Allan Katz practically grew up making cocktails, but once he decided to make it his career, he worked with libation luminaries like Dale DeGroff and Tony Abu-Ganim developing cocktails and opening bars in New York City. After a stint working as beverage director for Zak Pelaccio's NYRSG, he crossed the country to sunnier climes and landed in Los Angeles. Today, Allan gives us a primer on the wonderful world of rum and tells us a little about the differences between East coast and West coast cocktail cultures.
What was your first experience behind a bar?
My first experience behind a bar involved pulling draughts for salty old Irishmen at this great pub in Sunnyside that's changed hands a bit since but retained the pubby greatness. My first real gig as a bartender? TGI f*cking Fridays. At a mall. On Long Island. It was actually a few of the best years of my life. I haven't worked with a greater crew of deviants and misfits since. Taught me nothing about making a quality drink, but it did teach me damn near all I needed to know about efficiently running a bar that makes them.
When did you start creating your own cocktails?
Let's just say that when most kids were stealing their first sip of Bud Light at a barbecue I was having a blast making caipirissimas in my uncle's kitchen while he was roasting up some pernil. "Here's some chunks of lime, sugar, a stick, and rum. Now bash that stuff with the stick, add ice, cover it with this metal pint thing, and shake it till it's freezing cold." How could that not appeal to a kid? It wasn't until I'd started working at TGI McFunster's at the ripe old age of 21 that I saw the canyon that lay between something as simple as fresh citrus and what 99.9% of bars used to make drinks.
How do you come up with ideas for new cocktails? Any particular ingredients towards which you tend to gravitate?
Sometimes I'll be eating something and think, why can't booze get in on this flavor party? Like one afternoon we're having tacos al pastor. And I think, well cilantro, lime, chiles, and cooked pineapple are awesome together. I could drop the pork and make a swizzle outta this! Nowadays, many bartenders don't even bother with dropping the pork.
Our regulars at Caña are pretty awesome, and its not uncommon they come in with notes on their iPhone of a cocktail they had in their travels. Then they kindly ask us to mess with it. It's like having a scouting department.
If there's one ingredient I gravitate towards, it's probably pineapple syrup. I dare you to find something it doesn't go well with. From rye to London dry, it all goes so damn well with that stupid syrup. So I 86 it as an ingredient when working on a new menu, because I know it'll work its way in there by the end of the season somehow.
What are some of the differences between the cocktail cultures in NYC and LA?
1. Driving. You never appreciated NYC transit so much until you're marooned with no hope of sober transport beyond a $40 text to taxi magic. This affects bars greatly, as that third or fourth drink that fills the tip jar and keeps the lights on is not an option for many guests. I'm very fortunate to have landed in downtown LA, because otherwise I'd be encouraging death on a daily basis with my usual antics.
2. "But what is your specialty?" Until I arrived in L.A., I was hardly ever asked what the best drink is, or what my personal specialty is. It still cracks me up. Any of our tenders have 300 recipes bouncing around in their heads at any given time. The drinks that make it to the menu are our favorites. The ones we're happy making night after night that all add up to us putting our best foot forward. And yet people get very insistent that there's some golden ticket we're hiding when we ask 'em what they like to determine what they want.
It's been written before that people out here are all about produce and people out there are all about spirits, but after being here for a little while I can say that people appreciate a good cocktail just as much in LA as they do in NYC and it's not like everyone there wants Manhattans and everyone here wants smashes. And the spirit geeks here are just as devoted as the Brandy Library student body.
You're now at Caña, which specializes in rum. Did you study up on rum before you started there? How many different kinds of rum do you have there?
Rum wasn't my first love. She was the first girl to break my heart then screw some dude in some band I couldn't stand. It's a longstanding relationship. And studying up for Caña was very necessary. Luckily before packing for California I'd been nursing the cane jones for months since the stories in Sippin' Safari suddenly cast those tiki cocktails and the odd ratios of rum that went into 'em in a whole new light.
Rum is easily the most prolific spirit. Light rum was the original vodka, if you see vodka as a blank canvas for other flavors [Audrey Saunders' analogy, I can't bite her style]. I can plunk down 6 bottles of scotch and provide you a survey of the category. 6 of gin (genever, old tom, Plymouth, Beefeater, and two new school gins) and you get the same. American whiskey? Even fewer. Rum? Well, you need a white, an aged, and an very old representation of the dominant distilling traditions, so there's at least nine right there. Then navy, spiced, cachaça, American (there's enough now to call it a genre)... we're not even counting those odd ball rums from Austria, Nepal, India (#2 selling rum in the world), Southeast Asia, or even Newfoundland. Or the delightfully funky 'n' powerful rums of Australia. It goes on and on. So we keep about 120 on hand in case someone wants to get into a really long discussion that ends in a cab ride they don't remember.
What is a good starter rum for someone who is just warming up to it as a spirit to sip on its own?
If you like Highland Scotch, you're in it for the smooth hits. You might float some ice in that bong water. More Mayer than Mötörhead. I get it. The greatness of Zacapa is undeniable and you'll join the ranks of its worshippers. If you're a neat rye drinking "I know what I'm doing" type, start with Plantation Jamaica. It's bold, but not abrasive. If you've got a friend like Lindsey that likes their Stagg without a drop of water, allow them to keep punishing themselves with Smith and Cross the same way. It's the old school pure pot-stilled dark side of Jamaican rum.
Do you currently have a favorite cocktail on the menu?
It's a Twist on a Twist. I felt like it's been long enough since everyone riffed the f*ck out of the Last Word, that we pop a pair of variations on the list. Like a joke that ends in, "Too Soon?" We swap Maraschino for Luxardo Sangue Morlacco: The blood of the musky cherry. Lime remains lime, but Chartreuse gets traded for Cio Ciaro and gin for Smith & Cross. A dash of Ango finishes the beast. Since it's got some very dense ingredients, we give it a whip shake after shaking with ice to dissolve all the lil' crystals and let it form this porter-looking kinda head. Really pleasing texture, and it looks cool.
How do you go about naming your cocktails?
One of my best friends writes a haiku for every girl he sleeps with. They're hilarious. And you can actually pick out a few of the victims based on their haikus. In kind, a drink's name should give you an idea of what you're getting into. The Deerhunter: it's about three ingredients playing Russian roulette. Every time I churn out another spicy swizzle, it gets named after a Sam Cooke song, because that's what was on the radio the first time we adulterated rum with chilies at home. So Mary's Place became a Camptown Twist when it moved uptown and got hit with pineapple syrup. At Caña a Gordon's Cup with white demerara rum becomes a Stepping Razor. Then we split the base between that rum and Genever because they happen to have a lot in common. Now it's called a London Cut. I try to hit as many bases as possible, from religious figures to porn stars to certain species of blackberry: nothing's sacred.
Tell us about the Caña Rum Society.
It's inspired by Seven Grand's Whiskey Society. When John Coltharp opened the joint he wanted to carry over 7G's best habits. We've got these monthly meetings where we taste rum led by the rumdood himself, Mr. Matt Robold. We pick out the rum based on a theme, or mutual whim. Rules for rum entries are simple: Nobody pays to play. We only ask for enough rum to taste everyone in the bar. If it's not worthy of discussion, we won't feature it. Caña's unique status as a members' club allows for these kinds of shenanigans, and gives everyone that enters an honest invitation to join the fun, whether they wanna learn something about rum or just swill some free top notch hooch the last Tuesday of each month. And for $20 a year everyone gets to pretend they're fancy.
Where do you like to drink in LA when you're not working?
My favorite bars in town for a night off: St. Nick's, Hank's, and that place that says "B a R" behind the Thai joint on Santa Monica by the 101. I like to sink into a dive if I'm out on my night off. Or chill by the sea at Venice Ale House and listen to the weirdo lounge singer on the boardwalk. And Tony's is really ill. Comfy like a dive, but clean and with a wall of the kinda booze I'd stock if I was expecting nuclear attack. Also has the best pizza in LA next door now. Yeah, I said it.
What's your go-to drink at the end of the night?
Go-to end of the night drink: Usually three fingers of rye with my dog at my feet. Nights when we're just getting started: I'll drink Breddah Kimo's Da Bomb Extreme rum 'n' coconut water to both get hydrated and catch up with my drunk friends as quickly as possible. Then it's off to the creepy K-town after-hours and everything that's not fit to print.
What trends do you anticipate in spring cocktail menus this year?
Rhubarb: I don't know how it happened, but man does rhubarb get a workout every spring. Cucumbers. They're fresh 'n' green. Nothing new here, either. The kids are messin' with bigger 'n' bigger garnishes these days. It's pretty cool, getting roasted cherry tomatoes and fried herbs skewered over your mezcal sour. A drink and a snack. The flood of new [to the US] amari and digestifs will keep turning out more bittersweet hits. Something I'm sick of: Renaming classic cocktails. The word pollution continues. I'm not calling anyone out per sé, but if you add a dash of ango to a classic, it doesn't warrant changing the name and denying someone else the credit of having made a drink that's endured decades of jerks like you. That's just poor sportsmanship.