There’s a Cocktail Museum in San Pedro—but It’s Popping Up All Over Town

Finally, a museum devoted to booze
217

Just off the corner of Hollywood and Vine, Lost Property is an unlikely outpost in a neighborhood chock-a-block with tacky souvenir shops and tackier nightclubs. It’s a serious whiskey bar, with dark wood paneling, crystal decanter chandeliers, and shelves of single malt Scotches and small-batch bourbons behind the small bar. A sign near the door warns away the Ed Hardy-clothed masses: “No, we don’t sell Red Bull.”

At a row of tables along the back wall, Lost Property proprietor Jeremy Lake, helps a bartender set out cocktail menus and tasting glasses. He seems unsatisfied with how they’re crammed together on the small tables, but Philip Dobard, director of the Museum of the American Cocktail, reassures him. “These aren’t tender souls,” he notes. “They drink spirits.”

The Museum of the American Cocktail—MOTAC, for short—is headquartered in New Orleans, Dobard’s hometown. In March, MOTAC opened a West Coast branch in San Pedro alongside its sister organization, the Pacific Food and Beverage Museum. But even before then, going back to April of 2014, MOTAC has been hosting tasting events all over the L.A. area, most of them free with RSVP. Each features the spirits of a specific brand or distributor, but is presented less as a sales pitch and more as an opportunity to educate drinkers about the history and craft behind the booze.

At MOTAC’s recent Wednesday night event at Lost Property, guests sample five products from John Drew Brands, a newcomer to the spirits world founded by a former cigar magnate. Rob Amato, market manager for the company’s western region, talks the small group of attendees through side-by-side tastings of two different rums, followed by two rye whiskeys, and something called Brixton Mash Destroyer, an iconoclastic whiskey/rum blend.

“In your second glass, what you have is the Dovetale Puerto Rico,” he explains. “It’s a four-year-old Puerto Rican rum, aged in ex-bourbon barrels, from Florida Everglade blackstrap molasses.”

Despite the abundance of booze on the tables, the atmosphere is as studious as it is festive. Many of those in attendance are cocktail professionals—bartenders, beverage directors, journalists. There’s discussion of tasting notes—one rum is a “vanilla bomb,” someone observes—distillation techniques, ABVs, and production runs. Some debate erupts over international rum labeling laws, and which of the two rums would make for a better daiquiri base. (After sampling them neat, guests can try the spirits in cocktails fashioned especially for this occasion; the John Drew rye makes an especially flavorful, caramel-tinged base for a Manhattan variation called a “Crawl of Fame.”)

It’s Amato’s first MOTAC event, and he’s impressed with the attendees’ inquisitiveness. “Everybody here wants to learn and know the story,” he says after his presentation. “It’s a good mix of people, both consumer and industry.”

museum of the american cocktail los angeles
Philip Dobard (left) at a MOTAC event at Bar Lubitsch in 2016

That’s the goal for every MOTAC event in L.A., says Dobard—to introduce aficionados and professionals alike to the latest developments in spirits and cocktail culture. “What we do in New Orleans is tell the story of the history of the cocktail,” he explains. “Here will be more about the state of the art…the idea that it’s not frozen in time.”

To that end, many MOTAC events spotlight products that are likely unfamiliar to the less well-traveled boozehound. A recent tasting, for example, featured genever and other Dutch-style gins; an upcoming Day of the Dead-themed tasting on October 27 will feature Mexican whiskeys. (“Yes, that’s a thing!” MOTAC’s email newsletter declares.)

Dobard, a former conductor and opera singer, is a courtly presence presiding over most MOTAC events. His ex-wife, Tracey Mitchell—also an accomplished opera singer—runs the Pacific Food and Beverage Museum (or PacFAB, for short), which hosts its own series of cooking demonstrations, author talks and private dinners. Both grew up in New Orleans “deeply embedded in food and drink,” as Dobard puts it. “Everybody in my family cooks,” says Mitchell. “You can’t grow up in New Orleans and not be culinary-minded.”

Both museums also host events in their small, art-gallery-like space in San Pedro, which for now displays a modest set of special exhibits, including food photography, portraits of well-known chefs showing off their tattoos, and a fascinating collection of Victorian-era menus and other restaurant ephemera. A window display of MOTAC artifacts—including a massive rake-like tool once used to shave block ice and a kitschy ‘50s cocktail shaker shaped like a fire extinguisher—represents “a 10th of one percent” of MOTAC’s permanent collection, according to Dobard. More will be put on display as they continue to build out the San Pedro space in the coming months.

The Museum of the American Cocktail and the Pacific Food & Beverage Museum’s shared storefront in San Pedro

Courtesy Pacific Food & Beverage Museum

Why San Pedro? Partially it was down to support from some area politicians, including L.A. City Councilmember Joe Buscaino and his predecessor, Janice Hahn, who’s now an L.A. County Supervisor. But more importantly, it was proximity to the nearby Port of Los Angeles, a historical hub for L.A.’s rich melting pot of cultures and cuisines. To this day, “You can get it all here,” Dobard notes, citing fine Italian, Japanese, Thai and regional Mexican cuisine all within blocks of MOTAC and PacFAB’s space. “San Pedro is a center of culture and history,” he says. “It’s just that most Angelenos don’t know [about] it.”

MOTAC’s arrival in Los Angeles is well-timed. After decades of benign neglect, the city’s cocktail scene is now thriving, with new temples of top-shelf spirits and creative mixology springing up in every corner of town. This cocktail renaissance has given Dobard a broad canvas across which to sprinkle his events: Hatchet Hall’s Old Man Bar in Culver City, Palihouse in WeHo, and the Sassafras Saloon in Hollywood have hosted past private tastings, and future events will continue to take place at Lost Property, as well as the Edison in DTLA. On November 4, MOTAC and PacFAB join forces for a “harvest festival” cookout in Glassell Park that will feature locally sourced cuisine and the full line of Buellton-based Ascendant Spirits.

Through MOTAC’s exhibits and events, Dobard hopes not only to document and celebrate cocktail culture in Los Angeles, but to “expand the notion” of what a museum can do. “Over time, museums became places of preciousness,” he says. “Yeah, [we have] artifacts. But they tell a story.”

The Museum of the American Cocktail and the Pacific Food & Beverage Museum are located at 731 S. Pacific Ave. in San Pedro. For hours and upcoming events, visit natfab.org.

CORRECTION: This post has been updated to correctly identify the proprietor of Lost Property and to remove a reference to New Orleans as birthplace of cocktails.


RELATED: L.A. Bartenders Share Their Best Fall Cocktail Recipes


Stay on top of the latest in L.A. food and culture. Sign up for our newsletters today.

Facebook Comments