Words by: Ian Cameron
At just 32-years-old, Marcos Tello has helped transform the face of bar culture in Los Angeles, a city not traditionally known for its cocktail prowess. A former actor, Hollywood's loss is the bar industry's gain: Marcos has created and inspired craft beverage programmes across the city and re-injected life into the idea of a bartending community by creating The Sporting Life fraternity.
"Downtown is one of the few places you can do a proper bar crawl in LA," says Marcos Tello. "No-one used to go there but now there's housing and chain restaurants and better policing, the streets are cleaner. There are nearly ten good bars all within 500 yards of each other. And across the city we've got bars emerging in areas that were never previously known for socialising."
Los Angeles' bar scene is changing. There are still the Rat Pack hang-outs - the Beverly Hills Hotels and Chateau Marmonts of this world - but as far as the craft cocktail movement goes, there are new circuits and pockets of craft cocktail goodness emerging in the most unlikely of places.
Like Marcos says, Downtown used to be a no-go area, a decidedly unsavoury area articulated by the presence of one of the largest populations of homeless people in the US: Skid Row. Today, there are fewer and fewer tents lining the sidewalks there, and the area's rebirth is reflected in the fact it has become a destination hang-out, even on weekends. Walk around this part of town and there's hardly a bar where Marcos hasn't either worked, consulted or created the whole darn beverage programme.
At Seven Grand, he and Damian Windsor took over a cocktail list written by Vincenzo Marinello, who is credited with kick-starting contemporary cocktails in LA. "We started doing whisky classics. Back then bars using fresh juices was rare, but we made it the best place in the city to get classic cocktails."
With Vincenzo, Marcos opened the Doheny (now the Caña rum bar). And down the road at Edison, a vast underground site created in honour of America's great inventors, Marcos was initially refused a bar-back job. Later, when he was more experienced, he not only swung a job there but revolutionised its mise-en-place to prove a huge bar didn't need to compromise on quality: "At the time we were doing 1,100 covers a night, and we needed 8-12 gallons of lemon juice, simple syrup, several pounds of mint all prepared. Our programme proved that it could be done in volume - we dispelled the myth."
Marcos also helped incept the venue's Radio Room concept. "We'd fly in guest bartenders from all over the country - a lot of 'All Star' bartenders, such as Richie Boccato [from Dutch Kills in New York]. They had to make their own menus but had to make sure they could make them in volume. We exposed LA to all these kind of drinkers."
A few blocks from The Edison is Marcos's current home at The Varnish, a Sasha Petraske co-owned speakeasy hidden within Cole's, a woody, all-American sports bar. Marcos opened it with east-turned-left coast bartender Eric Alperin and they continue to work side-by-side.
Marcos has also made his mark elsewhere in the city. Up in Pasadena there's 1886 at The Raymond, where we've come to meet Marcos. He's on a long-term consultancy for the project, which in itself is a nice metaphor for the fall and rise of LA's cocktail scene.
"The Raymond was built in the late 1800s and was like old school Beverly Hills. Pasadena was a big part of the Temperance movement, however, and the city abolished all saloons - except for the Raymond. It was very successful for a while, but in 1896 it burned down. It was rebuilt in 1901 but torn down in the Great Depression. The restaurant, in the old gardener's cottage, reopened in 1975.
"I was brought in a couple of years ago, basically because the existing clientele was dying off. We've rebuilt the bar using the Pasadena Museum of Archives for reference and even used photographs from CLASS magazine, and it's pretty authentic for the period: dark wood, leather and we've even used rivets because welding didn't exist when it was first built. And we've got a period telephone here."
The old school feel is carried forward via the drinks - plenty of brown, stirred, strong drinks, including barrel-aged cocktails, and ingredients like homemade barley malt syrup, caramelised orange essence, drinks that mix spirits and beer: cocktail geek heaven.
Further afield, other areas are becoming known as eating and drinking destinations, such as Culver City, where Harrison Ford's son's restaurant Ford's Filling Station marked the area's coming-of-age as an eating and drinking destination. "There are a number of bars popping up on the Westside of Los Angeles," says Marcos. "I will be consulting on one called Assembly in July where the drink concept will focus on manipulating textures."
He is also consulting on the newly re-vamped Tom Bergin's - the oldest Irish pub in Los Angeles and the inspiration for the show Cheers. "It's ironic because Ted Danson's character Sam Malone was one of my inspirations for becoming a bartender."
But it's not just Marcos' presence at so many important bars that sees him personify the City of Angels' embrace of craft cocktails. It's the work he's done to breathe new life into its bartending fraternity.
It started in 2005 when, after trips to New York and having sent himself on Gary Regan's Cocktails in the Country bartender training course, Marcos returned to LA to seek out the close-knit bartending community he had seen work so well on the east coast.
The problem was, it didn't exist. "In New York Pegu Club had just opened, and I'd seen the Brandy Library and Angel's Share. But I had to go back to Islands restaurant in La Brea. I started bringing in my own bitters and equipment and they were not happy. I had fallen in love with the community and I vowed that after I left, I would never ever make a drink I was not proud of again. I really wanted that sense of community in Los Angeles."
The US Bartenders Guild was still in existence but, says Marcos, it had become "an excuse to play golf". His answer was simple: start a new group that would meet regularly and get geeky about cocktails. He called it The Sporting Life, named after a reference to the 'Sporting Fraternity' mentioned in Dave Wondrich's Imbibe!. "I still have the Word document that I wrote for the first meeting. We served cheap Californian wine, and gathered some sugar cubes, bitters and plastic flutes to make champagne cocktails. It lasted an hour, and nine people showed up. The next one, we moved to Osteria Mozza, Partida sponsored it and 40 people showed up. It was amazing how fast it grew."
Today, The Sporting Life is approaching four years old, has more than 300 members, and attracts 60-70 bartenders and cocktail aficionados to its monthly meetings, held at a different venue and with a different sponsor each time. It provides a forum for job postings, hosts brand ambassadors and holds other education-focused events.
That such a community now exists is all the bigger an achievement given the vast expanse of Los Angeles - something which has acted against the creation not just of drinking circuits but the ability of the bartending community to cross-pollinate ideas, to move around between venues easily, to compare what they are doing with each other.
For drinkers, the fact you've got to drive to get anywhere also acts against bar-hopping and being a regular, and once you've had a single drink, you're kinda done unless you take a cab and then you've got to pick up your car some other time. It makes you realise how easy more built-up siblings like New York or San Francisco have had it, where customers can easily walk - or stagger - between watering holes.
And it's the more vocal presence of a community that means LA bartenders no longer feel they are playing second fiddle to their more experienced brothers and sisters in more established capitals of cocktails.
"Although people tell me LA reminds them of where New York was three years ago, I don't see us playing catch-up anymore. LA is starting to establish its own identity. What works in San Francisco or New York doesn't work in LA."
There is a definite Californian vibe to even the most classic of bars - one that just doesn't take things too seriously. Take The Varnish, which started life with a list of rules akin to Sasha's spiritual home in New York. "The Varnish is the Los Angeles version of Milk & Honey. It started out with similar rules but has become a bit looser. We will allow you in wearing shorts. At the weekends it rocks out."
It need hardly be said that 'shorts', 'rocks out' and 'Sasha' aren't words you often hear in the same sentence.
"The LA market is completely different to any other market. You can go and have a great social experience and you no longer have to sacrifice quality of cocktails. Our self confidence is increasing and our own class of bars is developing. There are definitely some geeks here in the city. We care about techniques, we care about ice, we are starting to see development of a style and we are starting to get consistency.
"We've got some work to do on classics - a lot of younger bartenders are going wrong because they are so eager to become mixologists and consult. They haven't learned and spent time with the classics and old time families. They don't know their ratios. And there's some work to do on techniques.
"But word is spreading around the country that LA is making good cocktails."