Words by: Ian Cameron
New Yorker Eric Alperin was working for Sasha Petraske at Little Branch and Milk & Honey when he decided to pursue his first love - acting - by relocating to Los Angeles three years ago. There, he found a small but passionate cocktail culture and ended up opening and co-owning the left coast sister of Milk & Honey, The Varnish.
When I was very young, my parents had their 15-year anniversary party and they made me the bartender. They thought I would be perfect as I'm a bit of a ham and I do remember enjoying it. There was a green bottle and a red bottle - it was Tanqueray and Campari, but I don't think I ever got to Negronis. I certainly never understood the repercussions of that day.
I went to theatre school in New Jersey and left somewhat prepared for the real world, but I needed a job. Most actors get a job in the service industry but I didn't really like the idea of running around the room serving, so I went to a cheesy bartending school. I think it was for one week only. I remember looking at the diploma they gave me and comparing it to my college diploma. I wondered which would make me more money.
In New York I wasn't part of the cocktail culture that I am part of in LA. I just bartended at Little Branch and was happy and did the drama too. Sasha's ways convinced me how we could do things though. The way I think about it is that maybe 1 per cent of cocktails the world over can be done. We all talked about how great it would be if we could open a west coast bar, so I did come here with a mission. I thought I could open a bar as a successful actor, but it happened the other way round. One took over the other.
It definitely did feel a little alien at first. Obviously the weather and the cars - I'd go to different areas of LA and wonder where everyone was, there was no-one on the streets. I remember bad pizza too. Downtown LA was probably the greatest approximation of New York and that's where things were really growing, but it was still pretty real with all the homeless. Mickey the pirate, a self-proclaimed pirate and this guy who tells jokes for a couple of bucks were among the first guys I ran into. I still see them around.
I never looked down my nose at the LA bar scene though I knew that there wasn't much of a cocktail culture here. There wasn't really a programme anywhere but there was a lot of "this bartender's good, that bartender's good". That's how I met Marcos Tello - I went to Seven Grand, asked for egg white in my whisky sour and he came over to ask why I asked. A month later, Damian Windsor, Cedd Moses, Marcos and I and a bunch of others went on a roadtrip to San Francisco. I like to joke that that trip changed LA cocktail culture.
I think something was already in motion but I do think we added another catalyst. We brought ideas and ideals and we knew people would appreciate us. We've been part of that intangible. It's being in the right time, at the right place, and sharing knowledge with the right people, as part of a mini-revolution. As for acting, what I love about bars is the theatricality of them. With The Varnish, I have built a set, we have props and a script about how we talk to people and pick up glasses, and we all work in concert with each other. But I still have ambitions as an actor and would love to do some film.
The first time I saw where The Varnish now is it was just a blank square, a storage room in the back of Cole's, kind of seedy, probably how it was 80 years ago. It was a dark basement windowless, back room. You could just imagine that with a deck of cards and a bottle of booze it would have been the perfect speakeasy. It is Cole's, which used to have gangsters, and in that dark storage room I guarantee something must have happened - I wouldn't be surprised if a gangster had executed someone back there.
We come from New York and run a New York programme but that's not why we are lasting: we are successful because LA embraced us. We're proud of being part of the Milk & Honey family but in LA, it's like Version 2.0. So although we said no shorts and sandals, we'd get a party of five show up with one person in shorts and end up letting them in, then another party would look in and see. So we've loosened up the dress code a little bit, and sometimes during the week we'll put a chair at the end of a table, even though officially we don't take parties more than six. None of that means that our processes are any less refined: this is LA's Milk & Honey.
“Cherry Heering, a modifier I absolutely love. Cherry Heering is a really nice sweet modifier but more on the dry elegant fruit side. The color is great and the sweetness is just right”
Garnish: Pineapple wedge & cherry
Method: Shake all ingredients with ice and strain into glass filled with crushed ice.
• 2 oz Dark rum
• ½ oz Cherry Heering
• 1 oz Fresh lime juice
• ¼ oz Simple syrup
• 1 dash Angostura Aromatic Bitters