You thought 2014 was a stellar year for drinking in L.A., but 2015 easily surpassed it. Not only were there high-end bar openings like Walker Inn in Koreatown and Fiscal Agent in Studio City, but cocktail-serious restaurants like Redbird, Hatchet Hall, EP + LP, Love & Salt, and even North Hollywood institution Little Toni’s acquired a craft cocktail bar. This year was also the long-anticipated debut of the remodeled Clifton’s Cafeteria, which is slated to feature five bars for thirsty cafeteria diners.
And even though we also had to bid adieu to many bartender favorites like Damian Windsor from Power House and Clifton’s Cafeteria, Chris Amirault from Harlowe and Clifton’s, Dave Kupchinsky from Eveleigh, and Karen Grill from Sassafras Saloon, we welcomed new faces like Yael Vengroff at Hollywood Roosevelt’s Spare Room, Gabriella Mlynarczyk at Birch, and Darwin Manahan at Cliff’s Edge.
2015 also made it easier to get a hold of booze, whether it be speakeasies in homes, cocktail delivery services, daydrinking options, or even the new cocktail program at Dodger Stadium. This was a good year for the discerning drinker but here are my picks for the 20 most memorable cocktails of 2015, in no particular order.
1) Gracias Madre’s Up in Smoke: Tequila blanco, house mosaic hopped cucumber soda, lemon, celery bitters, CO2 smoked tableside with hempseeds in a bong. Yeah, this reeks of gimmicky but it’s fun. It’s a bongtail!
2) Harlowe’s Wakey Wakey: bacon-infused bourbon, Cynar, maple syrup, egg, Stumptown coffee. Bartender Chris Amirault created this rich flip for Harlowe’s brunch menu. It basically offered all the good things in a diner breakfast, even the coffee grounds. “This is definitely for the person who is not afraid to eat rich,” said Amirault.
3) Sonny’s Hideaway’s French Correction: Mezcal, Chareau, curaçao, cherry bark bitters, lime oil. Earlier this year Chareau aloe liqueur was a popular spirit, popping up on cocktail menus everywhere. But Sonny’s Hideaway really made it shine in this beautiful mezcal sipper.
4) Gracias Madre’s Three Miracles: juniper infused Mezcal, lime, mint, sparkling wine. Sure, this stunner of a margarita will elicit some giggles (blue balls, heh) but it sure was tasty.
5) Redbird’s Julia Child martini: For its lunch menu, Redbird brought back the three-martini lunch with low-ABV martinis. A favorite was this one inspired by Julia Child, who liked to drink her martini 5 to 1, vermouth to gin. According to bartender Tobin Shea, the Dolin really made this martini shine.
6) Bestia’s I Am Sky: Ventura Spirits California vodka, strawberry syrup, mezcal, sea salt, blue thistle and cucumbers. This was one of my picks for the ultimate summer cocktail. Not only was it made with housemade strawberry syrup but Ventura Spirits Company’s California vodka, that’s actually distilled from strawberries.
7) Warwick’s Melone Faraglioni: City of London gin, coconut water mix, fresh lime juice and a watermelon popsicle. For the summer Warwick was transformed into a Capri-inspired lounge. And one of the standout cocktails from bartender Jason Bran’s menu was this one with a popsicle dropped in it. The watermelon pop was meant to emulate the famed columns decorating Capri. Not only did it chill the cocktail but as it slowly melted it imbued it with fresh watermelon juice.
8) Viviane’s Vesper: Russian Standard vodka, Bombay Dry Gin, Cocchi Americano. Barman Ryan Wainwright transformed many maligned cocktails into beautiful drinks at his bar program at Viviane — the Long Island, the Cosmopolitan. But, for me, the Vesper was the most incredible as he succeeded in turning a booze bomb into a well-balanced sipper.
9) Belcampo Meat Co. Santa Monica’s Ramos Cereal Milk Fizz: This restaurant, hands-down, has the best brunch cocktails in the city thanks to the outside-the-box thinking of barman Josh Goldman. Case in point: this Ramos Gin Fizz made with Fruity Pebbles cereal milk.
10) EP/LP’s Black Thai Optional: Lychee, Gin, housemade activated coconut husk charcoal, lemon, amaro, and egg white. Who would have guessed that this cocktail as dark and as impenetrable as the blackest night would be so quaffable? To achieve that inky blackness, bartender Adam Nystrom ignited the husks to a smolder then cooled and ground them into a powder. It made for one stylish Halloween libation.
11) Faith and Flower Spanish Milk Punch: Avion Silver, La Nina del Mezcal Primario, Avua Prata Cachaca, Pernod Absinthe, Del Maguey Minero, Neisson Blanc, macerated pineapples, orange rinds, anise stars, thyme sprigs, cinnamon sticks, fresh lime juice, English breakfast black tea, whole milk. Although mixologist Michael Lay left Faith & Flower, his popular English Milk Punch stuck around. But new F&F mixologist Edwin Osegueda decided to do his own spin on the modern classic with this super easy drinking but boozy tequila and mezcal punch.
12) Walker Inn’s In N Out: vanilla ice cream, strawberry syrup, cacao served with potato strings. Walker Inn changed the cocktail scene as soon as it opened and has awed its guests with its creative cocktail presentations. But this simple and familiar cocktail off their opening PCH-inspired menu warmed the cockles of many Southern Californians’ hearts. That red tray, those potato strings and a boozy Neapolitan shake!
13) Spare Room’s Salt & Vinegar Martini: Yael Vengroff wanted to inject her own sense of cocktail style into Spare Room when she took over the program. This vinegary martini was her unique take on the dirty martini. Nice touch with that side of chips.
14) Catch & Release’s Bloody Bull: vodka, housemade Bloody mix, housemade beef stock, chipotle hot sauce, bacon. When Catch & Release first debuted its brunch menu, barman Dave Kupchinsky made sure there were several Bloody Mary options on offer. But this one stood out for its big savory flavors.
15) The Fiscal Agent’s An Officer and a Gentian: blended scotch, Meyer lemon, Saler’s Gentian, lemongrass air. This was the bar cocktail enthusiasts were waiting for. Not only is it manned by some of L.A.’s top bartenders, including Julian Cox, but it consistently has beautifully made cocktails on offer, like this delicate scotch cocktail crowned with “air.”
16) Pistola’s The Brain: brown butter washed Buffalo Trace bourbon, egg white, cold press organic Fuji apple juice, cold press carrot syrup, lemon juice, Angostura bitters and a garnish of PB&J. In honor of the 30th anniversary of John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club, bartender Aaron Melendrez put together a special menu of cocktails to represent each character from the movie. His cocktail version of Brian the Brain was downright adorable with its mishmash of lunch box fixings, from apple juice to a little PB&J garnish, with the crusts cut off of course.
17) Birch’s #8: Birch needed a mixologist like Gabriella Mlynarczyk to complement the stellar food of chef Brendan Collins. When she took over the cocktail program in June, she immediately made an impression with her #8 cocktail, an Old Fashioned variation where the bourbon is infused with caraway and the brown butter syrup was fat-washed. The piece de resistance was her garnish of sea bread with a smear of marmalade and a brandied cherry.
18) Petty Cash DTLA’s Rosé Jose: Rosé, tequila blanco, rhubarb, pink peppercorn, lemon, seltzer. When Petty Cash opened its Arts District outpost, Dave Kupchinsky, Nick Meyer, and Julian Cox made sophisticated cocktails for a taqueria experience. One favorite off that menu was this one, a mix of rosé and tequila. A magic trick considering the tequila didn’t overpower the wine.
19) Terrine’s Strawberry Puff: Haymans Old Tom, strawberries, lemon, cream. For springtime in Los Angeles, barman Ryan Wainwright made this, California’s answer to the Ramos Gin Fizz with its strawberries fresh from the Venice farmers market.
20) Cliff’s Edge’s Cocchi Cobbler: Darwin Manahan wowed right out of the gate when he took charge of the bar program at Cliff’s Edge. Not just with well-crafted cocktails but the stunning visuals. For his Cocchi Cobbler he made an ice-cup to contain the berries and mint while slowly dripping Angostura bitters into the cocktail. Genius.