Described as “100 cities in search of a city,” sprawling Los Angeles really is dozens of cities spread across over a massive 4700 square miles. Growing up nearby in Orange County until we moved to New Jersey/NYC area — and I returned to SoCal at age 18 before moving to San Francisco a few years later — I have countless memories with LA relatives, of hundreds of concerts and meals, sunsets on the beach, amusement parks and visiting old movie houses. I don’t ever miss the traffic, but I love the possibility of finding the next great taste in homogenous strip malls, hidden in the interminable miles that are LA.
This goes for bars and growing number of distilleries, too. LA was a city a bit late to the craft distillery game, except for the pioneering Greenbar Distillery. Cumbersome (and archaic) laws and bureaucracy, not to mention steep building rents/costs, have kept many out. But more distilleries are popping up in recent years, a number in the ever-growing Arts District between downtown LA (DTLA) and the Los Angeles River.
Husband-wife team Melkon Khosrovian and Litty Mathew opened Greenbar Distillery in 2004 and since 2008, they committed to organic ingredients and planting one tree for each bottle of spirits sold. Their deep line of products includes RTDs (ready-to-drink, canned), bitters and spirits from vodka to rum. Standouts? Grand Poppy Amaro, tributing and including California’s state flower, the CA poppy, and Fruitlab Ginger Liqueur, with its vibrant, lush body and ginger hit. They’ve laid the groundwork for craft distilling in LA.
The Spirit Guild was founded by Morgan McLachlan and Miller Duvall, opening to the public in 2016, though they’d been working on their product since 2010. Their vodka and gin base of distilled clementine is unusual and a direct expression of California bounty and abundant citrus, calling on Duvall’s California farming family roots.
While currently Lost Spirits Distillery is closed in LA, focused on their latest, pioneering amusement park-esque distillery in Las Vegas, Bryan Davis and Joanne Haruta first moved from their original 2010 Santa Cruz farm distillery in an artichoke field, to DTLA’s burgeoning Arts District in 2017 (I still miss them being up here in NorCal). Their LA Disneyland-meets-HG-Wells wonderland of a distillery was unparalleled — from Davis’ handbuilt custom dragon stills to a Jungle Cruise-style boat ride floating through the distillery with tastings along the way. They added on fine dining dinners and are now taking all this even further in Vegas.
Relative longtimers since 2013, Greg Stark and Karen Robinson-Stark launched Stark Spirits near the Rose Bowl. Other LA distilleries include women-owned-and-operated Future Gin, Our/Vodka (also in NY), and Mulholland Distilling founded by actor Walton Goggins and cinematographer Matthew Alper. There is also Culver City’s Los Angeles Distillery, Portuguese Bend Distillery in Long Beach, El Segundo’s RG Distillery and neighboring Orange County’s first craft distillery, Blinking Owl, followed by Surf City Still Works in Huntington Beach since 2017.
Across the miles are hundreds of bars, a spread out number being destination-worthy. LA was not among first cities to usher in the cocktail renaissance of the past couple decades, with its first signs of life years after NYC and San Francisco were in full swing. But with my regular visits south from SF, I kept looking and hoping LA would go there, remembering when Seven Grand opened in 2007, and 213 Bars (now called Pouring With Heart, began launching more bars, slowly changing the landscape of DTLA, which had formerly been desolate, even scary, at night. Eventually, DTLA became the epicenter of LA’s dining, bar, brewery and distillery renaissance.
The Varnish followed in 2009, opened by NYC’s Eric Alperin and Sasha Petraske (who tragically died at age 42) and LA’s Cedd Moses. Though the pre-Prohibition bar craze was starting to grow tired in SF and NYC by that point, with The Varnish, it hit hard in LA, leading to members-only rum havens like Cana Rum Bar, and magical bars like La Descarga with its Cuban cigar, rum and salsa vibes, unfortunately ruined by crowds and often rude, disinterested staff. While the exclusive dress code and reservations-required format of spots like Old Lightening (hidden inside an Italian restaurant) can feel off-putting, this bar in particular is an unexpected West LA treasure housing over 1200 spirits, including rare and vintage whiskies.
Style and flash over substance has plagued LA bars from the beginning — and the model/Hollywood/vodka tonic crowd can quickly ruin a spot for those of us desiring high quality drinks in a chill space. When they first opened, I hit up bars like the impressive-looking The Edison, or years later, Pour Vous, only to find them marred by the “scene” they attracted worsened by mediocre cocktails. Similarly, attitude and “too good for you” vibes have kept numerous buzzed-about LA bars off my best-of lists over the years to a higher degree than most cities other than NYC. But humble hospitality, world-class service and artistry have likewise reigned in these streets, showing the diverse range of LA.
In that early 2007 to 2009 time frame, Julian Cox and Josh Goldman were pioneering many of LA’s best cocktail menus, eventually forming Soigne Group and consulting on all manner of bar and restaurant openings. Many of their now-closed bars were among LA’s best, from Cox’s upstairs/downstairs Italian-Peruvian duo of Sotto and Picca, to Goldman’s more recent pisco oasis, Yapa. I miss each and love it when these two are behind a bar — alongside Redbird’s Tobin Shea, our bar manager interview this issue. All three are key palate trailblazers who helped usher in and move LA into world-class bar territory.
Additionally, Matt Biancaniello (following in the footsteps of NorCal’s Scott Beattie, who pioneered seasonal, produce-driven and farm-fresh in cocktails in Sonoma and Napa counties since the 1990s) started his custom-cocktail experience at Library Bar at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel in 2010, where he’d make cocktails to order from his daily pick of vibrant farmers markets herbs, fruits and vegetables (I also miss him bartending).
With the plethora of hipster hotels opening in DTLA in recent years, from the Ace to Freehand hotels, came a surge of rooftop bars with that only-in-LA feel of year-round, poolside drinks amid highrises and views of the Hollywood Hills. I stayed and tasted at each aforementioned hotel and beyond. Since 2019, Pilot at The Hoxton is the best of the rooftop hotel bars thus far, with top-notch cocktails worthy of those views, especially when bar manager Reed Cahill and Hoxton beverage director Brian Evans were helming the bar (I haven’t been back in pandemic so can’t vouch now). Historic, “golden age of Hollywood” hotels like The Hollywood Roosevelt, have brought fresh life with movie nights poolside, paired with drinks, although these drink menus aren’t notable even as the experience is classic LA.
There are many ideal neighborhood bars missing here as I have to narrow down, but here are ten of LA’s best now, from neighborhood newcomers to iconic, historic bars.
For a couple decades, Tobin Shea has been a bar master of balanced, nuanced cocktails that remain deliciously drinkable. His inspired menus at Redbird have been the most complex, interesting and exciting I’ve tasted in all of LA over the years. Under Redbird’s retractable roof and paired with chef/owner Neal Fraser’s globally-inspired dishes, I’ve savored drinks showcasing rare spirits like proper Germanic schnaps or anise-forward arak. Given LA’s rich Armenian population, Shea also features Armenian brandy alongside a range of spirits rarities.
What to Drink: Menus change regularly, but expect unique cocktails like the carbonated 4 of a Kind: Capurro Moscatel Pisco, elderflower liqueur, Metaxa 12 stars brandy, clarified lemon, or the Nogada cocktail: Montelobos espadin mezcal, Metiche 49 mezcal, Lustau PX sherry, Don Ciccio & Figli Nocino, lime and pomegranate.
Bar Calo, Echo Park
Open mid-2018, Bar Caló is the best newer bar I’ve visited in LA. It’s a surprising (but so-LA) find in a little Echo Park strip mall, inviting with long, red velvet banquette and intimate bar. Elote (corn) fritters and nopales salad accompany a short but tight, beautifully-crafted cocktail list, including drinks like Caló Cup (Machetazo Salmiana mezcal, lime, nopales, agave, celery shrub, tajin, sal de gusano aka worm salt rim) or a house Margarita amped up with Ventura Spirits’ Amaro Angeleno and Yellow Chartreuse. The tequila and mezcal selection is superb, offering deep cuts of agave rarities. Especially exciting is their rare raicilla selections (for example, I sampled a stunning 2016 bottling of Chacolo Presa Grande). I was most touched by the knowledgeable, friendly, mostly Latinx staff who clearly love agave spirits, including the barback faithfully polishing each bottle behind the bar. Tragically, more pandemic struggles forced them to close again this fall, but they thankfully plan to reopen February 2022. www.barcalola.com
Bar Jackalope, DTLA
With last count I’d heard at over 400 whiskies, Bar Jackalope is a concealed back bar that has been going strong since 2014 inside Seven Grand, which preceded LA’s cocktail/bar renaissance when it opened as a divey-hip shrine to whiskey back in 2007. Jackalope is the geekier side, recalling tiny, hidden bars throughout Tokyo. While you must ring a doorbell to get in, you can (and should) reserve seats ahead on Open Table. Black leather banquettes, dark woods, mounted jackalope heads and a mini-copper still are the ideal backdrop to sip a dram, smoke a cigar on the porch or sample a whisk(e)y flight.
What to Drink: A dram, naturally. There are a few standard whiskey cocktails, nicely done but not the main draw. www.barjackalope.com
Neat, Sawtelle/West LA
On the West side — which, given LA traffic and distances, is important to know when you’re in West LA — one of the better westside bars I’ve ever been to is the low-key neat. Opening in 2017, neat’s cocktails are good — not mind-blowing, but definitely good, and the 1200+ spirits selection is a pleasant surprise. Plenty of agave (mezcal-heavy) and some vintage whiskies line the list, while laid-back bartenders keep the lounge-y vibe of the space more chill (the mood heightens when old black-and-white movies are silently playing on a screen in the back of the bar).
What to Drink: Menus change but expect thoughtful but easy-drinking cocktails like High Plains Drifter (Peloton mezcal, bacanora, pear brandy, Aperol, firewater, lime) or Under My Thumb (Argonaut brandy, Giffard Vanille de Madagascar liqueur, Peychaud’s Aperitivo, Dimmi, lemon). www.neat.la
The Musso & Frank Grill, Hollywood
The kind of historic bars that line San Francisco or New Orleans aren’t as long of a list in LA, but one of the all-time greats remains, going strong on touristy, crowded Hollywood Boulevard since 1919: The Musso & Frank Grill. A beacon since Hollywood’s golden age, its storied Back Room, opening in 1934, hosted all manner of stars and Hollywood insiders. Sipping a martini at the weathered wood bar, you can imagine the days when Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Rudolph Valentino and Douglas Fairbanks were regulars. This gave way to Greta Garbo, Gary Cooper, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, then on to the 1950s when Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor and Jimmy Stewart would often stop in. You can almost feel the ghosts of days past in these rooms.
What to Drink: Musso’s martini, served by red-jacketed bartenders, many of whom have worked there for decades, is the drink to drink. With gin, as the original martini was meant to be.
Genever, Rampart Park
Genever is a welcome elegant yet relaxed haven in LA, dim with chandeliers, velvet banquettes and rose, gold and cream colors highlighting the art deco vibe. Filipina and female-run by Roselma Samala, Christine Sumiller and Patricia Perez, they opened the gin-focused bar in 2018 in L.A.’s historic Filipinotown neighborhood. While they offer gins (and flights of gin) from around the world, the cocktails feature a range of spirits, created by beverage director Kellie “Kelso” Norris and team. Some cocktails work better than others in terms of balance and focus. But the sweet staff and ambitious vision to feature spirits like Chinese baijiu or Philippines staples like Datu Puti vinegar or lambanog (traditional Filipino palm liquor) in cocktails makes Genever unique.
What to Drink: Besides gin flights, changing cocktails include the likes of Datu Datu (gin, dry vermouth, fish sauce, Datu Puti brine, house-cured olives and onions) or the gingery Ginto (Amass Gin, Ancho Reyes chili liqueur, golden turmeric shrub, ginger, citrus, candied ginger garnish). www.geneverla.com
Thunderbolt, Echo Park
Opening fall 2019, Thunderbolt immediately became an industry favorite for its spacious room, relaxed vibe and fun, Southern-tinged bites like white cheddar pimento cheese dip or pickled shrimp and grits. Their focus on efficiency and sustainability, as well as consistency, means they employed canned cocktails and a shorter list of ingredients for fast composition early on. Thankfully, their drinks go down easy without sacrificing quality.
What to Drink: Thunderbolt’s signature canned Tropipop sparkling pina colada is the drink that best exemplifies what the bar is all about, while a pandan-coconut-washed rye whiskey Old Fashioned called P-Town Boxing Club is a tribute to neighboring Filipinotown. Occasionally, a cocktail ups the complexity/interest factor for drink aficionados, like Fu Gwaa Falsetto, mixing Iichiko Saiten Shochu with beautifully funky Paranubes Mexican rum, Avéze gentian liqueur and manzanilla sherry, the subtle bitterness of the Avéze playing with fresh bittermelon, lemon and Li Hing Mui (salty dried Chinese plum). www.thunderboltla.com
Bar Flores, Echo Park
It is with a bit of a caveat I include Bar Flores: Opening August 2019, this relative newcomer in pandemic terms seemed to be particularly suffering from the staffing shortage everyone is struggling with. During my recent visit, too few staff worked hard to create drinks for a packed house (the grouchy doorman didn’t help). But one bartender went the extra mile to give a smile and kind word, turning out drinks that were crushable, easy, yet well-crafted. The back garden and upstairs main room overlooking Sunset Boulevard are transporting — in a city ideal for outdoor drinking, this back patio feels like a private house, laden with bougainvillea, umbrellas and paper lanterns. Karla Flores-Mercado, who founded the Sip LA cocktail pop-up, compiled a mostly female bar team, with a portrait of her grandmother above the bar. The popular bar Lowboy is a chill spot downstairs for burgers and straightforward cocktails.
What to Drink: The refreshing, lightly cream Rum Cocktail: rum, coconut milk, basil, lemongrass, lime, citrus zest; or the subtle, vegetal Mezcal Cocktail: mezcal, tomatillo juice, serrano peppers, lychee, agave, lime and tortilla serrano salt garnish. www.barflores.com
Opening in May 2021, Agnes is a cheese shop by day and a restaurant by night — one of LA’s best restaurant newcomers this year so far. But they also do right by spirits in their cocktails. Gracious Vanessa and Thomas Tilaka Kalb (she’s from LA, he hails from Iowa) met working at San Francisco’s award-winning Flour+Water, with a rich background in restaurants from SF, Chicago and LA. Midwest hospitality comes through with an international LA/California sensibility and freshness (try to resist chef Thomas’ fried California cheese curds, cornbread/chicken liver mousse eclair or killer pastas like loaded baked potato dumplings). With the restaurant named after Thomas’ maternal grandmother, Mary Agnes, who loved her gin and tonics, the cocktails are no afterthought.
What to Drink: Big Dill is a standout (great with food), combining Black Cow Vodka, Bimini Gin, Lillet Blanc, dill pickle brine and lemon bitters. Also with culinary vibes, try the savory, subtle Pio Pico: La Gritona Tequila, mint, lemon, sweet red pepper, clover honey. www.agnesla.com
Tiki-Ti, Los Feliz
There are more dramatic tiki bars globally — and certainly those serving more finessed, balanced tiki drinks. But Tiki-Ti is a tiny legend and a damn good time in one of two regions — San Francisco Bay Area/Oakland and Los Angeles — that brought the world tiki to begin with. From the land of Don the Beachcomber, Tiki-Ti didn’t open until 1961, nearly three decades after California launched a national tiki craze. Original bartender Ray Buhen bartended at Don the Beachcomber since its 1934 opening. Ray’s son and grandson carried on Tiki-Ti and its festive, welcoming vibe. This is best exemplified by their Uga Booga cocktail as everyone shouts “uga booga!” while the stiff drink is being prepared. Here I’ve met and chatted into the night with locals and felt time slip away.
What to Drink: Classics like a Zombie, Pain Killer or the aforementioned Uga Booga are good choices, but I also like to go with house classics like Ray’s Special or the tequila-rum-passionfruit-lime Jim’s Special. www.tiki-ti.com
Virginia Miller has been San Francisco editor for Zagat, VP of Content/National Editor at Table8, SF Guardian food/drink critic, Time Out and writes about spirits, cocktails and bars around the world at Liquor.com. Miller also freelances for Food Republic, Thrillist, Whisky Magazine UK, Paste Magazine, Where Magazine, London Times and Eater, to name a few. Virginia has judged countless food and cocktail competitions and on spirits panels. She shares her favorites in food and drink on her own site, The Perfect Spot.