In the first of this series, professional cocktail taster Caroline Pardilla, affectionately known as Caroline on Crack, discusses the drinks at one "of the moment" bar in Los Angeles. After over a decade of roaming around LA's cocktail scene, perhaps no one knows how to decipher a bar program better than Caroline. First up, the transformation of Big Bar in Los Feliz.
I have been rooting for the Alcove's Big Bar ever since it opened up in Los Feliz in 2010. A killer cocktail program run by Juan Sevilla (Soho House) and a crack bar team at one of my favorite stops in the neighborhood. But over the years, constantly changing up bar managers, it couldn't get back that wow factor. Not that it stopped trying. It did OK. The small bar continued to be the favorite hangout for cocktail enthusiasts, even occasionally popping up on best-of L.A. cocktail bar lists.
But, the drinks were never compelling enough for me to regularly make the trek to Los Feliz. That is, until bartender Cari Hah took over the program as bar manager in December 2015. The new midsummer cocktail menu is her second one for Big Bar but the first one with a cohesive theme. It's also the first menu that I've ever seen with such a personal touch. Hah calls it her "Finding My Bliss" menu, whereupon each cocktail is inspired by things that make her happy. When she was going through a rough patch, she just thought of her favorite things: Green Tea Kit Kats, daydrinking on a patio, good friends, and watermelons.
Honestly, I haven't been this excited about cocktails at Big Bar, and Big Bar itself, in a long time. They're not just delicious, but fun. There's actually a Cinnamon Toast Crunch (Rumchata and cinnamon whiskey) shot that's "garnished" with the bar team cheering "SPRING BREAK!" Let's go straight into some of the drinks that I tried.
Apple Bottom Jeans
When I read the ingredients for this cocktail, I admit that I wrinkled my nose a bit. The P. Daddy vodka? Also, every time St. Germain has popped up in a cocktail, it tends to dominate. But ohmygod this was liquid summer: fresh watermelon juice, Ciroc apple vodka, St. Germain, Lustau Oloroso sherry, and lemon. The textbook definition of a patio pounder. Bonus points to Hah for tying the garnish back to the cocktail's names, with watermelon balls pushed together to look like a bubble butt.
Everyone in the Canoe!
Hah admits that she just never could get into Tiki drinks. Too sweet and syrupy. "Everybody in the Canoe!" is her idea of a Tiki cocktail. Bacardi 8 rum is mixed with peach honey, cognac, sherry, pineapple, ginger, lime, Cardamaro, and Miracle Mile Hello Cari bitters (yes, bitters named after Cari herself). The booziness and sweetness are balanced by the citrus and sherry. The only nit to pick is that the ginger flavor outlasted its welcome in the finish. Although I loved it in the beginning, after a while I found it hard to finish. By the way, if you can't get enough of the pineapple gummies in the "canoe," they're available for purchase next door at Alcove Cafe.
Red Panda's Unusual Botanical Quest
The light and beautiful Red Panda's Unusual Botanical Quest is the perfect sipper to enjoy outside on the patio, either day or night. The Hendricks gin, hibiscus-rose petal syrup, cucumber-infused blanc vermouth, lemon, and thyme all play so prettily together. But exercise caution with this delicate and floral beauty because it's super easy to guzzle.
Matcha Kit Kat Fizz
If you know Cari Hah, a green tea Kit Kat Fizz on the menu is not surprising. But other fans of weird Kit Kat flavors will be delighted by this Japanese treat-inspired gin fizz. The combination of Aviation gin, vanilla bean, Luxardo Angioletto, and matcha powder actually tastes like a boozy matcha Kit Kat. Taking a bite of the candy bar garnish confirms it. Light, dry, and grassy, it's refreshing for a hot summer night.
Oaxacan on Sunshine
I'm on a personal quest to find the best horchata cocktail out there. But the ones I've encountered are usually too thin, too bland, or don't resemble an horchata at all. So this could just be me having impossibly high standards but I wasn't crazy about this one. Hah created this drink after a Oaxaca-style horchata, which is traditionally topped with melons, fruits, and nuts. So those familiar with this type of horchata may love it. After all, along with housemade horchata, it has Ilegal mezcal, Grey Goose, and melon. But for me the cantaloupe overshadowed everything else.
Big Bar has always been the L.A. cocktail enthusiast's Cheers. But this time it also has some of that magic that will make it a destination for not just those from outside the cocktail community but outside of the Los Feliz bubble.