In a city where classic cocktails are strictly defined, and where the word "gastropub" has reached the end of its shelf life, the compulsion to attach a label to anything having to do with food or drink is strong. But a closer look at the bar at The Tasting Kitchen in Los Angeles reveals something that resists categorization.
The man behind the bar at The Tasting Kitchen is Justin Pike, whose bartending days began in Boston before moving to Portland, Oregon, where he worked with Jeffrey Morgenthaler at Clyde Common, then at clarklewis with Casey Lane (now the chef at The Tasting Kitchen). When The Tasting Kitchen emerged in 2009, Lane called on Pike to shape the bar program, looking for someone with "a Northwest angle," as Pike puts it. "In the Northwest there's a little more experimentation," he says.
The bar menu starts with accessible house cocktails and classics on the Gentleman's List and moves into barrel-aged cocktails. Pike began barrel aging while working with Morgenthaler, who famously pioneered the genre by pouring a Negroni into a whiskey cask. But there's also a semi-secret "postcard" menu: a short list of cocktails printed on the back of a vintage postcard. "If you're excited or if you come in a lot, we'll hand it out to you, and you can check out what we're excited about right now," says Pike.
One look at the bar reveals an apothecary's dream of drams, syrups, tonics, and bitters—many the result of in-house experimentation. Instead of rows of freshly squeezed juices, there is housemade wormwood syrup and tobacco dram. "What I enjoy are some of the more obscure products," says Pike. "Some of the stuff that's interesting but also educational in terms of what it is or where it's from."
Pike layers techniques to create something greater than the sum of their parts. He describes the barrel-aged Tipperary Fizz, a "very round rich drink" made with Irish whiskey, Green Chartreuse, and sweet vermouth. "I started playing around with other ways to use this essentially aged thing, this cocktail," Pike says, "And I found that if you made it into a sour after aging, it had a really beautiful texture to it."
Pike emphasizes the collaborative process involved in creating the menu and introduces Ryan Wainwright, one of three other bartenders at The Tasting Kitchen. Wainwright, who focuses on the "misused, underused, or under-appreciated," began his career as a bartender at 515 Kitchen and Cocktails in Santa Cruz. Pike notes that "it's almost like [these cities are] in a little bubble of their own, so...they're not tied down to tradition. You can think of the same analogy in art, where someone in Italy would maybe be a little tied to Renaissance art, but they grew up in the middle of nowhere, so they don't really know that."
The art references are frequent when chatting with these two—it turns out that Pike worked as an illustrator and Wainwright has a background in photography. Pike compares the simplicity of Wainwright's cocktails to modern art. "Some of those abstract artists are very simple, like one line," Pike observes, "And that's kind of the same thread I'd say that Ryan has." Creating new cocktails involves quite a bit of dialogue among the staff. But if there is one rule of thumb, he says, it's this: "if you want to put a drink on the menu, you always want to ask if you'd drink more than one."
What should you order if you stop by The Tasting Kitchen? Check out the slideshow for 5 of Pike and Wainwright's favorite drinks on the menu.
The Tasting Kitchen
About the author: Sarah Woo is a pasture-raised, California girl paired with slow-grilled Santa Maria tri-tip and piquant Korean kimchi. Check out her food adventures at Winner Celebration Party. You can also follow her on Twitter at @wcpartyparty.