Specialty cocktails can be found at every L.A. watering hole. Some are good; one is great.
This was the summer of the cocktail. And sometimes, that wasn’t a good thing.
What began with the relatively simple Cosmopolitan has grown, kudzu-like, into a barrage of increasingly bizarre and cloying mixes, with colors not found in nature and taste profiles that compare favorably to Robitussin and Lemon Pledge.
“It’s like Dairy Queen in here now,” says Lee Dawson, a bartender at the Universal-adjacent Minibar. “I’ve got 52 flavors and it’s driving me nuts. I can’t remember the last time I poured a Jack and Coke.”
Minibar’s not alone. Every restaurant and bar in Los Angeles worth its margarita salt has felt obliged to develop a menu of specialty cocktails that end with an “-ini,” “-ita” or a single word that evokes sex, wealth or dessert. Even the venerable Campanile is working on its cocktail lineup.
Many of these cocktails promise joy and deliver misery, but we had a feeling it didn’t have to be that way.
A team of V Life Weekend guinea pigs set out on a quest to find the best summer drinks — vodka-Red Bulls need not apply. After sipping (sometimes slurping, sometimes choking on) more than four dozen cocktails, all rated as their bartenders’ or patrons’ favorites, from across the city, we found a winner.
Nice work if you can get it, but it wasn’t always pleasant. (Case in point: Casa del Mar’s “Go-Gogh Martini,” a mix of Van Gogh espresso vodka, crème de cacao, Starbucks coffee liquor and whipped cream.)
However, considering who our winner turned out to be, with drinks definitively better than all others, we could have saved a lot of time if we’d heeded the words of Dale DeGroff, the King of Cocktails.
“Fresh fruit,” says DeGroff, author of “The Craft of the Cocktail.” “It’s how the business began.”
According to DeGroff, mixed drinks date back to the 19th century, which didn’t know from sweet-and-sour mix.
“In those days, they were more than just bartenders,” he says. “They were chemists. They had to make everything from scratch. We lost our way after Prohibition. There wasn’t a lot of skilled labor around and they were presenting insurance policies in the form of these mixes where you could just add the liquor and you’d have an instant drink. So this is just a return to those initial values.”
DeGroff is not such a purist that he doesn’t allow the Alizes, X-Rateds and other prefab concoctions.
“I make lots of cocktails using those mixes — even Hypnotiq,” DeGroff says. “They’re the kind of products that are difficult to use in drinks, but they can work if you mix them with fresh juices. But that’s up to the skill of the bartender. If you give someone who has talent some flavors that are good and some that are not so good, they can make something out of it.”
However, nothing can replace old-fashioned invention. The cocktails at Cliff’s Edge in Silver Lake didn’t appeal to our tester, so the bartender invented one that did: fresh lime and orange juices, more than a splash of vodka, Triple Sec and cranberry juice. Served in a chilled martini glass, it was like a cosmopolitan, but tarter.
“What do you call it?” we asked.
And so it came to be that the V Life was born. Order it from Roxie before summer’s over.
What we learned:
–DeGroff is right. There’s no substitute for fresh fruit.
–Simple syrup is simply better. Sugar dissolved in equal parts water beats any flavored rum or mixer.
–The best drinks make your hands hurt. Citrus squeezers, martini shakers and muddlers – you can’t make a great cocktail without them.
The best cocktail in Los Angeles:
1535 N. Vine, Hollywood
Anything they make ($8-$11)
Chef-owner David Lentz came up with the six cocktails on the bar list and they’re all really good (check out Luke’s Lemonade with Staraya Moskva vodka, homemade lemonade and mint), but the Cat’s bartenders invent the best ones each night according to season or whim. On a recent visit, juicy watermelon, ripe blackberries and tangy kumquats from twice-weekly farmers market visits sat in the refrigerator or in metal buckets, waiting to be pounded, squeezed and otherwise coaxed into a watermelon or blackberry margarita and a kumquatini.
“We have some of the best bartenders in L.A.,” Lentz says. “They’re all into the craft of making drinks — and it really is a craft, just like cooking. You need all your senses, and if you go about it with the right ingredients made to order, I don’t see how you can go wrong.”
8462 W. Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood
Kumquat mojito ($12) Mint, kumquats and lime muddled with raw sugar and Starr rum, topped up with club soda and 7-Up. Mild, refreshing and the kumquats are fun to munch on mid-drink.
1445 4th St., Santa Monica
Wildberry mojito ($10) Cruzan raspberry rum mixed with fresh strawberries, blackberries and mint, muddled with simple syrup, shaken with ice and topped with soda water make for a drink so delicious it could be dessert on its own. Also: Mango margarita ($8) with Herradura Silver tequila, Cointreau and fresh mango, blended with ice and served in a sugar-rimmed glass.
110 Navy St., Venice
Raspberry mojito ($8.50) A mix of rum, crushed mint, sugar, soda water, freshly squeezed lemon and lime juices and a splash of raspberry liqueur. Served in a martini glass with a sugared rim with a sprig of mint and two raspberries, what could be cloying turns out to be delicious, light and minty against a raspberry backdrop that grows more intense as the liqueur sinks to the bottom of the glass.
445 S. Figueroa St., Downtown
Caipirinha ($8.50) The classic, made from Brazil’s Pitu cachaca with lime, sugar and ice.
8279 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood
Mango mojito ($20) Made with mango rum, fresh mint and fresh lemon juice and served in an enormous shaker with the filter on top. One of these will hold you for the night.
7661 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood
Pear margarita ($11) A simple blend of Herradura Silver tequila, homemade sweet-and-sour mix and fresh pear juice. You can taste the little grains of pear puree against the tequila.
2820 Main St., Santa Monica
Cartel ($7) Cacique guaro (Costa Rican sugar cane liquor) and Agwa de Bolivia (a liquor made from 34 herbs, including Bolivian coca leaf), freshly squeezed lemon and lime juices, 7-Up and something the bartender wouldn’t reveal. Served in a tall glass, the result is light and refreshing, like a grown-up 7-Up. However, it doesn’t act like soda pop: Our taster was sloshed within 20 minutes.