A taxidermied bear sporting a Masonic sash and a skull and bones apron. A portrait of Frederick Douglass. Old whiskey barrels stacked here and there. And cabinets displaying all sorts of odd baubles and bric-a-brac. Wander around the new Sassafras Saloon in Hollywood, and its eclectic decor of quirky southern relics can eerily evoke an old antebellum home in the Deep South (or at least the set of a Bizarro OutKast video).
This down-south homey feeling is, quite literally, by design—an old Savannah townhouse was actually deconstructed in Georgia and then transported and resurrected within the space at Sassafras in Los Angeles. Past the fern-covered front porch, the cavernous interior boasts an open-air stage on a second floor balcony for live bands, as well as multiple fireplaces, sitting rooms, and parlors festooned with antique furniture—plenty of space to sit, sip, and soak in the dimly lit surroundings.
Besides its Southern roots, many of the bar's drinks reveal roots of another (more literal) kind. There are three different housemade ginger beers, as well as a house brewed sarsaparilla made from Sassafras root. Not only are the ginger beers used in a DIY "Build Your Own Buck" menu option (customers choose a base spirit to be mixed with their choice of Classic, Strawberry Mint, or Apple Spice ginger beer), but the sarsaparilla is used in the bar's namesake cocktail known as the Sassafras Royale—a rye-spiked, deconstructed root beer float.
Working this root voodoo behind the bar are head bartender Aaron Stepka, and bar manager Jared Mort (also of Oldfields and La Cuevita).
"We wanted every drink on our menu to have something that we made by hand," said Mort. "And we wanted to develop cocktails that we thought were evocative of familiar Southern flavors."
These "familiar Southern flavors" are embodied by the peaches, pecans, and molasses that lace some of Sassafras' house cocktails such as the Grilled Peach Punch, Toasted Pecan Julep, and Blackstrap Old Fashioned.
In addition, Sassafras also offers an ambitious program of barrel-aged cocktails that features seven "classic" drinks (such as the Mai Tai, Sazerac, and Manhattan) that are mixed in batches and poured into oak barrels for aging.
"We start with cocktails that, traditionally, may have some very harsh flavors. Aging these cocktails in barrels mellows out those flavors," explained Mort. "After they go in barrels, we taste the cocktails on a regular basis until we decide that they have picked up enough oakiness and spice. But if it goes for too long, the drink will just taste like a toothpick. So when we think it reaches the right point, we immediately transfer the booze into bottles."
To showcase these bottles of barrel-aged cocktails, another unique piece of decor is utilized. Hanging above the bar, within arm's reach of the barkeep, is an ever-rotating dry cleaning carousel. But instead of hanging laundry, the carousel was repurposed as a slowly moving merry-go-round for Sassafras' barrel-aged bounty.
When a barrel-aged cocktail is ordered, the bartender simply reaches up overhead, unhooks the appropriately labeled bottle, and dispenses the tipple as needed.
"Sassafras is a place where people can come and enjoy some really unique cocktails and flavor profiles that have taken a lot of time and work to develop," said Mort. "I think these flavors and combinations can remind people of the South, and provide some kind of new nostalgia."
About the author: Marvin Gapultos is the author of the Filipino food blog, Burnt Lumpia. His first cookbook is due out in 2013. When he isn't cooking or writing about Filipino food, Marvin is usually enjoying a beer or cocktail, and thinking about what to eat with said beer or cocktail. You can follow him on Twitter @BurntLumpia.