Over the last few years, "classics with a twist" has been the default theme for many cocktail programs. It’s straightforward, the template is already laid out and busy bar managers can simply update drink recipes by switching out spirits and liqueurs. But Los Angeles barman Julian Cox—who, over the last decade, has created 15 bar programs (Rivera, Las Perlas, Playa, Petty Cash, Short Order, Sotto, Picca, Circa, Republique, Acabar, Bestia, Barrel & Ashes, BrilliantShine, Redbird, BS Taqueria) for some of the city's most important chefs like Walter Manzke and Neal Fraser—didn’t get to be an Eater bartender of the year by copying and pasting recipes.
Cox commenced his hit-making career in 2007 at David Myers' Comme Ca where he was trained by Sam Ross of New York's presently homeless Milk & Honey, now Attaboy. His first solo cocktail show soon followed at Sedlar and restaurateur Bill Chait's now shuttered modern Mexican eatery Rivera in Downtown LA, and it was here at Rivera that Cox earned three nominations for James Beard's "Outstanding Bar Program" award—garnering a nomination each year ever since the category was introduced in 2012. And since then he's nailed down a system for crafting cocktails that both pair beautifully with chefs' cuisines and have turned those restaurants into destinations not just for food, but for drink, too. A mean feat considering, until guys like Cox entered the scene, most restaurant cocktail menus in Los Angeles were overlooked in favor of wine.
From a barbecue joint in the San Fernando Valley to a hip Downtown Italian eatery to a sexy Moroccan-style lounge in Hollywood, Cox has established programs for nearly every restaurant concept imaginable. And last summer, he even opened his own bar/restaurant BrilliantShine in Santa Monica with partner Josh Goldman. Together the two operate a cocktail consulting company called Soigné Group and on their plate for 2015 is an outrageous nine more projects with Chait. Below, Cox talks through his cocktail inspiration.
I get 99 percent of my inspiration from chefs now...
In creating a cocktail menu, how does your process start? The process really starts with most of the things I do with Bill Chait and Sprout Restaurant Group, at meetings when we just talk about what the overall focus of the restaurant, what the theme is. I feel like it’s my job to help them reach their goal, whether it’s creatively, sometimes it’s financially. Every chef is different and every concept is different so I just do a lot of listening in the beginning and see where their heads are at. There’s no reason for me to do a classic cocktail menu for somebody who wants to do farm-to-table stuff that’s really, really garden specific. There’s no reason for me to do margaritas for an Asian concept. It doesn’t make any sense. I think about the emotional culture of a restaurant and then I take my cues from what the chefs want to do. When I get cocktail ideas, I stay within the overall arching concept.
What inspires you? I get 99 percent of my inspiration from chefs now. Not that I don’t get inspired when I have drinks at other places. I was just in New York and went to Attaboy and they’re making very simple, delicious cocktails and it’s just inspiring because those guys are legends. But it’s very rare that I’m inspired by a cocktail because I’ve been doing it for so long. It’s always interesting, it’s fun and amazing, and incredible and sometimes even innovative. But the flavor combinations that are interesting to me that I actually want to put in drinks a lot of the times come from a chef pairing or a meal that I tasted. My phone is filled up with notes from meals that I’ve had. So that’s the start for me.
What does your research for a cocktail program involve? I do a lot of traveling. When Republique opened, I traveled to France. For Petty Cash we went to Mexico with [Street Gourmet LA food blogger] Bill Esparza. We wanted to see Tijuana. Where Tijuana and California meet, that’s where that cuisine is really from. I’m trying to set up a trip to Turkey and Israel for Ori Menashe’s new restaurant that’s going to be Mediterranean. So I travel a lot for that. Luckily liquor companies usually pay to have us go out, which helps.
Why have you largely worked with restaurants instead of bars? The number one influencer/mentor of mine and a big reason I do what I do is Bill Chait. We’ve worked together for six years, going on seven years right now. His first big restaurant was Rivera. I was his second hire. I kind of was with him since the beginning. He always said, "Julian, why do a million dollars in cocktail sales when you can do $3, $4, $5 million with a really awesome cocktail program and have a bar?" And until I owned my own place I was like, "Whatever! I just wanna work in a bar. I don’t want to do this food service anymore and have to deal with the craziness that happens all the time in restaurants." And then as soon as I got my own place, I was like "Well, we need to have food here. It’s what makes sense." People want to eat when they’re drinking. And then you’re seeing people like the Houston Brothers starting restaurants now.
As soon as people go one direction, I’m going to go the total opposite.
Do you usually use books when building a cocktail program? Yes. They’re almost entirely cookbooks. I hardly ever use cocktail books anymore. The newest cocktail books I got are Jeffrey Morgenthaler's book, the Death & Co book, and Liquid Intelligence, Dave Arnold’s book. By the way, that is probably the most important cocktail book that’s been written ever because it’s literally empirical scientific evidence that confirms a lot of things I’ve been teaching for the past six or seven years. And really cooking is a science. Cocktails are a science in a lot of ways. People may not understand what it is but when you’re cooking a steak there are Malliard chemical reactions that are happening. The more you understand that, the better steak you can make. With cocktails, the more you understand the science of it and understand how it works, it’s not about being a nerd necessarily it’s more about saying this is why we do this because this is always going to give us a better product. So it really moves the ball forward I think.
When building your menu at chef Neal Fraser’s Redbird, you resurrected and tweaked recipes from vintage cocktail books. How do books fit into your cocktail program development? What I do typically, again it depends on the overall concept and what the chef’s background is, for places that we open up I’ll typically go to the library or to the bookstore and buy a couple of books on that kind of cuisine just so I can understand what they’re working with. Chefs are not going to have the time to sit down and talk to me. We won’t be able to make a bunch of dishes together. I’d love to be able to have Walter Manzke say, "Come with me. Let me show you everything about France." He’s so busy, he doesn’t have time to talk to me about this shit. I learned over the years that they’re not going to teach me that much, so I’ll just get a bunch of books that are great and I’ll start studying from those. And that’s always been my approach because if I don’t know something I’ll just pick up a cocktail book and read it.
You’ve established many cocktail trends in L.A. despite how close the cocktail community is there with bartenders reading the same books and sharing ideas. How do you stay ahead of the curve? When people are zigging, you want to zag and go a different direction. For awhile things got pretty outrageous. Some of the cocktail menus got outrageous with lots of different components, wild seasonal ingredients. And even foams, airs and liquid nitrogen. When they started doing that I went really deep into the classic cocktails, streamlined it. And as soon as people started turning that corner, I was ready to do spherification and crazy shit again. As soon as people go one direction, I’m going to go the total opposite.