Every other barman/woman in LA keeps pots of rosemary and mint growing next to their bowl of fresh citrus. Seasonal cocktails are not new to Los Angeles, but the skilled bartenders who produce them are multiplying. They are making their own syrups, bitters and vinegars. "Mixer" is finally a dirty word. Here to help the avid imbiber navigate this delightful new world, we present Strive for Five, a column where Eater highlights five outstanding drinks to try each month. Have a suggestion? Leave it in the comments.
Villain's Tavern: Venus Flytrap $12
1356 Palmetto Street, Downtown
When I saw the word "shrub" on Dave Whitton's menu recently, my first thought was that he was pruning bushes behind the bar. "When people ask, of course we tell them," says Whitton, "but I want my menu to be approachable, so I'm never going to say the drink contains vinegar." Bartenders are using house-made vinegars – also called shrubs – with increased frequency, but none are doing so with as deft a hand as Whitton. The drinks are sour only in a broad sense, they'll never make you pucker. At first, I was stuck on the Angel's Trumpet, a blend of Maker's 46, pineapple, pomegranate-ginger shrub, Bergamont Bitters and Goslings Ginger Beer served over crushed ice. But the Venus Flytrap's assertive tequila and gentle lavender and apricot are rather like a sneaky Westside spring. Chilly, sunny, and with the scent of flowers everywhere. The apricot-orange-muscat shrub has the viscosity of apricot puree. He tempers its bitterness and plays off the Milagro with some sea salt. Then, the whole thing is garnished with a long ribbon-like orange twist. From winter into spring.
FIG: Anise-Hysop Sour $12
101 Wilshire Blvd, Santa Monica
Tavis Chavez's background at The Varnish shines through whenever he lights a match to smoke a strip of citrus peel. There are sprays and syrups and infusions and house-made juice blends behind FIG's bar, all the better to pair with Chef Ray Garcia's menu of farm-to-table fare. Weeks ago, I spotted Chavez and Garcia together at the Wednesday Santa Monica Farmers Market. Coleman farms is a favorite of theirs, and recently, they picked up some Anise. No, not fennel. No, not anise seed. But Anise, the plant. It's bright green, but without the pungency of an herb. When blended into a syrup though, that licorice flavor wakes up. In the Anise Hysop cocktail, Chavez is tempering the green, Nolet's Gin-based drink with a bit of absinth and muddled rosemary. I felt like I was drinking something healthy. And then I got a healthy bonus buzz off of it.
The Charleston: Cucumber Cooler $11
2460 Wilshire Blvd, Santa Monica
Jet Tila is behind this place, but it's almost hard to tell. The chef is letting the nightlife aspect of his restaurant run the show, and though it's lots of fun, it's outshining his delicious menu. Fortunately, the place is always packed and everyone is drinking. Among the rum and cokes, ladies and gentlemen are sipping composed cocktails from the list. For spring, Tila's introduced a straightforward cucumber cocktail, with Hendrick's and honey and rosemary. I had three before I realized what had happened.
Lexington Social House: The Polynesian $11
1718 Vine St, Hollywood
Can good cocktails be found in Hollywood, the land of vodka sodas and Red Bull? Turns out, the answer is yes. And at a place like Lexington Social House, which, let's face it, has a club-like reputation. There are a few different faces behind the bar here, and it's hard to tell who's coming or going. Still, The Polynesian stands out because it's made with prosciutto. Bacon drinks are very two years ago, but prosciutto lives on. Add the smokiness of tequila, sweetness from some pineapple gum syrup and heat from the cayenne work wonders.
The Tasting Kitchen: Escandalo $11
1633 Abbot Kinney Blvd, Venice
I had to include a cocktail from the man who brought us the Braveheart and the restaurant that brings us delicious plates of vegetables of which we've never heard. Barman Justin Pike has developed a loyal, even rabid, following in the past few months. Do the girls like his scruff? The slightly wrinkled plaid shirts? The way he looks away into the distance when describing a cocktail? It doesn't matter, really, because too much of what he's putting out is creating a scene on Abbot Kinney. Among the current list (which changes frequently) is a something my friend described as a grown up tequila sunrise. Like many of Pike's drinks, it gets more interesting even when it sits, even after you've had a few sips or bites of something else. More than just tequila and citrus, this drink has beer in it.