Photos by Asia Morris.
The first meeting of the Long Beach Bartenders Cabinet (LBBC) in early February, to the pleasant surprise of its founder, Robert Molina, attracted a packed house of bartenders, barbacks and bar managers (and one nurse) from the ritziest of restaurants like Parker’s Lighthouse & Queensview Steakhouse to the more locally-coveted dive bars like The Stache and Alex's Bar. Despite the divide in vibe and target demographic of the locations each attendee represented, the meeting was called for the sake of a Long Beach crowd who all seemed to have similar motives; to learn something new about making a delicious cocktail and to bring that knowledge back with them to better serve their loyal patrons and visitors.
Robert Molina of Long Beach Cocktails and owner of Roxanne's Cocktail Lounge & Latin Grill and its swanky, historical add-on, The Exhibition Room, welcomed nearly 70 local aspiring and established craft cocktail connoisseurs to the four-year-old establishment, all for the sake of putting Long Beach on the map as somewhere its residents, as well as visiting out-of-towners, know they can visit for a well-made, spirited beverage.
This meeting's spirit sponsor, Judah Kuper, co-founder of Mezcal Vago, a brand that seeks small batch mezcaleros in Oaxaca, Mexico to make their always joven (young) and clear product, will be the first of many different representatives that will share their story with attendees and teach a great many bartenders in the City about high-quality ingredients.
Tastings of Mezcal Vago’s Espadin, from Aquilino Garcia Lopez’s palenque in the small village of Candeleria Yegole and Elote, made by the same family, were poured all around as Kuper spoke about the mezcal’s smoky flavors, while attendees took notes and discussed their first reactions with each other. A slideshow of the palenques where the Mezcal Vago is made in the mountains of southern Oaxaca flashed behind Kuper as he spoke about the brand's origins and introduced a new tool to a bartender working at George's Greek Cafe in Downtown, to a bar back employed by The Attic, and to attendees representing The Red Room, James Republic, The Federal Bar and Tantalum.
Before Kuper dove into his presentation, however, Molina and several of LBBC’s board members stood at the front of the meeting to assert just how grateful they were for such an overwhelming turnout.
“It’s been an uphill battle, but Long Beach, it’s time to be heard[...]," pronounced Molina. “So I think it’s time, together we’ll make this stronger and all of our places will grow, Long Beach will be known as a great location for drinking great drinks. And I know I don’t know a lot of you, but this is our home so welcome to our home.”
"The Bartenders Cabinet is important to the local craft cocktail scene because it introduces bartenders to excellent products, educates them and also helps restaurant and bar owners to support craft cocktails in their own establishments," he said in an earlier press statement.
The LBBC’s board is composed of members Iano Dovi of The Attic, Alex Hernandez and Paige Hernandez of Alex’s Bar, Matt Ellingson of Disneyland Club 33, Jason Schiffer of 320 Main, Forest Cokely of Long Beach Cocktails, Ricky Yarnall of Henry Wine Group and honorary members Matt Robold of RumDood.com and John Coltharp, beer, wine and spirits expert. Cokely, Ellingson and Yarnall founded the Orange County Bartenders Cabinet (OCBC) and are now taking the time to guide the LBBC through its first phases.
"With the formation of the Long Beach Bartenders Cabinet, we are striving to inspire the current resurgence of crafted, classic cocktails in Long Beach,” said Cokely in a statement. “Long Beach is gifted with both talented bartenders and wonderful local patrons and we want to enable and empower those who crave a more sophisticated cocktail, as well as a great place to be. It is a great time for cocktails in Long Beach."
Toward the end of the hour or so long meeting, the discussion came down to how to introduce your enthusiasm for making a quality drink with multiple ingredients to a less excited and possibly intimidated bar-goer. The question was raised about how to avoid perpetuating that stigma of hipsterdom and pretension so unfortunately attached to what most experienced barmen would deem a simple, unabated love for the craft.
Yarnall, co-founder of OCBC and an active board member of LBBC took the floor to speak about service, often the deciding factor of whether the patron will leave with a smile and a better understanding of what they just ingested, or whether they'll walk out the door with a bad taste in their mouth from having to deal with a seemingly egotistical cocktail maniac without the slightest consideration for the customers’ inexperienced, yet open-minded palate.
"[W]hen you start learning cocktails you get really excited," said an enthusiastic Yarnall. "And you want everybody to be as excited as you are. And not everybody is. Some people just want a f***ing shot of Patron and you to get out of their face and that’s okay. And so I think that that amount of excitement comes off sometimes as the pretension."
"And this is what’s difficult about what we do about making cocktails," he continued, "because most people go, ‘Oh, you’re just some pretentious hipster with a bar spoon tattooed on your arm that only wants to make me Old Fashions and Manhattans, like what if I just want a Midori Sour or a f***in’ Madras or something?' And then they suddenly feel bad about ordering that sort of thing. We don’t want that. And so I think that there’s an amount of humility that’s required for what we do, that amount of humility of being able to step away and be like, ‘Look, I’m here for you.’ I’m not here for me.
"I could feed my ego all day, I can write a blog and post on Instagram and see how many Likes I get. That feeds my ego, because I can look and watch and whatever, but when somebody sits at your bar that’s not the time to be greedy," Yarnall concluded to applause.
Earlier in February, I sat with Molina at Roxanne's, while the bartender set up a blind taste test of two different tequilas. One of a supposed higher quality, a "better" liquor, the other of a lesser quality, the kind that would most assuredly leave you scrambling for an Advil, or two, the next morning. In my naïveté I triumphantly declared that yes, the shot on the left was definitely the Patron, and discussed with Molina its smoothness and flavor in comparison to the Jose Cuervo I could barely sip without squinting in pain.
Robert politely posed the question, which one would I use to make a quality cocktail? Of course, the Patron, I scoffed. There's no doubt about it. But what if you want the consumer to be able to taste the tequila more obviously, he argued, especially amongst two or three or more other ingredients, wouldn't the smoothness of the Patron pale in comparison to multiple other flavors? Perhaps the Cuervo would be a better option for a patron wanting a truly tequila flavored cocktail. But, I retorted, why not use ingredients that complement the Patron, a tequila deserving of a little more respect, in my inexperienced opinion. Work around it, I said.
There's no end in sight to the discussion, to the theories that, once a bartender has a certain base of knowledge, can test, develop, and perfect. What then, could possibly happen when you gather together a myriad of these passionate perfectionists in one room? Better cocktails across the board and across the city. The LBBC, to be held every second Wednesday of the month at different locations, will keep this conversation alive between, at the least, the bartenders who satisfy Long Beach's thirst for good service and cocktail craftsmanship.