Every bartender, and for that matter every spirits brand, will at some stage tell you that cocktails have a story tell.
In fact, it could be said that cocktails tell a number of stories. They voice the story of the person who makes them, they speak of the story of their ingredients and especially if they are classics, they often whisper stories about a certain time and place.
Yet it’s interesting that when you look at the cocktails books that are available, the stories of the industry don’t really appear. Most books are more a record of the fundamentals of the industry. They provide the nuts and bolts of the theory but when it comes to the practice, they never show the heart.
This was something that Eric Alperin and Deborah Stoll wanted to correct when they wrote Unvarnished – A Gimlet-eyed Look at Life Behind the Bar, which they describe as a ‘worts and all love letter to the industry’.
“There are very few books that I’ve read that are a narrative in terms of living the life,” explained Alperin, “and hopefully this specific aspect of the story that Deborah and I have written is in some ways universal for a lot of people in the industry.”
“Deborah and I wanted to tell stories, as we both have always felt that bars and restaurants are theatres,” Alperin continued. “That’s why when this book idea came up, it got the wheels turning in a narrative direction … from the start we were like, ‘I don’t want to write a recipe book.’
The story of Unvarnished takes us from Alperin’s foundations with legendary bar pioneer Sasha Petraske at Little Branch in New York, through the establishment and maturation of The Varnish in Los Angeles. On the way, it looks at what it takes to build a bar and what it takes to work in one.
It is a book that Jim Meehan describes as a cinematic memoir chronicling the highs and lows of service, while Audrey Saunders has seen it more as a cathartic bloodletting, as it recounts experiences that only come from time spent behind the stick.
“It’s really a memoir but it’s a weird memoir, in that it is our kind of collective experiences and past,” explains Stoll who shares many memories and experiences with Alperin of their early days at The Varnish. “It’s our history, our hopes and dreams. It’s difficult to write about that stuff.
“One of the earlier comments from our publisher was that she thought we were jumping away from the fire. She was like ‘you’ve got to get into that fucking fire, you’ve got to crack open your heart and you got to be really open and honest.’ That’s what is really hard to do.”
A common analogy from people who have ready read the preview copies is that the book has a similar style to Anthony Bourdain and that it is a Kitchen Confidential for the bar world. Although Alperin understands the comparison, he is the first to say that he believes there were parts of Bourdain’s work that were far more down and dirty than what they wrote.
“I think we celebrate and love the industry more than just share some of the misfits of it. Some people who have had the advanced copy have come to me and been very complimentary, but they’re also like, ‘Oh man, you dirty dog’.
To this comment, Stoll is quick to add, “Well, that’s mostly our moms.”
Located in the back of an old french landmark restaurant called the Cole’s French Dip, the Varnish pays tribute to both classic and updated cocktails with a focus on thoughtful service and hospitality.
In its dim, intimate yet comfortable interior, nine cosy tables fit like a horseshoe around the space, with a piano that sits in the middle. In front of the bar, a standing area the staff colloquially call the corral or the Varn barn adds to the feel of having walked through Alice’s looking glass into a teeny, tiny, dark little secret.
But it is not only the atmosphere, the drinks or the staff that have made Varnish the creation it is. The success instead has come from the attention to hospitality and that’s something that Alperin wanted to share through his words. “Creating a craft cocktail bar that had solid standards and good operations in place was something that we always intended. Yet I didn’t ever expect it to become an institution so quickly.
“I think it came possibly because we were fresh for LA but we really stuck to our guns,” said Alperin. “We had an abiding belief in hospitality and consistent cocktails with block ice and fresh ingredients have always been, and continues to be, the way we do things at The Varnish. So I think that played a big part in why it has remained special because it hasn’t fucking changed.”
Like the old rat pack bars in LA that have continued to exist and do what they did 50 years ago today, the Varnish exists not because of trends, or the cult of personality but simply because they do what they do so well.
Alperin believes it is the systems that have been set up within The Varnish that are incredibly important. And if nothing else he thinks it is that technical skills level that he really wants the reader to have as a takeaway.
“The centre section is like the middle of Moby Dick, where it’s just about the history of whales and has nothing to do with the actual narrative,” he explained. “And in a funny way, you could take that centre section and make it its own little pamphlet. If people were applying to The Varnish, if they read that and studied that, they would be pretty far ahead in terms of understanding what’s required to hold a position here.”
“And you might laugh at this,” he continued “but that section was one of the hardest parts to write. It was like the albatross of the process for me of all things.”
And the process was not a quick one. As Stoll points out, the book was written over five years, whenever the pair were together. Every couple months, Stoll would fly to LA, just so they could work on the book or Alperin would fly to wherever Stoll was. The writing of the book occurred in cities as varied as Paris, Portland, Austin, New York, San Francisco, as well as LA.
“We just kind of travelled around the world together with this excuse, quote-unquote, that we were writing a book,” Stoll explained. “We actually were writing a book, but instead of travelling like normal people, like going to see art museums and cathedrals and seeing nature, we sat in hotel rooms all over the world working on it.”
As with any love story, the narrative of Unvarnished takes you on a journey through the good and the bad; an odyssey of the highs and the lows. The hero must fight the dragon of landlords and bureaucratic red tape before he can win the girl … or in this case the venue. He must face the roadblocks found between what he knows to be right compared to what is easy to do.
“We didn’t want to write something that was all glory about the industry,” said Stoll “We wanted to be honest about our personal struggles with it. We felt like we would be shirking our duties as writers presenting this world if we didn’t also present the sex and drugs … without discussing the dangers inherent of it. We also wanted to show ways that you can try and avoid it … neither of us had bibles like that when we were coming up.”
Alperin adds “When we were writing there were times where I’d go like, “God, is that enough? Are we talking about enough sex or enough drugs in this section?” And sometimes Deborah would be like, “Yeah, yeah, it’s plenty.” And it’s not because I felt like we needed to completely come undone and just be really out there with all the shit that we did.”
Sometimes the rock and roll of a narrative is the environment in which it is set. And for Unvarnished that is as much about the bar as it is about the city in which the action takes place. As Stoll points out, a lot of the flavour of the writing comes by making Los Angeles as much of a character as Alperin is in the writing.
“So to a degree, we kind of channelled our John Fante, our Elmore Leonard, our dystopian Blade Runner points of reference; we just really wanted to bring the city to life. What would this bar be if it was in a different city? It would be a completely different bar. It would be a completely different set of characters and experiences.”
And experience is the focus of the book, not only in terms of the journey but also in terms of what that journey enabled both Alperin and The Varnish to give to their guests. It’s what Alperin describes as ‘good old fashioned hospitality,’ a point that can sometimes get overlooked beside all of the showiness the industry offers and it’s a point that he would often remind his staff to embrace.
“There are some people that are all about the nerdiness of the big block ice and the specific ingredients, but really that’s like 1%, maybe 2-3% of your guests. The rest just want to have a good time and don’t want to be beaten over the head with the mixology stick.
“We’re not here to bash people for drinking vodka,” he adds. “Let them drink vodka and then move on to something else. The most important thing you do when somebody walks in, is make them feel safe and make them feel like they’re welcome so that they can have the experience they want and then be open to experiences that you want to offer them.”
As well as being a narrative of the journey, Unvarnished is also a testament to the lifelong friendships that are so often made during your time behind the bar. From the stories and teachings of mentors to the empathy needed to understand the mood and reactions of the patrons that are being served.
As Alperin points out it is a statement to shared experience. “This book wouldn’t be what it is without the relationship with Deborah and I have. I really believe that because of our history, because of our friendship, because of our shitty sense of humour and even sometimes because of Deborah’s taste of music, we got a good book out.”
Unvarnished: A Gimlet-eyed Look at Life Behind the Bar will be released on June 23rd
For more information on the Varnish go to thevarnishbar.com