This is The Barkeepers, a regular feature in which Eater roams the city to meet the fine ladies and gentlemen that work behind the bar at some of LA's hottest cocktail parlors.
Photos by Elizabeth Daniels
Jason Eisner likes to pour big -- and often. The Gracias Madre bar manager pushes out north of 1,000 margaritas a night sometimes, and is always ready to put on a show for waiting customers. Not that anyone waits long at the all-organic bar. Eisner's batch cocktail program is among the most progressive in the city, ensuring that quick drinks can make their way to thirsty customers out on that beautiful patio.
Still, there's a lot of craft that goes into Eisner's work. From rigorous staff training to teaching the inevitable crowds about the beauty of mescal, he's always doing something. Even if that means occasionally standing on the bar and pouring from chest-high.
How did you end up at Gracias Madre? I had initially been working for my mentor Jaymee Mandeville at Drago Centro, but she left the stick to go work for Bacardi USA, and I ended up doing two menus there. Through mutual friends, Cary had kind of heard about what I was doing at Drago, and set up a meeting. He and I got along right off the bat, and he basically said 'I have a challenge for you', which was to work with all agave-based spirits, and100% organic ingredients. I went home and within twelve hours had already made the first menu.
How hard is it to source the ingredients you want, knowing that they have to be organic? All of the spirits we have here are absolutely organic, the wine and beer as well. I just want to make something very clear: the definition, at a base level, of what makes something organic, is this — were there any pesticides used in the production of your product? That's it. You can get deeper than that, but if during our research we find that to be true without a product carrying an organic certification, we'll use it. We don't just accept the label, though; we're looking into the business practices for everything we use.
Has there been a learning curve for people with tequila and mescal? There's definitely been a curve, but I'm also trying to do something different. We're melding craft and volume. We're very high volume in this restaurant, so the idea of people waiting 15 minutes for a cocktail isn't going to happen here. I'm trying to innovate overall, and that means a learning curve not just for the customer but also the bartender. All of our bartenders know how to batch cocktails, that they understand how a draft system works, head to tail. We're doing those things because of the volume, and I need our bartenders to understand why.
That sounds like a lot for your bartenders. It's rigorous. Depending on their skill level, it's a minimum of 40 hours. We put them through the jungle, man.
Before each shift, we batch everything with fresh, organic ingredients, and then put things on tap and into two liter growlers. We never use anything again after a shift, because we always run out. So while you would be waiting 15 minutes for a cocktail in a different environment, I'm able to discuss what the drink is while I'm pouring and garnishing it, and you have a drink that's got 16 ingredients in it, in 30 seconds.
Is the batching process something that takes some explaining to customers? They actually love it. If I can make you something sophisticated in a very short amount of time and explain the drink to you, offer you an education instead of a show, then you'll actually get something out of this experience. We're nerds here. And there are lots of nerds in this community, there are lots of mixologists in town that I respect, but my goal is not to just open up another bar where people come in and get hammered. I want to level up what this is.
You've also launched a Make Your Own Old Fashioned option, plus slurpees and snowcones. How does that play into the bar program? I appreciate customer interaction, and I like the idea of an Old Fashioned. It's contextually a pretty perfect cocktail: you have a base spirit, a modifier for sweet and a modifier for bitter, with the hopes that those three things combine to create balance. So I came up with some combinations that I thought were interesting, and we just put it out there to be criticized or be loved. And so far it's been loved.
I try to balance myself as a businessman and an artist. I recognize that you have to have esoteric, and you have to have approachable. I do everything that way. I have a pinot noir wine from Russian River that's exactly what you expect a California pinot noir to be, and then I have a Chacoli from the Basque country that no one else in California even has. In the same way that I have no ego attachment to these cocktails, I have no ego in being an educator of spirits. The only thing I really take seriously is that you have a fantastic fucking time.
What's your volume? We sell 1,000 margaritas a night. That's one drink. Our batchers and bartenders are working around the clock to make sure you always have a full glass. I haven't seen numbers like in a restaurant. At Drago, which is a meat-centric Sicilian restaurant, they were doing something in the neighborhood of $10 to $15 million a year, and we're on par to do as much as a lot of these other guys. Which is incredible, because we're doing plant-based cuisine and an almost all agave-based spirits bar.
What's next? I'm going to keep pushing the envelope. I have a cocktail right now that we're building, where we fill a balloon with birthday cake air. We make a cocktail, bring it to your table, sing happy birthday and then pop the balloon in your face, and you get this giant whiff of birthday cake air. All kinds of crazy stuff, man.
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