The Varnish may very well have been the Ramones of the craft cocktail movement in LA, but a lot of the places that came after it were less “Anarchy in the UK,” more “Party In The USA.” Because while anyone can hop on a stage and sing, there’s just only ever going to be so many legit rock stars. Willingness, opportunity, and technical know-how can only take you so far. True rockstars are that rare breed who possess “it,” that elusive and undefinable quality that while indescribable, is instantly recognizable. Over the years I have met a great many bartenders who make kick-ass drinks, run top-notch programs, and give great gab behind the stick. But only a handful have “it.” And some of them, sadly, have lost “it,” usually after they went to work as industry consultants or booze brand ambassadors.
I can’t really blame the great ones who’ve gone to work for The Man. The bar life is a young person’s game. Up 'til dawn a lot of nights. Infinite booze, plentiful drugs, dangerous friends. And you’re often only as solvent as the tip you get from tonight’s problem drunk. The Man, on the other hand, has lots of money and isn’t shy about sharing. The Man will give you health insurance. Shit, he’ll give you a pension plan, an expense account and a travel budget. That’s the kind of security most gin slingers for hire will never know. It’s certainly a safer bet than opening your own bar in Hollywood. Still, it hurts when one of the great ones goes over to the other side. Like seeing your favorite musician stop making innovative new music and turn into a greatest hits act. You guys used to be the Rolling Fucking Stones! Do you even remember that? Oh that’s right, you don’t.
And let’s not forget, there are still many quality cocktail bars around, where the drinks are worth every pretty penny. But right now in LA, by my count, the defenders of the faith are outnumbered by the pretenders about two to one. And this is where you come in. Because the problem is not with the pretenders or the defenders.
The problem is us.
The only reason ersatz speakeasies and faux-dives can get away with selling us inferior product at inflated prices is because we buy it. If we’re going to fork over an hour’s wages for a cocktail, our taste buds damn sure better have a volcanic love eruption. Otherwise, we’re just part of the problem.
So don’t be intimidated by that fedora or that curly mustache or that insufferable attitude. Tell the entitled prick who just served you a nasty Pink Squirrel with Bon Iver’s beard clippings in it to kindly pack up his Meehan bag and Uberbartools and go try his bullshit on someone who pays $1,000 an hour to lick strangers’ feet in Koreatown. There’s only so much abuse the rest of us can handle.
That said, once we bar-goers rise up as one and send these blood-sucking leeches back to their unfinished MBAs, we will have another problem on our hands. What do we do with the legion of talent-free zombie bartenders left without employment in the wake of the Crappy Craft Cocktail Purge? Luckily, a potential solution presented itself later that very same night.
“Want to try something different?” my chucklehead friend asked, after I declined another Last Word
“You know how to make a Glen Matlock?” I replied.
“I’m not sure if I... ”
“You crack open a Genesee Cream ale, then pour in a shot of Jack. Then you pour in another shot of Jack.”
“But... ” I could see a tiny spark behind his eyes struggling to stay alive.
“Stay with me here, this is the important part. You give the can a swirl, then as you start chugging it, have your best friend punch you in the head. Hard.”
“Are you saying... ” the spark was losing. I felt its pain.
“Then it’s his turn,” I said as I saw the tiny spark finally give up and snuff itself out. “All the kids downtown are doing it. It’s the next thing.”
“Oh, I get it,” he replied, with a knowing smile. “So you want one of those?”
“That depends,” I replied. “Will you be my best friend?”
After a long pause, he nervously dipped his head ever so slightly. An approximation of a nod.
“Outstanding,” I exclaimed, slapping the bar. “First one’s on me.”
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Dan Dunn, in conversation with Time magazine’s Joel Stein, discusses and signs his latest book, American Wino: A Tale of Reds, Whites and One Man’s Blues, on April 14th at 7 pm at Book Soup. Follow Dan on Twitter and Instagram.