Midnight Mixologists: Damian Windsor’s Toplist

This Australian-born spirit master knows how to shake things up. Damian Windsor is swiftly becoming the go-to guy for the freshest and most unique cocktails, serving up one-of-a-kind drinks at the hottest spots in town. Currently, you can find him concocting his creations at West Hollywood speakeasy The Roger Room, where he consistently puts his spin on classic cocktails. Not only is Windsor making a name for himself behind the bar, but he is also the co-founder of For Medical Purposes, a consulting company that helps restaurants and bars improve their mixology. Windsor is pouring himself to the top, one drink at a time. Check out Damian’s Windsor’s favorite spots to grab a cocktail in L.A.

The Roger RoomEl CarmenJones HollywoodThe VarnishProvidenceTiki TiBuffalo ClubThe Rainbow Bar & GrillTonga Hut

See more Midnight Mixologists toplists here.

British Invasion: The Pimm’s Cup Takes Over L.A.

The Pimm’s Cup has a long and proud history in Britain, one of tennis and big hats and dressing in summer whites. A polo match practically doesn’t count if there isn’t any Pimm’s on hand to sip whilst stomping divots. Pimm’s No. 1, the liquor the drink is built around, was first assembled in the 1860s, a heady mixture of gin, a liqueur, fruit, and various spices. To make a Pimm’s Cup, one adds something sparkly (like ginger ale or carbonated lemonade) plus citrus and cucumber. Unsurprisingly, this concoction is popular in the grand hotels lining the beach in Santa Monica (aka California’s Little England). But over the past couple of months, it’s become the cocktail to order amongst L.A.’s coolest imbibers.

Perhaps it was this year’s World Cup that spurred the lust for Pimm’s on the West Coast. Such was the demand for the stuff that there was a rush for Pimm’s No. 1 at the Whole Foods in Venice Beach, where they actually sold out of the previously dusty, neglected bottles.

The traditional preparation of a Pimm’s Cup makes it an excellent day drink, perfect for quaffing on a balcony at Shutters or the Shangri-La, two hotels with tried-and-true versions. Coming into L.A.’s real summer (August to October, where nights can reach 80 degrees), it’s a perfectly acceptable evening cocktail, too. And with all the fruit and liquid additions that go into a Cup, the drink is a good match for L.A.’s current mixology obsession.

The most interesting bars in the city are experimenting with their own, updated renditions. At Varnish, the drink is called the Fruit Cup. The bar mixes its own base (gin, Grand Marnier, cherry Heering, and CarpanoAntica Formula) and adds muddled fruit, cucumbers, and Sprite to finish it. The not-quite-native When in London is Drago Centro’s contribution — their version adds straight gin to the Pimm’s-and-fruit base. Now we’re moving quickly away from sparkly drink territory and into the land of serious boozing.The Brits would appreciate the gesture.

Drago’s Pimm’s Cup, in addition to increasing the alcohol content, makes use of strained berries for a deeper flavor. At First & Hope, the barkeeps stick to citrus but make their own Pimm’s, and add ginger beer for a darker, spicier flavor.

With lingering World Cup fever, a hot Indian summer, and a city-wide passion for complicated cocktails, L.A. has made itself a Pimm’s Cup town.

The Varnish & the Art of the Cocktail

A few weeks ago I met some friends for drinks at Cole’s, one of the oldest eating establishments in Los Angeles. As I ate one of their famous French dip sandwiches, which they invented, I noticed a steady stream of people going into a little red door in the back of the room and not coming out. It was like a secret portal of some kind. (Did it lead to the Island, I wondered? Sorry, I’ve watched too much Lost.)

It turns out it was a portal — to a speakeasy set somewhere in 30s, with dark wood walls and lush, red ceilings, with little Tiffany lamps and bartenders with rolled-up shirt sleeves and pants with suspenders, and girls with flapper dresses and feathers in their hair. This would be The Varnish.

I looked over and noticed one Sasha Petraske, cocktail connoisseur of New York City, also sporting the suspenders-and-rolled-up-sleeves outfit, and thought, not too smartly, what’s he doing here?

Petraske and I go way back, thanks to me working with his mum at the Village Voice in the factchecking department. It was because of her that I was ever able to enter the ultra-exclusive confines of his very first bar, Milk and Honey in the Lower East Side.

“Hey Sasha,” I said to him, after asking about his mom. “I heard you’re opening a bar here.”

“Yeah,” he said, pointing at the floor. “This is it.”

(See I told you, I’m not too smart.)

That was just a soft opening of the Varnish — which Petraske opened with his former partner Eric Alperin, himself no cocktail slouch (see Osteria Mozza, Seven Grand, Little Branch, Milk and Honey), and a generous host to boot.

“We ‘ve been wanting to open a backroom lounge — I hate to use the term ‘speakeasy’ because we’re not a speakeasy,” said Alperin of their new project. “Something with a bit of intimacy, a bit of adventure. ”

The renovation of Cole’s last year provided a perfect opportunity in the form of a storage room. “We could build what we wanted,” said Alperin of the space in the landmarked building. “It wasn’t protected by the Historical Society, ’cause there was nothing historic.”

On a weekday, it was already looking like it would be a difficult task to get a seat in a bar that’s small enough to qualify as tiny even in New York. And on a return visit last Friday night, we waited a good 25 minutes before sitting at a two-top table. We sampled a few of their specialties, including the Palma Fizz (vodka, lime, ginger, rose water, and seltzer), which was artfully made. First, he poured a yellowish liquid into a tall glass, then he appeared to light something on fire, drizzling its contents inside (fairy dust? magic? love potion number nine?), before delicately adding the other ingredients. It was more gingery than I’d anticipated — my cohort liked the ginger beer qualities of the drink — but I was looking for something a little less tangy.

Our waitress suggested I try something so secret it wasn’t even on the menu: The Penicillin. She returned with a golden drink swallowing a giant, uncut slab of ice — a signature detail at the Varnish. It had lemon, ginger, honey, and Laphroaig. It was just the right mix of tart and sweet, a balance that the Varnish seems to strive for. Those sickly sweet drinks of your youthful indiscretions — the rum and cokes, the vodka-crans, the gin and sodas — they ruined your cocktail palate.

“I think we’re trying to bring back classic recipes, where there’s a bit more care involved, a bit more of a culinary craft.” said Alperin. “There’s not a lot of prefab ingredients or mixers.”

And there are even some ingredients that might raise your eyebrows. “People would think egg whites would be weird,” said Alperin. “I don’t find it strange … I think we have things that definitely wow the pants off of people, and that’s great.” (The egg white drink is called Eagle’s Dream, in case you’re feeling adventurous.)

My hardier friend braved a drink called Remember the Maine (rye, vermouth, heering, absinthe). I knew just by smelling it that it would grow hair on my chest. I took a sip, and though I initially thought it’d be too intense, the finish shifted and softened as our bellies warmed from the rye. It was quite pleasant, actually. She drained her glass.

Thanks to my generous friend, we’d taken a cab from Culver City ($60 round trip!) and were free to drink as much as our much-diminished tolerances could hold.

Which brings me to the awkward problem of the “new cocktailian” movement, as LA Weekly food critic Jonathan Gold has dubbed the influx of high-toned bars encroaching upon Los Angeles: How do you create a cocktail culture in a city where everyone has to drive?

“Move downtown,” laughed Alperin.

Another answer? One expertly made drink at a time.

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