Ask Redbird’s rugby retiree Tobin Shea about Armenian brandies and you’ll get a mouthful

Redbird Garden Cocktails Tobin Shea, Photo© Stefan Merriweather Photographer

Across the endless sprawl of Los Angeles, there are many great bars but a handful I would deem destination-worthy or worth crossing town for, spending the long minutes (and hours) one can easily wait in traffic on an average LA night. Redbird, in DTLA (downtown LA), is one such bar. And the reason is Tobin Shea.

Besides his 20 plus years in bars and his impeccable, artful yet utterly drinkable (read: delicious) cocktails, his knowledge of spirits — and passion to showcase rare and unsung spirits like Germanic schnaps/eaux de vie, aquavit or Middle Eastern arak — make this bar a destination for spirits lovers. Yet the range of drinks and relaxed vibe are welcoming to all. With LA’s deep Armenian population, heavy in this neighborhood — and Shea’s travels in Armenia — Armenian brandies are another category you’ll see lining the bar and in the cocktails.

With Redbird’s retractable roof (ideal year-round in LA weather) and chef/owner Neal Fraser’s impeccable dishes, it’s a great hangout from brunch to dinner, with Shea’s cocktails a draw alone. A pre-pandemic menu standout was an artistic book of 31 cocktails paying tribute to distillation and produce with standouts like Queen Anne’s Lace (gin, Danish aquavit, dry vermouth, Skinos Masthia —Greek resin pine spirit — and Reisetbauer’s carrot eau-de-vie/Austrian schnaps), a vegetal, crisp, layered, martini-esque cocktail.

Over two decades ago, Tobin started bartending near his college campus in Pennsylvania, where even a brief stint in the corporate world post-college couldn’t squelch his love for the bar world. When first arriving in Los Angeles, he opened two long-standing Silver Lake favorites: The Garage and El Cid. He built out cocktail programs in Orange County for P&D Restaurant Concepts, then moved back to LA working with LA bar pioneers, Julian Cox and Josh Goldman of the Soigné Group at Circa restaurant. He’s won awards (in publications/awards I did/do judge in), like Time Out’s Best Restaurant Bar Program in 2017 or as a finalist for Tales of the Cocktails Best American Restaurant Bar multiple times.

In his own words, Tobin tells us about his journey into the bar world, how he decides what spirits to stock and how he is navigating pandemic in the bar world.

Distiller: What led you into the cocktail and the bar world?

Shea: While in college I competed in collegiate rugby. We had an amazing team of ragtags and misfits, and our local watering hole was a great little bar called Al Patti’s Bar and Grill. It was advertised as a place where sports fans met, but it was so much more than a sports bar. Al’s had an amazing jukebox and a great little kitchen. But it was the rock ‘n roll, spit and sawdust attitude that made it great. The owner, Marty Patti, eventually hired me to bartend and there was no looking back. My college classes became a secondary thought, because I immediately knew I loved this profession enough that I could do it forever.

I called home to tell my father that I was taking on the job of bartender. After our conversation, he mailed me a copy of the 1967 version of Mr. Boston’s Deluxe Bartender’s Guide. I was hooked. There were so many cocktails that sounded amazing, that I couldn’t wait to experiment at Al Patti’s. Only problem was that no one was drinking or even curious about fresh juice or craft cocktails from a college sports bar, so I didn’t get much practice. But I definitely kept the idea at the forefront of my bartending ethos and eventually got to use all those great recipes.

Distiller: What is unique about your bar and how does being based in LA influence your bar’s style and operations?

Shea: Redbird is unique in that although we are rooted in the classics, we try to use techniques that incorporate a modern feel. Whether it’s through carbonating, clarifying, distilling, or fermenting, we have used an array of modern techniques to update the classics. Because Southern California has such great weather, we have access to such great produce all year through. That being said, we like to act like distillers and capture the fruits and herbs at the height of ripeness and make syrups or tinctures to last throughout the year.

Distiller: What is your philosophy on deciding what brands/bottles to stock in your bar?

Shea: If it tastes good, we carry it. There is such a storied history of using distillation and alcohol, and how generations of families and craftsmen have spent their lives to improve a product or continue the tradition of excellence. Sometimes these brands/bottles get lost, while among large conglomerates, some maintain a history of excellence. This also holds true for craft distillers, except they are the first generation of creating their traditions of amazing spirits. As a bartender, it’s such a great feeling to meet the new distillers and actually get to give them input on their product. It’s a great time to be a craft bartender. It may be an even better time to be a craft distiller.

Distiller: How do you educate customers on small batch, quality spirits?

Shea: We like to treat our guests like great friends. Anytime we can share something with them that makes them feel as though they’re getting some insider information, it creates such rapport. When someone comes out with a great product, we are rushing to get it in front of our guests. We want them to feel they are tastemakers, helping us make decisions that influence our cocktail menus.

Distiller: How are you and your team surviving pandemic?

Shea: Since the shutdowns, we have been fortunate in that the majority of our team has returned back to Redbird. It was physically difficult, because we had to open two outdoor bars, along with the main bar. But we were all just grateful to back practicing our craft. When the shutdown initially happened, we scrambled to create revenue streams. We incorporated virtual cocktail classes using Zoom and streaming technology to reach out to our regular guests. We also looked to the home brewers world for ways to package cocktails for take-home. It was a great learning experience.