ritual and encourages people to see beyond just getting fucked up. Drinking a cocktail is a way for people to come together. And in this economy, it's an affordable indulgence, especially if you buy the supplies and liquor and make it at home. Drinking out is a show, an experience, and also worthy of a little splurge. It's not about getting drunk, it's about enjoying the spirits just like playing the guitar isn't about playing a song, it's about enjoying the sound.

What are the most popular items at your store?
What I make money off of is the liquor and the tools, but that's not why most people come into the store. Typically my customers come in not just to buy, but to ask questions about things that are no longer part of our vernacular. To ask about the history of this or the definition of that. When to shake, why you shake or why you stir. The highball is a good example. Do you know why it's called a highball? When trains were powered by steam, the engineer would stop at petticoat junction and have the wait until the engine got back up to speed. There was a ball that showed the boiler pressure. He would run out at a stop and ask the bartender at the nearest bar for a highball if he was in a rush -- a drink you make in the glass by pouring in the spirit, juice and soda, and stirring it -- a way of letting the bartender know he had to drink quickly and then get back to his train before the pressure was at its highest level, which they called "highballing."

How often do bartenders stop into the store?
All the time. Eric Alperin was here yesterday afternoon, Michel Dozois, Marcos Tello, Matt Biancaniello all came in recently.

What do they ask for or what do they come in to buy?
It's not always to buy something. They like keeping up with cocktail culture, and I'm talking to barmen all over the world, historians, that sort of thing. But I source only hard-to-find spirits. I seek out the smaller distilleries and that's what a lot of people come out to see, what's out there besides the Bacardi.

What are people calling and asking about right now?
Rye is big now, it's been big. The manufacturers didn't see it it coming so we're going through the aged stuff. The light whiskey is big -- which is unaged rye or bourbon. A lot of Pisco and a lot of amaros which are added modifiers for cocktails.

What bars do you like going to?
Because I'm based in Silver Lake, I'm really downtown centric. To me, cocktails are like fine sushi: you sit at a bar, you watch it being made for you, and it's special because you're there, as opposed to going to the grocery store and buying prepacked sushi. It's art at the same time.

There are three kinds of bars: mixology, dive and pour. I have no use for pour bars. I love dive bars, that's where you get a beer and a shot and a sticky floor. And I love mixology bars. I'm a huge fan of The Varnish, La Descarga, on Western, and The Famous, in Glendale. I'm a big fan of The Drawing Room, around the corner on Hillhurst. I like Neat in Glendale. 1886 in Pasadena. It used to be that bartenders only knew 12 cocktails, now bartenders know 150 cocktails.

The older I get, what I realize is that the bar is the atmosphere, and the mixologist is the artist. Typically now I find what I like and I'll follow the mixologist wherever they go.

·All Cocktail Week 2012 Coverage [~ELA~]

Bar Keeper

3910 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90029