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Liquor Aisle Insider: Bar Keeper’s Joe Keeper
The bartenders’ bar man.
Most of you out there probably only use liquor stores for stocking up your house parties or finding the perfect host gift. You have your go-tos that you simply grab off the shelf with nary a thought before you dash back out the store. Because, if you just allowed yourself to linger and peruse the shelves, it could be a bit overwhelming. Who knew there were THAT many different whiskies? So in this recurring series, I go straight to the source—the spirits buyers from your favorite L.A. liquor stores—for the best deals, hidden gems and what bottle is THE one to have.
Owner Joe Keeper first opened his store Bar Keeper in Silver Lake nearly nine years ago in answer to the cocktail renaissance that was just germinating in New York. Since then, his little shop has become an integral part of L.A.’s own cocktail culture and history. It’s where the very first meeting of Sporting Life—the city’s bartenders guild—was held. Louis Anderman of Miracle Miles Bitters got the idea to go into the bitters business there. And Bar Keeper has become the go-to, one-stop shopping spot for cocktail enthusiasts, home bartenders, and pro mixologists.
Joe doesn’t just sell drink paraphernalia, he sells the cocktail lifestyle. You’ll find a selection of vintage glassware, the best barware, an extensive bitters selection, and hand-picked spirits inventory. Needless to say, every item in that store is on my wishlist.
His liquor inventory-—which boasts obscure bottles, rare labels as well as those from small producers-—is fairly new in the grand scheme of the store, having popped up in 2010 when Joe was able to secure a liquor license. “I avoid the name brand products available at the local corner liquor store,” said Joe. “My shop is small and my customers are looking for something tasty and unique. So much of what we sell is gifted to someone. I remind my customers that a good gift should reflect the ‘giver’ as much as recipient.”
He personally tastes every product the store carries. “I choose my spirits first by taste,” he said. “My customers shop at Bar Keeper for an opinion and selection. I only carry products I enjoy.” But he tends to avoid expensive products. “So much is available, so delicious, and without the overhead of marketing.”
Bartenders often go to Joe whenever they hear of a hard-to-find spirit. "He's every bartender's best friend,” said Hemingway’s bartender Alex Straus. “He's the guy who will order it when you say, 'I wanna try this!'"
Should you find yourself overwhelmed while standing before Bar Keeper’s wall of booze, here are a few of Joe’s own picks if you’re too shy to ask him yourself.
➼ Hidden Gem: Angel’s Envy Rye
“Recently I have been sneaking shots of Angel’s Envy Rye Whiskey finished in Caribbean Rum Casks. The flavor is a bit spicy and warm and nougat-y (if that’s a word?). It reminds me of a Milky Way candy bar. The contents are 95 percent rye and 100 proof. A great way to finish a delicious meal…sip it slowly with a cigar. While it is an allocated product, the folks will usually release Bar Keeper a six-pack after we run out.”
➼ More Bang for Your Buck: Heaven Hill’s Fighting Cock Bourbon
“It’s a screaming good deal at $22. It’s the antithesis of a ‘trendy’ spirit, not sexy, just damned good. Aged six years and is 103 proof, it has a notes of citrus and ginger, with a bit of bite! Charles K. Cowdery in his book Bourbon, Straight describes it aptly as ‘the taste is like eating cotton candy while smoking a Winston, sweetness and char in almost equal measure.’”
➼ Perfect Pappy Stand-in: Larceny Bourbon
“Unfortunately my friend David Othenin-Girard at K&L Wines in Hollywood snagged my answer. David has an incredible palate and suggested the Weller 12 year. If I must choose an alternative, I’d suggest Larceny. Its secondary grain is wheat and its mash bill calls for one-third more wheat than most bourbons. It has a lower ABV than Pappy at 46 percent.”
➼ Liquor Lust: Black Maple Hill 10 Year Bourbon
“The Black Maple Hill product is exquisite. It’s a small batch spirit, meaning it is aged in multiple barrels and blended together to insure consistency. While I often have the 8 Year in stock, the 10 Year has not been available to me for a long while. The additional time in the barrel ripens the flavor and texture. It currently comes from The Willett folks who happen to make my favorite overproof rye. The flavor profile is banana nut bread.”
➼ Bar Keeper has an impressive bitters selection. What’s your favorite out of your inventory?
Bar Keeper carries well over 100 different types of additive bitters as well as many potable bitters. I separate the two types because they are used in different manners. Many of my customers are unfamiliar with additive bitters and their purpose. My go-to example is to think of additive bitters as spices for the cocktail. People add salt to a steak to make it taste better, not to make the steak salty. So, too, is the purpose of bitters. They are used to accentuate and/or bring out the organic flavors found in the spirit. They are NOT modifiers. If the goal is to have a Rhubarb cocktail use Rhuby. If, however, the goal is to accentuate the sweet fruitiness in a spirit, then use Rhubarb bitters. My favorite bitters are Louis Anderman’s Miracle Mile Bitters. Louis understands the purpose of bitters and caters to the prosumer and the professional mixologist. The flavors are bold and bright. They demand a person who knows just the correct amount without overdoing it.
“Louis is constantly fighting demand versus availability of his various bitters. Currently Bar Keeper has in stock Louis’ Forbidden Bitters, Castilian, Orange, Sour Cherry, Gingerbread, Yuzu, Toasted Pecan, Bergamot, Candy Cap, & Chocolate Chili Bitters. $20.”
➼ The next big thing in liquor is ________?
"Bittersweet. Bittersweet anything. Often, while standing at my favorite bars I overhear customers asking for something slightly sweet…not cloyingly sweet. The American palate has been leaving Coke and Pepsi behind and moving toward healthier alternatives (i.e. products with less corn syrup). I have been enjoying utilizing shrubs in my cocktails. They satisfy my sweet/sour tooth.”