Q&A With Eric Alperin

Wine Enthusiast had a chance to chat with bartender and co-owner of The Varnish, Los Angeles.


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Wander to the back of downtown L.A.’s legendary Cole’s French Dip and stop at the secret oak entry. Politely state your business to the doorman: a properly made cocktail crafted by Eric Alperin or his crew. If you’re lucky, the door will open and reveal an amber-lit den, a time warp into the heyday of artful cocktail making.

The Varnish opened in 2009 by Alperin and his partners Cedd Moses and Sasha Petraske. Neighbored by skid-row tents and corporate skyscrapers, it’s an opulent anomaly and a salute to Alperin’s former New York cocktail residences, Milk & Honey and Little Branch.

Wine Enthusiast recently had a chance to chat with Alperin—who needs little more than a base, a top note and a few seconds to tailor a drink suited to your taste.

Wine Enthusiast: The Varnish is in the back of L.A.’s oldest restaurant. How does this tie in to a speakeasy-style bar?
Eric Alperin:
A simple definition of a speakeasy was a dimly lit room in the back of an unlikely establishment, a walk-in closet with a swinging light bulb, a table, some chairs and an illegal bottle of booze. We’ve made a few upgrades from the swinging light bulb days, but have kept the same feeling. People have speculated whether Cole’s housed a speakeasy. All I can say is that it once had a vacant storage room where anything could’ve happened.

WE: What elements from Milk & Honey and Little Branch were carried over to The Varnish?
EA:
The idea was to bring Milk & Honey’s atmosphere and [cocktail] style to L.A. We use only hand-selected spirits, homemade syrups and fresh juices. Even the ice we use is created considering how it affects the taste of your cocktail. We freeze our own ice, and each day, the opening bartender chops up ice for two hours into five different shapes and sizes.

WE: Is everyone at The Varnish capable of being both mixologist and maître d’?
EA:
Everyone is capable of doing one another’s job. Our talented bartenders are also intuitive barbacks and gracious hosts.

WE: How did you come to name The Varnish?
EA:
“Varnish” was railroad slang from the early 20th century to describe the private railroad cars owned by magnates of the day—it’s a reference to the high sheen on the wood that distinguished the plush private cars from those in coach.

WE: Hence the trolley-style booths. Why did you choose a standing bar?
EA:
I’ve always embraced the solo stander. When all the tables are full, or you just want to sip a quick cocktail, the
bar is an inviting place to lean and look around. Milk & Honey has always had a rule about staying seated, but I wanted to make part of The Varnish work as a standing bar. (Laughs.) The concept also just happened to harmonize with us running out of money for barstools.


Try some of these delicious concotions created by Eric Alperin:

Mexican Monk

Courtesy of Eric Alperin

¼ ounce Bénédictine
¼ ounce Cafe Lolita coffee liqueur  
½ ounce Lustau Dry Amontillado Los Arcos Sherry
2 ounces Reposado Tequila
Lemon peel, for garnish

Combine all ingredients into a chilled mixing glass and stir. Strain in a chilled coupe. Garnish with a lemon peel.

Colonial Ties, Prepared Sazerac-style

Courtesy of Eric Alperin

1 Peruche brown sugar cube
2 dashes orange bitters
2 tablespoons club soda
1 ounce Appleton Estate Jamaican Rum
1 ounce Sazerac Rye 6 Year
¼ absinthe, for rinse
Lemon peel, for garnish

Chill a whiskey glass by placing it in the freezer. Meanwhile, in a mixing glass, add the sugar, bitters and club soda. Muddle into a paste. Next, add the rum, rye and an ice cube, and stir 75–100 times. (Add more ice halfway through to fill the mixing glass). 

Rinse the chilled whiskey glass with the absinthe. Strain the ingredients of the mixing glass into the whiskey glass. Garnish with a long lemon peel.

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