My love of cocktails began with a desk. It’s an antique wooden desk that belonged to my wife’s grandfather, featuring a foldout top and a warren of shelves and cubbyholes that once stored important papers but now store bitters and glassware. It probably weighs over 400 pounds; we had it shipped here from the East Coast about 10 years ago at an absurd expense. After her grandfather passed away and his house in Queens was sold, my wife was determined to keep it in the family.
Now that we had this ornate beast of a furniture piece in our living room, and had agreed on its new purpose, we had to fill it. At the time, we had all of half a dozen bottles of booze in the house, most of them whiskeys. But armed with a few cocktail recipe books, my wife and I slowly began building out our home bar, starting with the obvious additions — rum, gin, tequila, vermouth, triple sec — then slowly graduating to the more advanced stuff — bitters, amari, brandies, digestifs, a bottle of Punt e Mes I’m still never quite sure what to do with.
We now have so many bottles the foldout top just barely closes. I’m told Grandpa Irv wasn’t much of a drinker, but we like to think he would’ve gotten a chuckle out of his old desk’s new role.
During quarantine, I decided to entertain myself by making up new drink recipes and sharing them on Instagram. Often, I wind up naming these concoctions after favorite songs or albums because, at heart, I am still a music journalist. I guess that’s why Los Angeleno asked me to contribute to their cocktail pairing series with this list of some of my favorite L.A. albums, each accompanied by its own adult beverage.
Until the day returns when we can safely elbow our way up to a bar and have a professional mix them for us, I hope you’ll try making some of these yourself, blasting these fantastic records while you do.
Album: Van Halen, “Van Halen” (1978)
Cocktail: Smog Cutter
When I imagine Los Angeles in the late ’70s, I like to picture the boys in Van Halen tear-assing down the 110 from their hometown of Pasadena in a ragtop Camaro, blasting Foghat on the eight-track. Their destination? An East Hollywood hole-in-the-wall called the Smog Cutter, where Filipino truck drivers and stoner white kids from the Valley fight over the karaoke machine to belt out some Fleetwood Mac and Elton John.
In reality, there was no karaoke at the late, lamented Smog Cutter back in the ’70s, and it’s highly unlikely Van Halen ever frequented the place. It was also never a tiki bar — not back then, and not when I first stumbled into it around 2000, when it did have a karaoke machine with which I may or may not have drunkenly massacred “Runnin’ with the Devil.” But I couldn’t make this list without at least one tiki drink.
Tiki culture got its start in Hollywood — at another hole-in-the-wall called Don’s Beachcomber Cafe — and transformed American bar culture about as dramatically as Eddie Van Halen changed the sound of rock guitar. And Van Halen, with their mix of technical virtuosity and giddy good-time attitude, is basically the tiki drink of L.A. rock bands. Plus, I’m pretty sure David Lee Roth has quite the collection of Hawaiian print everything.
Not all tiki drinks are rum-based, at least not exclusively so. I wanted to choose one that included gin — and I wanted to replace that gin with Bols Genever, gin’s maltier Dutch ancestor, as a nod to Eddie and Alex Van Halen’s Dutch roots. That led me to a drink called the Fog Cutter, which, with the addition of Bols instead of a more traditional London dry gin, takes on a kind of smoggy complexity that pairs perfectly with the storm-cloud riffs of Van Halen’s 1978 monster of a debut. And for me, this cocktail evokes the tobacco-stained, wood-paneled interior of East Hollywood’s last great dive bar, Smog Cutter, which sadly closed in 2017.
1 1/2 ounces blended, lightly aged rum, preferably Appleton Estate 1 ounce Bols Genever 1/2 ounce pisco or white tequila 1/2 ounce Orgeat 1 1/2 ounces orange juice 1 ounce lemon juice 1/2 ounce oloroso sherry, preferably Lustau East India Solera
Method: Pour all the ingredients except the sherry into a blender — or drink mixer, if you’re lucky enough to own one — along with two scoops of crushed ice and four to six ice cubes. (The extra cubes act as agitators, resulting in a frothier drink.) Pulse the blender a few times very quickly, one or two seconds per pulse (or, with a drink mixer, once for four seconds). You’re looking to get all the ice to a fairly consistent crush without totally diluting it into the drink. Pour the mixed ingredients and crushed ice into a tiki mug or other suitably festive vessel, using a Hawthorne strainer to block any excess ice and get the last drops of boozy goodness into your drink. Float the sherry by gently pouring it over the top of the drink.
Garnish: Mint sprig and a drinking straw.
Album: The Go-Go’s, “Beauty and the Beat” (1981)
For me, the Go-Go’s are the ultimate ’80s L.A. band: both breezy and slightly sharp-edged, with Beach Boys harmonies and traces of their punk-rock roots lingering in Jane Wiedlin’s brisk rhythm guitar licks and drummer Gina Schock’s propulsive, shit-kicker beats. Pairing them with a daiquiri — the tart, citrus-forward shaken kind, not the frozen bullshit version that comes out of beachside bar slushie machines — is a no-brainer. Much like the Go-Go’s, this cocktail is a deceptively straightforward classic that doesn’t get the respect it deserves — except among bartenders, for whom it’s both an end-of-shift favorite and a test of novices’ technical skills.
I also wanted to include a nod to one of my favorite L.A. bartenders — Devon Tarby, formerly of the Varnish and Walker Inn, now a partner in the New York/Denver/L.A. cocktail group Proprietors LLC and their flagship chain of bars, Death & Co. (The L.A. chapter of Death & Co. opened right before the pandemic reached us and, sadly, remains closed as of this writing.)
Tarby and her cohorts are my cocktail sensei, and my original idea was to steal one of her many amazing recipes included in Death & Co.’s latest book, “Cocktail Codex.” But that book also reveals that the daiquiri is her favorite drink, so I decided to go with that classic instead — just borrowing her very specific mixing method, which gives the drink an extra-refreshing frothiness and chill.
2 ounces white rum, preferably Caña Brava 1 ounce lime juice 1/2 ounce simple syrup*
Method: Measure all the ingredients into a shaker tin along with one large ice cube. Shake vigorously for longer than feels comfortable — about 20-30 seconds depending on your strength and shaking skills — until your daiquiri is very cold and frothy. Strain into a chilled coupe.
Garnish: One lime wheel or wedge.
* Simple syrup recipe: Simple syrup lives up to its name. It’s the one drink ingredient you really should make at home and always keep handy, rather than waste money on store-bought versions or overly sweet substitutes like agave nectar. Also, contrary to literally every recipe you’ll find on the internet, no boiling of water is required. Just pour equal parts white sugar and warm water into an airtight container and shake until the sugar is fully dissolved. Then refrigerate immediately. Simple!
Album: Beck, “Midnite Vultures” (1999)
Cocktail: Mixed Bizness
I moved to the West Coast in late 1999, right around the time Beck released the sleazy, phantasmagoric “Midnite Vultures.” It became a permanent fixture in the CD player that I ran through a tape deck adapter on my ’88 Corolla. It was my go-to soundtrack for navigating Los Angeles at a time in my life when I was spending way too much time clubbing and way too little time holding down a steady job. The people I was meeting, at warehouse raves, Silver Lake gay bars and sketchy 4 a.m. after-hours clubs, often seemed like they had stepped right out of the lyrics of “Hollywood Freaks” or “Nicotine & Gravy,” which includes maybe the most Beckian line of all time: “I’ll leave graffiti where you’ve never been kissed.”
When I think about drinks I most closely associate with those sleep-deprived days, I immediately flash on every turn-of-the-millennium clubber’s go-to adult beverage: the vodka-Red Bull. It’s not a taste I remember fondly or nostalgically, exactly, but it accompanies some of my best memories of dancing till the wee hours in now mostly long-gone clubs like Sugar in Santa Monica, Giant in Hollywood, and a weird, probably illegal, basement trance party downtown called Red, where the ecstasy dealers wore blacklight-reactive orange beanies so they’d be easier to find in the crowd. So in honor of my many lost Midnite Vultures nights, I decided to try to devise a cocktail that resembled a vodka-Red Bull, while also not being totally disgusting — sort of the cocktail equivalent of those artisanal “Pop-Tarts” you see in Northeast L.A.’s hipster bakeries and coffeehouses.
After much trial and error, I did what I usually do when I’m trying to stumble my way into a good cocktail recipe — I consulted the brilliant minds of Death & Co. In their “Cocktail Codex,” there’s a complicated split-base drink called Beth’s Going to Town, which is a riff on the Martinez, which is itself a riff on the martini. (Mixology, like music, is mostly a matter of stealing from the classics.)
With a few modifications — in particular, the crucial addition of Pama, a syrupy-sweet pomegranate-flavored liqueur — I came up with Mixed Bizness. Does it taste exactly like a vodka-Red Bull? Considering I haven’t had one in at least 10 years, I can’t say for sure. But it tastes like the vodka-Red Bulls in my black-lit memories, and that’s probably a way better flavor to evoke.
1 ounce vodka, preferably Ketel One 1 ounce Old Tom gin, preferably Blinking Owl* 1/2 ounce sweet vermouth, preferably Cocchi Vermouth di Torino 1/2 ounce Pama pomegranate liqueur 1/4 ounce Ramazzotti 1/2 teaspoon raspberry simple syrup**
Method: Measure all the ingredients into a shaker tin and stir over ice until well chilled. Strain into a rocks glass filled with ice. No garnish.
* A note about Old Tom gin: This is an older style of gin that’s slightly sweet and often aged. Do not substitute a dry gin like Bombay or Beefeater for Old Tom. Their flavor profiles are dramatically different, and a dry gin will throw off the precarious balance of this drink. The Blinking Owl Distillery in Santa Ana makes a delicious Old Tom-style gin that’s aged in late-harvest Semillon wine barrels, giving it a flavor that’s somewhere between gin, bourbon and a really good sherry. It’s the secret sauce that saves this cocktail from tasting like boozy Robitussin.
** Raspberry simple syrup recipe: Bring equal parts sugar and water to a boil and stir until sugar is dissolved. Reduce heat to low, then add your raspberries and cook over low heat for about 10 minutes, being careful not to bring to a boil. Adjust the number of raspberries to taste. I prefer about half a cup of raspberries per cup of water/sugar, but you can add more to achieve a more concentrated raspberry flavor. After 10 minutes, remove from heat and allow it to cool. Then strain through a fine-mesh strainer into a sealable container, using a rubber spatula to gently squeeze extra juice from the raspberries. Refrigerate immediately.
Album: Flying Lotus, “Los Angeles” (2008)
Cocktail: Corpse Reviver #2
L.A. has produced so many amazing hip-hop albums that it’s impossible to pick just one. So instead of trying, I went with the hip-hop-adjacent work of one of our city’s true originals, Steven Ellison, aka Flying Lotus. Released in 2008, “Los Angeles” combined the experimental electronic music of labels like Warp and Ninja Tune with the beat science of J. Dilla and Dr. Dre and the cosmic jazz of FlyLo’s aunt, Alice Coltrane, for a sound seemingly beamed in from another dimension. Actually, its roots were in Lincoln Heights, in a little club called Low End Theory, where FlyLo was at the vanguard of a talent-stacked scene responsible for roughly half the world’s best head-nodding instrumental music over the past decade or so. Low End Theory ended its run in 2018, but its impact will be felt for many years — maybe forever.
To accompany “Los Angeles,” I went with another classic with a name that sounds like it ought to be an Ellison composition (after all, this is a man who named one of his albums “You’re Dead!” and directed an almost unwatchably grotesque horror film called “Kuso”). It includes a few drops of absinthe, which seems fitting considering the psychoactive nature of FlyLo’s music — but otherwise, it’s an elegant example of how a simple, well-balanced cocktail can be greater than the sum of its parts.
3/4 ounce gin, preferably Beefeater 3/4 ounce Cointreau 3/4 ounce Lillet Blanc 3/4 ounce lemon juice 2 drops of absinthe (Be very careful not to overdo the absinthe, or it will overpower the other ingredients.)
Method: Measure all the ingredients into a shaker tin and shake over ice. Strain into a coupe. No garnish.
Album: Chicano Batman, “Invisible People” (2020)
Cocktail: Sombrero Marrón
Chicano Batman represents the Los Angeles of today and yesterday. On the one hand, their sound echoes the “lowrider soul” of ’60s and ’70s East L.A. — that mix of doo-wop, Spanish love ballads, swampy R&B and girl-group pop that beloved radio DJ Art Laboe played — and continues to play every Sunday night on KDAY — for the lovestruck kids flooding his request lines. On the other hand, their music is completely of-the-moment — propulsive, wistful, slightly psychedelic, often highly political.
They’re kindred spirits with L.A. psych-rockers like Ty Segall and retro-futurist R&B crooners like Frank Ocean and Kali Uchis. And they get better with each album. Their latest, this year’s “Invisible People,” is the first time they’ve fully captured the mesmerizing power of their live shows in the studio.
The best way I could pay tribute to Chicano Batman’s unique sound was to find a classic L.A.-bred cocktail and reinvent it with a Latinx twist. There are conflicting versions of the Brown Derby cocktail’s origin, but it most likely got its name from the famed, and now long gone, hat-shaped restaurant on Wilshire Boulevard. The original version is an uncomplicated mix of whiskey, grapefruit and simple syrup. Swap out the whiskey for a smoky mezcal, add a little Velvet Falernum — a Caribbean liqueur with flavors of almond, ginger and clove — for complexity, a hint of lemon juice for balance and you’ve got a lively spin on a tried-and-true classic.
2 ounces añejo mezcal 1 ounce grapefruit juice 1/2 ounce John D. Taylor Velvet Falernum 1/4 ounce lemon juice 1 teaspoon simple syrup
Method: Measure all the ingredients into a shaker tin and shake over ice. Strain into a coupe.
Garnish: Grapefruit twist.
Recommended Cocktail Reading:
“Cocktail Codex” by Alex Day, Nick Fauchald and David Kaplan with Devon Tarby “Smuggler’s Cove” by Martin Cate with Rebecca Cate “Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails” by Ted Haigh, aka Dr. Cocktail