There are two words common in the Southern California lexicon that you will not hear come out of the mouth of Eric Alperin, lead bartender and proprietor at The Varnish in Los Angeles: organic and seasonal. The reason is not for want of respect for ingredients, as the careful mise en place reveals, but rather a shift in focus from seasonal produce to historical precision.
"We're a very classic cocktail program," says Alperin of the bar he runs with Sasha Petraske and Cedd Moses, "So we like to say that we're not reinventing the wheel, we're just helping it to turn smoother." Even The Varnish's 'Originals', which are twists on classic cocktails, don't stray too far. One ingredient may be replaced with another, but the basic structure remains intact. "We call it the Mr. Potato Head theory," Alperin muses.
Unflagging deference to historically precise cocktails of yore continues to draw patrons to this dark bar that, in its former life, served as a storage room in the back of Cole's French Dip. "People ask us, 'Oh, what do you make with mango?'" Alperin says, "It's just not in our wheelhouse."
At The Varnish, there are about six bartenders in rotation, and each is well versed in both working the floor and shaking cocktails behind the bar. As Alperin puts it, "The ideal is that everybody in this family knows how to do everyone's job so that there's no position that is greater, or more important, or 'Oh, that job's cooler than this.'" He continues, "[It's] as if you were on a sailboat or pirate ship, and all of a sudden, something happened, and you had to run in and take over someone's position." Alpern, who has experience racing sailboats, explains that when he was first drawn toward bartending, "[It] looked like I could take control of an area, and I was right, because I'm a little bit of a control freak when it comes to my space. Being behind the bar, thinking of it like a boat, it's a real maritime environment." As for the wheelhouse, it encompasses cocktails from the turn of the century to the 1950s. "Give or take," Alperin allows, noting there is sometimes spillover into the 1960s.
The cocktail menu at The Varnish is small, and rotates about four times a year. At any given time, the menu includes five $13 cocktails, plus a bartender's choice. The drinks are served on a tray surrounding a votive candle. "We think about what kind of glass, what kind of ice, what kind of garnish, what kind of a style [the cocktail] is," Alperin says, "So that if you order all five of the drinks that are on the menu, and they all sat around that candle on the tray, it would look like a very original bouquet." Sticking to the classic vision, the bartender's choice is chosen from thousands of "tried and true classic drinks from the history books."
The cocktails at The Varnish continue draw praise; most recently the bar won the Best American Cocktail Bar prize at the Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards. But accolades don't get to Alperin's head. "We really care about making people happy and being gracious and hospitable, so on that note, I think we're definitely on point. But," he continues, "I gotta tell you, there are a lot of great bars."
We asked Alperin to share all 5 cocktails on The Varnish's current menu. Check them out in the slideshow above.