Darwin Manahan, the new beverage director at chef Vartan Abgaryan’s Cliff’s Edge in Silver Lake, gleams with a little-kid enthusiasm when you speak to him about his cocktail program. He loves making drinks and has the kind of passion and eagerness you don’t get to see too often.
Manahan has only really been in the industry three and a half years and a bartender for two and a half years of that. He learned everything he knows about making cocktails from the likes of Gary Regan and David Wondrich, by reading their books and every cocktail book he could get his hands on as well as watching how-to cocktail videos. Before that, he worked in construction as well as a physical trainer for a firefighting academy. His first actual gig in the bar industry was as a bouncer, the nicest bouncer you ever met, who would use taco-stand recommendations instead of fists to eject ruffians.
But his rise to a star bartender happened quickly when he moved from bouncer at Fullerton’s Hopscotch Tavern to a brunch-shift bartender there and then to head bartender at Corazon y Miel. There he, along with Robin Chopra, turned the Bell restaurant by Salvadoran chef Eduardo Ruiz into a cocktail destination, even luring in Wondrich himself and earning it a spot on his Esquire Best Bars in America 2014 list.
And now Manahan is at Cliff’s Edge, giving the restaurant a consistent cocktail program to complement Abgaryan’s elegant food. He’s not only finding inspiration from kitchen ingredients for his twists on classics but also borrowing techniques like doing a lot of back-end prep in the kitchen to save time and using garnishes to both decorate and complement flavors in the cocktail. “The garnishes aren’t there just for visuals—it’s there for something like to help cut this or that,” he says.
For his Cocchi Cobbler cocktail, he uses an ice-cup garnish not only to create a stunning visual but also to cool the berries, lift the mint and berries to the nose with each sip, and slowly drip Angostura bitters sprayed on it into the cocktail. He uses spiced smoke to “flavor” his Sean Connery scotch cocktail.
Like chef Abgaryan, Manahan doesn’t limit his cocktails to one category. “A lot of these are based off classic cocktails but with some Asian background from me, some Latin background from where I grew up in the Hacienda Heights area. Getting these familiar flavors that I’m very used to and putting them in cocktails,” he says.
His new cocktail menu, which debuted a couple of weeks ago, features springtime-friendly drinks ranging from a sparkling Paloma to a literally smokey scotch sipper. They complement the food as well as the ritual of the entire meal. Start at the top of the list for an aperitivo and settle your post-dinner stomach with a sipper, an Old Fashioned made with apple brandy. Or try his cocktail punch, which incorporates a combination of Jeffrey Morgenthaler and Wondrich’s techniques.
Here Manahan explains a few of his cocktails:
Rosa Gringa: “I wanted to do something with beer but not something too dark, I wanted something more springtime and light. The Angeleno IPA has good citrus notes, and the bitterness isn’t too pronounced. So I added Campari to bring it up and elongate it. The initial taste is going to be very refreshing and borderline sweet, but the bitterness cuts off that flavor. That’s more of a cocktail that you just want to keep drinking because it doesn’t linger. It’s nice and clean like an aperitivo, but it’s not going to ruin your palate for the main dishes.”
Sean Connery: “More of a menthol and smoke type of cocktail. I use Fernet, Carpano Antica—I love the body of that vermouth, and then Famous Grouse scotch binds everything together. I’ve been playing a lot with smoke, and this is a little blend that I made up. It’s Mexican cinnamon with pink peppercorn. You also have cloves, a little bit of allspice berries, one star anise, and cardamom. After you burn them, you get certain aromas from them.”
Cocchi Cobbler: “Drink it and then eat a berry. It’s a little bit tart and it helps balance out the actual cocktail. The aromatics you’re going to get is going to be the mint with the Angostura and it helps blend everything together. It almost has a feeling of tiki, but it has a feel more of a cobbler. A lot of people think it’s not boozy, but most of that drink is booze. It’s a nice little creeper.”
Bitter Sling: “The Old Fashioned originated from the Sling, which is spirit, sugar, water. And the bitters came onboard during the whole malaria scare in the early 1800s. They started putting bitters in it for a hangover cure, stomach aches, headaches. When I found old recipes, they didn’t have rye or bourbon it actually, had apple brandy. I found a really good apple brandy, very pronounced, but doesn’t overtake the palate and it doesn’t have that typical eau de vie astringency. It’s a nice variation of an Old Fashioned, but if people want to find out about these cocktails they can dig as deep as they want to so there’s stories behind layers. For me, it represents who I am as a bartender and my philosophy behind the bar.”