Near the head of a residential street, half-hidden by trees, and closely neighboring the towering gray transformers of an Edison electric substation, you'll find a hundred year old house that could easily be mistaken for just another quaint little Pasadena residence—but this is, in fact, the home of some very serious cocktail craft.
In front is the respected Raymond restaurant, but if you walk around the back, over the brick-laden path, under the trellised fern overhang, you'll come to a frosted glass door with the etching: 1886.
Launched in fall 2010 by Aidan Demarest and Marcos Tello (known for spots like The Varnish, Seven Grand, and The Edison), Bar 1886's entire drink menu changes every season. The Autumn menu should debut in mid-September.
Inside, low lights, a few soft brown leather benches, and knee-high tables are cosy for intimate gatherings; outside, a garden patio accommodates larger parties. The physical bar itself is rather short—but this means you're always in close proximity to the bartender. It brings a casual attitude to ordering your drink, as you can stand and chat with the bartender while your drinks are being made.
On their recent summer menu, 1886 gave tiki drinks the craft treatment with "Their" and "Our" options, bridging classical favorites like the Zombie, with new tiki-inspired cocktails. For example, their Tale of Two Raymonds ($15, named after the Raymond restaurant and a certain Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt—better known to some as tiki godfather Don the Beachcomber) is slightly less sweet than other drinks rocking the familiar tropical flavors of pineapple and lime, and includes elegant flourishes like Camus Cognac, and house-made grenadine. Rum? It has three kinds: Rhum Clement, Lemon Hart 151, and a Plantation Barbados 5 Year that layers a wonderful spicy depth to the sweet-tart drink, and provides the strong backbone that any true tiki cocktail requires. Swizzled up and served over crushed ice, the glass is over a foot tall.
Don't let the tropical tiki fun, or their winks at sleazy shooters (Sake Bombs, Sex on the Beach Popsicles, and more) lead you to think the folks at Bar 1886 aren't serious about cocktails. For those who tend to order Manhattans, there's a boozy side of the menu, too. The Ciudad de Oro ($15) looks unassuming, with its deep garnet color and the Luxardo cherry waiting at the bottom of the coupe, but what a smack of flavor it gives. Coffee-infused 12 Year El Dorado Rum is stirred with bittersweet Cynar and anisey Herbsaint for a deliciously rich cocktail, coffee-forward with subtle floral notes, like a high-end South American chocolate. They're also known for a little spirits-swapping: try the smoky mezcal Old Fashioned or the rich Rum Manhattan.
On a Monday night, you can pretend the bar is yours. With low conversations in the corners, offering your friend a place in the bar feels like you're offering them a seat at your kitchen table. You can discuss the nonsense of the day, then trade drinks and silently mouth WOW to each other.
Come Friday it's more like a gathering, and you'll become friendly with the crowd as you patiently wait out your turn, guessing what the couple in front of you is having, and hearing rumors about the off-the-menu options: "The Smoking Jacket?" "You have to try it. It's a spectacle." (Hint: creating that drink does involve smoke and fire.)
And it does turn heads when the bartender's creating that magic. Like many of their other seasonal gems, it's not always on the menu, and not always available, but it's worth a drive to Pasadena to check it out. You don't have plans for tonight, do you?
About the Author: Elana Lepkowski is a Los Angeles based home-schooled mixologist who photographs and shares her cocktail recipes at StirAndStrain.com. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter as @elanabean where she sometimes forgets she needs a filter.