Behind the Bartender: Karen Grill of Sassafras

What’s the next big thing in cocktails? A good time

Sassafras bartender Karen Grill is a foodie in the best sense of the term. She can’t stop, won’t stop learning about food and drink. While working at Bestia, Grill jumped in on a lesson led by executive chef Ori Menashe about how to break down a pig. She’s also such a huge beer geek that she had to become a first-level cicerone. Needless to say that everything she deems tasty and interesting will inevitably find its way into her cocktail programs. And we all win.

After learning from one of the best in the cocktail biz, bartender Julian Cox, Grill went on to work at Sotto, Playa, and then Bestia. It’s no wonder that she’s won recognition, like being named one of America’s Top Bartenders of 2014 by Spirit magazine as well as Los Angeles’ “Most Imaginative Bartender” in 2013 by Bombay Sapphire and GQ magazine.

Grill has since gone on to apply her talents to places like The Churchill and has recently revamped the cocktail program at 1933 Group’s Sassafras in Hollywood.

I had a chance to ask her some questions as part of our recurring Q&A series with L.A. bartenders. Here are her quick answers.

What’s a popular drink at your bar?
“The Saint. It’s been our most popular from the start. It’s a take on a Brown Derby with bourbon, Lillet, Giffard Pamplemousse Rosé, lemon, and ginger. We also make Old Fashioneds and Sazeracs like they were the only options on the menu. They’re great, so we don’t mind!”

Where do you draw your inspiration from?
“It starts with the season, then goes through this series of stops in my head based on music (it’s fitting for our venue), all of the artifacts in our bar, terroir of the ingredients, food, a new flavor combination I’ve come across, etc. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where it comes from, but where it ends up is the best part of cocktail design.”

What’s the best night to go to your bar and why?
“It really depends on the mood you’re in. Want a quiet date night? Come for live jazz on Sundays and Mondays. In the mood for a little rock ‘n’ roll dance party? Thursday, Friday, and Saturday are your nights! My favorite nights at Sassafras are midweek. The nights when it’s lively, but not overly crowded and you can have more one-on-one time with our bartenders. We book some of our favorite bands those nights, too.”

The next big thing in cocktails is_____?
“A good old-fashioned good time! I think most of the pretentious nature of cocktail culture is slipping away, and great bars are bringing fun back with beer and shot menus, the once ridiculed ‘disco drinks,’ and crowd-pleasing vodka cocktails.”

If you could have a superpower, what would it be?
“I’d really like to read people’s minds. Like Professor X of the Bar. It’d be really useful when I’m five deep in the middle of a Friday night.”

Where do you like to drink in L.A.?
“Wherever my friends are! I always love the cocktails at La Descarga, The Eveleigh, and Harlowe, but a good night always ends at Harvard & Stone.”

Where’s your favorite place to eat in L.A.?
“I live walking distance from Salt’s Cure in West Hollywood and I would eat all of my meals there if I could. Scopa Italian Roots is a new favorite, if only the traffic and my wallet would let me be there more often.”

What do you like to drink when you’re not working (doesn’t have to be cocktails)?
“Beer. Always beer. I’ve always got a few-large format Mikkeller or Bruery beers in my fridge to share (or not share), but lately, I’ve been on a really big cider kick. I’ve been hooked on this pear/apple/quince cider from Bonny Doon Querry all season.”