The dumpster fire that was 2016 is finally smoldering to an end. And thanks to David Bowie, Prince, Muhammad Ali and other greats doing a mass exodus off the mortal coil (it’s like they knew something was up) and the ulcer-aggravating election, many of us have found a small modicum of relaxation from a well-made cocktail. Thankfully, L.A. bartenders made sure there was a vast array of unique, complex, and delicious cocktails to make it all a bit bearable. Here were my favorites from 2016.
Here’s Looking at You’s Psychic Reader
The cocktail program at Here’s Looking at You marked bartenders Allan Katz and Danielle Crouch’s return to L.A., at least drinkwise. The couple had moved to Las Vegas after departing Caña Rum Bar but endured the long commute back and forth to create and consult on the cocktails at Lien Ta and chef Jonathan Whitener's Koreatown restaurant. Even though their opening menu had many standouts, including a Tiki-fied Penicillin and a $26 Mai Tai, their Psychic Reader was my all-time favorite. An improved variation on Trader Vic’s Angostura Fizz, it replaces the grenadine with mango nectar and the cream for coconut cream.
The Corner Door’s Mama Fratelli
As long as bartender Beau du Bois is behind the stick at The Corner Door then we’ll all be OK. There since the Culver City bar/restaurant opened in 2012, du Bois has been making us smile with his cocktail names and warming our hearts with his complex but approachable cocktails. My absolute favorite of his is the Manhattan-inspired Mama Fratelli. Unlike the matriarch in The Goonies after which it was named, you’ll want to cozy up to this stirred concoction of rye, espresso-infused sweet vermouth, coconut liqueur, and a bit of salt.
Belcampo Meat Co.’s Strawberry Hill
One of the best summer drinks this past year was Belcampo Meat Co.’s craft cocktail version of Boone’s Farm’s strawberry wine. It’s that candied underage favorite completely transformed into something that adults could actually enjoy. And all it took was fresh strawberries and pisco for a housemade cordial, rose water, and Tavel rosé. The jamminess of cordial is balanced out by the dryness of the wine making for a beautiful and easy-drinking cocktail, perfect for day drinking in the summer.
Gwen’s Passion Fruit Sour
It’s so easy to find a new favorite cocktail at Gwen thanks to bartender Mitch Bushell and his team. But prepare for a bit of heartbreak since the menu is changed up nearly every week. One such gem that made an all-too-brief appearance was Bushell’s dry passion fruit mezcal daiquiri. Campari complements the passion fruit beautifully and carries the flavors from beginning to end. It’s quaffable, yet complex with layers of flavors.
Big Bar’s Matcha Kit Kat Fizz
Fans of weird Kit Kat flavors everywhere rejoiced when bartender Cari Hah created a Matcha Kit Kat Fizz for her midsummer cocktail menu at Big Bar. But don’t mistake it for another gimmicky cocktail. This one does not disappoint. The dry grassiness of the matcha actually works well in a gin fizz, making it super refreshing for hot summer nights.
Gracias Madre’s Stoney Negroni
Gracias Madre got a lot of press in 2016 thanks to Jason Eisner’s gorgeous and incidentally delicious cocktails. But the most buzzworthy had to be his pot cocktails, which included this CBD-laced mezcal Negroni. The uber herbaceousness of the CBD oil amplified the botanical notes of the gin. And even after you’ve sipped away the CBD oil globules from the surface, what remains is a damn fine Negroni and a warm fuzzy feeling.
The Walker Inn’s Alice Waters Old Fashioned
The Walker Inn, which was named one of the 50 best bars in the world (#37) this year, has no shortage of mind-blowing cocktail creations. Every new menu presents something to delight the senses and the soul; from an ode to In N Out to a throwback to middle school science fair. Back in January the bar team dedicated a menu to Chez Panisse chef Alice Waters. And the savory Old Fashioned composed of white sesame seed, mushrooms, Thai chili, and bourbon became an instant classic.
The classic Blood & Sand is actually one of my least favorite cocktails. Even though it’s equal parts it’s an unbalanced mess. But somehow Birch bartender Gabriella Mlynarczyk managed to change my mind about it with her photogenic port version which had appeared on the Hollywood restaurant’s February menu. It was a warming crimson mix of gingerbread, ruby port, benedictine, fluffy orange, and nutmeg.
Terrine’s Lucano Correcto
I love coffee cocktails but it’s rare to find one that emulates the best components of coffee — the right acidity, the brightness, and its actual flavor notes. Ryan Wainwright’s award-winning Lucano Correcto — it won an Amaro Lucano cocktail competition in October — is just like a boozy cafe au lait made with rum, coffee-infused amaro, coffee liqueur, coffee, and cream.
Honeycut’s Cave of Wonders
Honeycut decided to give in to the disco side by transforming its cocktail lounge into a second danceteria. Instead of pensive drinking of precious cocktails, it’s dance while you drink iSi Pina Coladas and crafty versions of Sex on the Beach. Several great cocktails here but a personal favorite is the stirred Jungle Bird variation, Cave of Wonders, made with rums, Campari, pineapple, and clarified lime juice.