*This article initially appeared as part of our May, 2015 issue cover feature, inspired by our Liquid L.A. blog
In 2003, Frank Gehry completed downtown L.A.’s most iconic structure: Walt Disney Concert Hall. Six years later bartender Julian Cox unveiled his own epochal creation: the Barbacoa, a smoky, mescal-based cocktail he formulated for chef John Sedlar’s downtown restaurant, Rivera. Drawing a parallel between Gehry’s multimillion-dollar marvel and a $14 drink may seem absurd, until you consider the Barbacoa could be credited with sparking L.A.’s cocktail boom for the next six years and counting, with Cox as its pater tequilas. “We were in downtown before a lot of the big cocktail bars were,” Cox says of his stint at the now-defunct Rivera. “We had big ice cubes, and people were like, ‘These are huge!’ ”
It’s not that the 33-year-old Midwest transplant was first—he learned the importance of premium Kold-Draft ice while at Comme ça in 2006. But he did usher in an era of drinks with a distinctly L.A. personality. At a time when everyone else was recreating classics from the 1920s, Cox was incorporating ingredients that paid homage not only to a restaurant’s specific menu but to the larger culture of L.A. (he has penchants for tequila and tiki).
Today he’s the architect of the custom cocktail programs at 16 of the most popular places in town, including Las Perlas, Redbird, and Barrel & Ashes. He also runs an upscale pro bartender boot camp (the six-week classes are held several times a year). His goal? To make L.A. mixology the industry standard, which means fresh ingredients, Japanese barware, and—most important—a timeless quality. “I have 67-year-olds with white hair come up to me and be like, ‘Your Barbacoa…’ ” Cox says. “It almost brings tears to my eyes.”
See a recipe for Cox’s Barbacoa here.