Who’s drinking what in Los Angeles, and where are they drinking it?
The classics remain strong–the Martini is like that battery Robert Conrad would put on his shoulder in an old television commercial and then say, “Go ahead: I dare you.” No one could knock it off. But most establishments augment their offerings with a list of specialty cocktails. Silly drinks, though, with embarrassing names or a kitchen sink approach to mixology seem to have faded. Few bars mention Sex On The Beach, Screaming Orgasms, or even the venerable Long Island Ice Tea, as big sellers these days.
In an area (LA-Long Beach market) with the largest Asian population, the largest Hispanic population and the fourth largest black population in the US, Los Angelenos are strikingly similar to the rest of the urban centers when it comes to cocktails, but their buying power is enormous, the third highest in the US according to Sales & Marketing Management.
International travel, immigration, information technology and other factors clearly have affected LA, bringing both new people and new sources of information into the United States. In a country of immigrants, where the flow of peoples continues unabated, each group brings with it large parts of its culture, including both food and drink. Latin immigrants have imported and helped popularize a number of new trends, from music to cocktails. Salsa and other Latin-based beats are hot in LA, as are Latin-themed clubs, like the ever-crowded Conga Room.
Pisco, Cachacha and other Latin liquors, which most gringos had never heard of only a year or two ago, are here to stay. But however strong the Latin presence, there’s no sign yet that any of the Brazilian, Cuban and Peruvian drinks so quickly making their way into the mainstream are yet ready to take on the Martini for supremacy at the bar.
Call Over Well
Another trend seems important in alcohol consumption in the City of Angels: the rise of calls over well drinks. Which spirits consumers favor appears to vary widely from bar to bar, though vodka, via the Martini and the Cosmopolitan, is definitely number one by an enormous margin. But with the strong Latin trend, both rum and tequila have developed a huge following, and single batch bourbons, single malt Scotches and even top brandies have their partisans.
But the popularity of some spirits and cocktails vary greatly from establishment to establishment. Rum gets no calls at C Bar, a trendy Deco nightspot dedicated to vodka. At the Los Angeles branch of The Palm, though, apparently a more well-rounded and open-minded crowd imbibes, as there’s virtually no spirit that someone’s not drinking.
Sure, you could rhumba with a Martini in one hand, but you need the right spirit–either rum or pisco–to get into the spirit and beat of Latin music and culture. (Pisco, an unaged brandy produced from the Muscat grape grown in the Ica Valley, in Peru, and matured in clay jars, takes its name from the southern port from which it is shipped.)
Ciudad, a new Latin-themed restaurant in downtown Los Angeles, specializes in rum, but also favors pisco, which it uses in its variation on the Margarita, the Piscorita. The pisco sour and Capirinha also sell extremely well.
And while these various new-to-the-mainstream drinks represent the cutting edge, there’s another Latin favorite that shows no signs of slowing: the Margarita. (LA already consumes more than twice the amount of tequila than any other city, and is ranked one, two or three in virtually every other spirit category, according to Adams Business Media’s Liquor Handbook.) Soon to open in West Los Angeles: Tres Margaritas, a restaurant where the legendary Latin cocktail will be prepared tableside.
Tried and True
Speaking of old favorites, who would have guessed that the Martini, created near the turn of the century and wildly popular in its early decades, would have such a stranglehold on today’s bar scene? By the 1960s, the Martini was anything but a drink of youth, but the birth of cocktail culture with its embrace of retro and kitsch has crowned it king of the bar.
By 1995, Martinis were everywhere but had begun to morph into the countless forms common today in which not only gin but even vodka is no longer considered an essential ingredient. In fact, the only irreplaceable ingredient in the modern Martini in LA seems to be the glass.
Today, it’s not unusual for the most ordinary bar to list ten or more variations on the Martini, while places that specialize in the cocktail often list several dozen. Loren Dunsworth, owner of Lola’s, a restaurant and Martini bar catering heavily to the film, television and music crowd, lists 52 Martinis on her specialty cocktail menu, and the Martini is by far the biggest selling cocktail in the house. But it’s not the gin and vermouth classic here. The single hottest is the Apple Martini, which is said to have been invented here and has since spread across the city and well beyond.
At Lola’s, where the Martini is definitely still king, it’s difficult to imagine anything ever knocking it off its throne. Martini sales account for 75% of the bar at Lola’s, and virtually everything is call and premium, with Ketel One the number one seller, according to beverage manager Greg Huebner. Still, tequila sales are increasing, both in margaritas and shots. “We have 25 tequilas,” Huebner says. “We sell mostly margaritas, with some of the very high end stuff straight up in snifters.”
Fruity yet sophisticated drinks, like the suave Cosmopolitan, sometimes appear to be just one paper umbrella or plastic monkey away from the tacky, often sickly sweet cocktails favored by once-popular Hawaiian and Polynesian bars. But at LA hotspots, including the kitschy-retro Trader Vic’s, drinkers imbibe everything from the Mai Tai to the Scorpion, though new variations made with premium liquors seem to dominate some lists.
Welcome to the
At the Regent Beverly Wilshire, site of the filming of Pretty Woman and a perennially popular hangout, The Main Bar is the primary spot for drinking, and Martinis are the drink of choice, according to Peter Karpinski, director of restaurants for the hotel. “We sell a lot of Martinis, they’re extremely popular.” But Karpinski strives to make his stand out from the pack: “Our Martini is four ounces, and we only use premium spirits.” His list of “designer” Martinis, including watermelon, apple and Cosmopolitan varieties, use Ketel One vodka or Bombay Sapphire gin.
Karpinski is generally bullish on the cocktail industry. “Our bar business is going through the roof,” he says. “All products are on the upswing.” He attributes the growth to the strong economy and to people finally accepting the relatively new laws banning smoking in bars, which operators in other cities blame for sinking revenues. “People who used to avoid bars because of the smoke are pouring in.”
Wine by the glass business is strong, too, he reports, and the bar offers eight white wines and seven reds. Karpinski estimates that bottle and glass sales of wine represent up to 40% of bar sales. “Because we’ve also got the restaurant, we’re able to offer the full wine list at the bar,” he explains.
The offerings are predominantly California, with a French white and an Italian red thrown in. “Anyone can come in and find something they like.”
Designed to feel like it’s been around forever, Jones Hollywood is a relatively new nightspot in Hollywood. General manager Keith McCarthy labels his clientele “old school” drinkers, not the fiercely trendy, but the bar’s not immune to current trends. Flavored Martinis, including apple and raspberry, have grown in popularity, he says, up 10 to 15% over just two years ago.
The Porch Restaurant at The House of Blues
“We were one of the first places to get Sour Apple Pucker,” he says of the Apple Martini’s key ingredient. “The Apple Martini alone is maybe 5% of our total bar sales. All Martinis together make up 10-12%.” Vodka is the number one selling spirit, followed by tequila and then bourbon.
There’s a rock and roll attitude at Jones, so it’s not surprising that they sell a lot of Jack Daniel’s, whether with coke, on the rocks or in Manhattans. The bartenders created a number of custom drinks, variations on classic whiskey cocktails, named after old rock stars (Sid Vicious, Joan Jett), and all have Jack Daniels in them.