Go into a cocktail bar, especially a fancy one, and order a Negroni. One can reasonably expect measures of gin, vermouth, and Campari in equal parts, stirred with fresh ice, and poured into a Nick and Nora glass or double rocks cup with crystal clear ice. It’s become de rigeur in Los Angeles to expect a quality drink like this in most restaurants and lounges, especially in Downtown LA, arguably the birthplace of the city’s rabid cocktail culture.
Now change up two of the three parts of the Negroni equation with one’s own vermouth, and a housemade amaro that stands in for the Campari. The flavor is similar to the classic recipe, but also completely unique. That’s the approach that bartender Kevin Lee plus partners Al Almeida, Daniel Salin, and Isaac Mejia, are taking with his stunning new cocktail destination The Wolves.
Taking over the ground floor and a mezzanine of the timeless Alexandria Hotel on the corner of 5th and Spring, this breathtaking room has some of the grandest aspirations for a cocktail place in all of Los Angeles. Yes, that includes highly accomplished and regarded places like Old Lightning in Venice, The Varnish in Downtown, and The Walker Inn in Koreatown. Throw in Matthew Biancaniello’s impending cocktail tasting menu experience in Malibu as well.
Los Angeles already has a terrific cocktail culture, bolstered by knowledgeable and creative bartenders who employ seasonal ingredients and quality spirits. At this point even using those silicone molds for large ice cubes looks amateurish, because clear cut ice is the new standard.
When Lee opened Puzzle Bar with his brother in sleepy La Mirada, about twenty miles southeast of Downtown LA, he began mixing, steeping, and macerating his own liqueurs at the suburban strip mall location. Bartenders around the country had taken customization into their own hands, with custom ice, house infused syrups, and glassware. But it seems that those ingredients like vermouth, amaro, liqueurs, or bitters are something bartenders wouldn’t dabble in. There’s plenty of mis en place that goes into producing a quality cocktail bar, so it seemed wise to leave those ingredients to the experts. But Lee took the task into his own hands, using spices, herbs, botanicals, and other flavorings and tinkering with his own recipes.
In Europe, small independent producers use their own local flora to put a unique fingerprint on liqueurs, whether it be vermouth (a fortified wine) or amaro (a fortified spirit). This long history of apothecary resulted in big names like Martini & Rossi vermouth or Campari, brands that have since proliferated the cocktail universe. Most bars have settled with using these commercial varieties like as their amaro and that makes a Negroni taste relatively the same in Tokyo, New York, Paris, or San Francisco.
At The Wolves, Lee continues the approach he began at Puzzle Bar by using seasonal produce and local ingredients, often in the dozens of individual elements, to make amaro, vermouth, bitters, and liqueurs that emulate the European originals but display a distinctive Southern California context.
In addition to amari and vermouths, Lee claims his bitters will use upwards of forty ingredients, adding depth and complexity that far outweighs what’s often commercially available. When Lee talks about a common ingredient like Angostura bitters, he considers it to be “industrial” and “mass-produced.” Instead, he’ll use yuzu bitters, plus juniper cordial, carrot liqueur, and lavender rose vermouth with Sipsmith gin and pine fragrant for a carrot-based drink shaken and served in a vintage cut-crystal glass.
Another shaken drink takes Highland Park Magnus scotch and Ardbeg 10 year with a house made amaro, black currant liqueur, Korean pear vermouth, and seaweed bitters with fresh lime and mint to balance it out. Whenever possible, those unsung flavoring liqueurs come from the bar’s own coffers instead of those well-known European brands.
One wonders how a single bar in Downtown Los Angeles could out-produce and out-perform these established companies who’ve been making flavored liqueurs for generations. In addition, house-infused liquids like syrups and cordials aren’t necessarily revolutionary, and plenty of talented bartenders around the city have been using varying levels of seasonal ingredients in drinks. Lee is convinced that his dedication will speak for itself, and the flavor benefits will separate The Wolves from other cocktail destinations in LA, and perhaps other notable places around the country.
Upstairs the ambitions goes up even one more notch, with a separate bar on the mezzanine called Le Néant, which means nothingness in French. It’s Lee’s attempt at a Japanese-style cocktail omakase that places like The Walker Inn have tried to execute. Drinks at Le Néant have a bit more of a performance element, with the prices to match — think $25 apiece or more, depending on the preparation.
The Wolves (and its accompany mezzanine Le Néant) might be the most ambitious cocktail establishment to open in Downtown this year, and one wonders if there’s an over-saturation of places to drink in Historic Core. But The Wolves does separate itself with more than a few aspects, and its dedication to house-produced liqueurs could propel LA’s cocktail scene to a new level. Once it opens on September 13, the all-important factor of service will determine if it’s ready to truly elevate Downtown’s drinking culture.
The Wolves. 519 South Spring Street, Los Angeles, CA 90013.