The LA Cocktail Lab Fueling America’s Best Bars

Alex Day, one of the minds behind a handful of NYC and LA bars, works in a cocktail lair outfitted like something from Willy Wonka's factory. Jennifer Cacicio and Dylan + Jeni dive into the lab and Day's process.

To create a chocolate soda, Day force carbonates a mixture of cocoa nib distillate (made in a rotary evaporator), water, citrus and lactic acids.

Day completes the soda carbonation (left). The chocolate soda is then added to chartreuse and pear eau de vie (right).

To create custom ice cubes, Day scores an ice block and then cracks it to his specifications.

A perfectly cracked ice cube (left). The finished cocktail, garnished with a dehydrated lemon wheel (right).

For an apple brandy and sherry cocktail, Day smokes almond milk with a smoking gun and cherrywood.

Day engulfed in smoking almond milk (left). The finished milk (right).

Clear Creek 8-year apple brandy, Alexander Jules amontillado sherry, smoked almond milk, lemon juice and egg white are dropped into an iSi whipping canister, which Day then shakes. The fluffy contents are then pumped into a serving glass.

A dehydrated apple slice completes the cocktail.

At his rotary evaporator, Day works on a white pepper distillate, an essence that is paired with a low-ABV fortified wine cocktail.

The fortified wine cocktail is strained into a coupe glass (left). A play on the sparkling water served in classic espresso service, the cocktail is paired with a cider back (right).

A spray of white pepper distillate finishes the drink.

In an iSi canister, Day carbonates grapes with verjus to garnish a tequila cocktail.

Carbonated grapes are separated from the verjus (left). The finished cocktail: tequila, pamplemousse, blanc vermouth, verjus and carbonated grapes (right).

Alex Day, the mind behind some of America's best bars.

Inside Chapter & Verse—essentially a cocktail think tank run by co-founders Alex Day, David Kaplan and the rest of the folks behind Proprietors LLC—the walls are lined with hundreds of booze bottles, at least one of every piece of glassware known to man, rows of cookbooks, various distillations-in-progress and bitters and spices as far as the eye can see. But in addition to the plethora of standard bar needs, the countertops are also home to contraptions more often found in a modernist kitchen or straight-up lab: a vacuum sealer, an immersion circulator, a dehydrator, a smoking gun, a centrifuge and Day’s newest acquisition, a Rotovap, a.k.a. a rotary evaporator used to make distillations at low heat with ingredients, such as cilantro and white pepper, that might otherwise be adversely affected by high heat.

Day insists that he’s no scientist—“I studied literature in college,” he jokes—though that doesn’t mean he can’t explain the ins and outs of how atmospheric pressure affects boiling points and how he figured out a way to carbonate grapes. But he’s not in it for the sake of gimmickry or attention, which is precisely why all of the experimentation is done here, behind the scenes. Inspired by industry wizards such as Dave Arnold and Tony Conigliaro, Day likens his own little lab to a “funnel that bleeds into all the bars,” a place to tinker with and develop techniques that will only make its way into your drink if it truly makes it better. Because once you walk into any one of Proprietors’ several bars—Death & Company in NYC, Honeycut in LA and several more—the gadgetry stops. A centrifuge may have clarified the juice in your cocktail, but “you will never be confronted with anything less than human contact.”

Day has been tinkering with some of these techniques for years, but he’s pushing to the next level for the team’s new project: a forthcoming two-bar concept (The Normandie Club and The Walker Inn) set in a Koreatown hotel, the first phase of which will open by the end of this year. On the day I stopped in to Chapter & Verse, he was busy working on a few Rotovap experiments. He tastes one labeled cilantro, clearly pleased. “Dave Arnold calls it the flavor scalpel,” he says. It’s used in a number of the drinks he’s busy finalizing, like the Bubbly Cocktail with Lemon Wheel, which builds on a base of cocoa-nib distillate inspired by San Pellegrino sodas, sans the sweetness. In the Sparkly Apple Coupe Cocktail (actual names are still pending), the Rotovap is used to create a white pepper distillate that’s sprayed over the drink, adding a kick to an otherwise low-ABV cocktail.

It’s that running that’s led him to make that chocolate soda, to smoke his own almond milk for his twist on a Ramos Gin Fizz, to dehydrate apple and carbonate grapes for unique, snack-like garnishes in a foodless bar and to infuse bourbon with coconut using the method of sous vide. While some of these experiments will certainly trickle down onto the Koreatown menu—as well as into a few other locations—Day insists that his primary goal is far less scientific than simply human.

In terms of the bars themselves, Day is understandably cagey about details, but he will say that the first will be “street-facing, with nice big windows; a neighborhood cocktail bar” from which “you can expect high quality classic style cocktails…for sure in our style…in a fun environment,” while the second will be much smaller—“at most twenty-five seats”—and very ambitious. One might deduce that the latter will be at least somewhat hidden, less in line with the big windows of bar one and more with the discreet entryway that was a part of Death & Company’s fresh and original appeal.

In fact, Death & Co. is a large part of the K-Town project’s inspiration. After Honeycut opened last year, Day and Kaplan became known as the dudes with a dance bar, and they find that kind of hilarious. The new bars represent “a shift back to a more mature…adult experience” while simultaneously “being the next evolution of the idea of Death & Co., which is impeccably made drinks and high creativity, but allowing that format to exist on an even higher pedestal.”

But let’s be clear: the notion of a pedestal is not meant to be interchangeable with pretension, but rather Day’s ambition to take what’s already out there and keep building. “The world of cocktails has spread out so much throughout the country, the world, that great drinks can be found in a lot of places,” he says. “The neighborhood dive bar can make you a really good Old-Fashioned. Sweet. What a great world to live in, but that then says to me that there’s an opportunity to go higher and further.”

When creating a new bar, Day likens his process to the notion of visiting an optometrist to figure out your prescription: “Clear. Foggier. Clear. Foggier.” He starts with an ethereal idea, a feeling. He finds himself “constantly tweaking, grabbing things, being a sponge in the world” before moving into a section of the process similar to what web designers call “wireframing,” except instead of filling in the blanks of a landing page, contact page, etc. Day is filling in whatever blanks a particular menu calls for—an aperitif, a spritz, a Daiquiri variation, etc. He waits until “the narrative of the menu makes sense in theory,” for that foggier to become bright and clear. “And then you run,” he says.

It’s that running that’s led him to make that chocolate soda, to smoke his own almond milk for his twist on a Ramos Gin Fizz, to dehydrate apple and carbonate grapes for unique, snack-like garnishes in a foodless bar and to infuse bourbon with coconut using the method of sous vide. While some of these experiments will certainly trickle down onto the Koreatown menu—as well as into a few other locations—Day insists that his primary goal is far less scientific than simply human.

“In a lot of respects I hope that it doesn’t feel much different from what we’ve done in the past,” he says. “When I was a bartender [at Death & Co.] my goal was always to make people not feel intimidated by anything around them…to be engaged in what we’re doing, and to have things that surprise them and excite them about drinks.” That might be the real reason why Day refuses to own a bar where the bartenders wear lab coats and smoke fills the air—he doesn’t want you to be distracted by the theater. He wants you to be wowed by what’s in the glass.

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