Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards: The Varnish is America’s Best Cocktail Bar

The Varnish, Downtown Los Angeles – Photo courtesy of 213 Nightlife

“Five years ago at Tales [of the Cocktail], it was just a small group of us from L.A. The guys from Portland, New York, OH MAN SAN FRANCISCO … would ask, ‘Where are you from?’ … ‘L.A.? Oh, that’s nice. How’s the bottle service?'” – Aidan Demarest, Tello Demarest Liquid Assets

“The Varnish didn’t just win. All of us, all of L.A. won.” – Cedd Moses, 213 Nightlife

I’ll never forget my first time in New Orleans this past weekend at the 10th Anniversary of Tales of the Cocktail. There’s something about getting to witness your favorite bartenders in your home city come together to celebrate their craft with their big shot counterparts from other cities. Going from seminar to tasting room to industry party to Spirited Dinner (while catching some not-to-miss eats of the city in between) in the humid, 90° swelt of The French Quarter was a new junket to me, but the presence of Los Angeles was unmistakeable, making Tales all the less intimidating and more familiar, much faster.

Post-Spirited Awards Celebration at One Eyed Jack’s

We are all bartenders, brand ambassadors, educators, writers, photographers and more – with many wearing more than one hat – and as with every year at The Spirited Awards on the last night of Tales, the best of the best are officially recognized. A winner in each category is announced after an initial top ten finalists are narrowed down to four. Though Eric Alperin and The Varnish have been our bastions of Los Angeles in these awards for the past couple years, it was the 2012 Spirited Awards when the L.A. bar community finally felt taken seriously.

There was a plethora of Top 10 finalists representing Los Angeles, announced back in May. Their mentions are below, with the Top 4 denoted by an asterisk: Eric Alperin(*) and Vincenzo Marianella of Copa d’Oro were recognized in the American Bartender of the Year category. The Huston Brothers and Steve Livigni’s and of course Pablo Moix’s Harvard & Stone and 213 Nightlife’s The Varnish(*) were both nominated for Best American Cocktail Bar(*) and World’s Best New Cocktail Bar.

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Harvard & Stone Makes Bunker Drinking Beautiful

Main Bar at Harvard & Stone

If you were to hear that the guys behind La Descarga are opening up a new bar, it’s high time to put the opening of said bar on your calendar. So, that’s what I did. I was happy to find out in the process that Harvard & Stone is the next-best thing to walking distance from my digs; it’s two Metro stops and a skip away. And when I visited the WWII-esque bar last night for the opening, I found out it’s actually across the street from Sanamluang – that Thai establishment holding remnants of college nostalgia and my go-to place for Pad Kee Mow. It’s also open until 3 AM.

Mia Sarazen says, "You Can Do It!"

I see cocktails and late-night Thai food in my near future.

Back to Harvard & Stone, so-named after the intersection of Harvard and its stone exterior on Hollywood Boulevard: It’s a beautiful space. Though Steve Livigni corrected me about the decor: “Oh, it’s contrived,” I offered that it did a great job pretending that it wasn’t (it’s all in the incandescent lighting). He finally agreed. The distressed walls with exposed brick frame a centralized, rectangular front bar lined with old, hanging metal shelves suspended by chain links. Liquor bottles artfully sit atop them while glasswares hang below. Antique pieces like obsolete, rusty machinery and light bulbs are scattered along the bar and in display cases on the inside wall. High-top, metal tables with rusty rivets line those cases, should cocktailers want to be near the action but not right in it. By the door is a stage on which Livigni welcomes bands to perform should the “impromptu show” mood strike. Keep an eye on this place for any post-show after-parties. Before Harvard & Stone, industrial never seemed so hip.

Back Bar

In the back corner is an old, rustic fireplace where guests can crowd around and across the way, a private room partitioned off by antiqued, double sliding doors. And I can’t wait to peep the balcony, which wasn’t ready for the opening, but which also extends into the back “Test Kitchen” bar area which is half-open and coded for smoking. (Fortunately, there’s also a dedicated, narrow outdoor smoking patio, Eastside bar-style, for the committed smokers.)

But, oh…that Test Kitchen bar in the back! Every month, a certain spirit (February: Whiskey, March: Gin) will be featured in the cocktails on its unique menu, which is to change daily. Whatever the spirit, American distillates are the focus. According to Caroline on Crack in her LA Weekly Squid Ink article, this bar will also “stock a small menu of tequila, cognac and rum as well as recognizable brands.” For now, you can count on Elijah Craig, Fighting Cock and Evan Williams Bourbon to be stocked here.

Pablo Moix

The cocktail menu earns its Eastside cred with an Appletini Apple Martini made with Original Moonshine (apple syrup, lemon juice, whiskey barrel bitters). If using Moonshine to formulate a normally fru-fru, girly cocktail isn’t hipster, I don’t know what is (try: being a block away from Jumbo’s Clown Room). You also have a lot of other cocktails to look forward to if you go in the near future – not discounting their inevitably delicious successors, of course. Steve also said that the menu will likely double in size once they get the opening kinks out.

Baby’s First Bourbon: Bulleit Bourbon, St. Vincents Orgeat Syrup, lemon juice, dash of Angostura bitters

Scaffa No. 1: Aviation Gin, Benedictine, Angostura bitters (neat)

Trinidad Sour: Angostura bitters, St. Vincents Orgeat Syrup, lemon juice, root liqueur

Fernet Cocktail: Fernet Branca, Canton Ginger, Carpano Antica, lime juice, Begatta ginger beer

The cocktails are all $8-11 each, which, for the ingredients and labor involved, is a steal once you taste your drink (all delicious on opening night). I’m hard-pressed to name another mixology bar that charges less than $12 per cocktail off their regular menu.

So Eastsiders: Rejoice! Harvard & Stone is open for business. You never know what cocktails are in store for you on the back bar menu nor if a band will drop by and play a surprise show. It’s just the place to enjoy a great cocktail in an industrial-chic setting, without the attitude. I cannot wait to make this my neighborhood spot.

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Harvard & Stone
5221 Hollywood Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90027
323.466.6063