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Take a quick spin through Yael Vengroff’s Instagram account and it’s immediately clear that she’s one of Los Angeles’s top bartenders. An aerial dancer, too, perhaps. But her personal passion—for pole dance and aerial dance—is directly connected to her approach to bartending: It’s dramatic, irreverent and seemingly spontaneous, but it’s backed by discipline and rigorous practice.
Vengroff, a Houston native, moved to New York City at 17 to become a dancer. “I didn’t want to go to school,” she recalls. “I didn’t know how to do anything but dance.” She supported herself by cocktail waitressing at a wide range of venues. By coincidence, she landed at one of the most progressive cocktail bars of the nascent cocktail revolution: Eben Freeman and Sam Mason’s Tailor, one of the earliest explorations of what we’d come to call “molecular mixology.”
“My mind exploded,” Vengroff says of working with Freeman. “I learned how to make orange foam before I learned how to make an Old-Fashioned.”
Her next stop was Pegu Club, another formative experience. Vengroff jokes that her hospitality and drink-making knowledge was so rudimentary then, that proprietor Audrey Saunders “raised me.” She also cites then-bar manager Kenta Goto, now of Bar Goto, for imparting his thoroughness. “My entire workflow is based on what he taught me back then,” she says.
That was followed by a stint at Painkiller, the now-closed “urban tiki” bar helmed by Giuseppe González. In many ways, this was a particularly formative stop for Vengroff and her whimsical, tropical-leaning drink style. “That’s where I developed all of my tiki style, and my speed,” Vengroff recalls. “I definitely developed a lot of my creative mind there.”
Of course, her time at Painkiller was more than learning about making drinks; it was also about making connections. Notably, with Alex Day, who worked alongside her at Tailor and would go on to be a partner at Death & Co and the consulting firm Proprietors LLC. (“I would be rifling through Alex Day’s notebook and copying down his notebook,” Vengroff reminisces.) When Vengroff decided she was “tired of New York,” she connected with Day to take a head bartending job with a Proprietors client in India, and later relocated to Los Angeles to continue working with them, followed by a longer-term managerial role with Harvard & Stone.
In 2015, she moved over to The Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel to helm The Spare Room, where she continues today. She has also worked with LA hospitality vets Marc Rose and Med Abrous, who own The Spare Room, Genghis Cohen and Winsome in LA, to open The Mountaineering Club, a rooftop bar at the Graduate Seattle Hotel. Next up for Yael is the reinvention of the Foo Foo cocktail menu at Genghis Cohen, celebrating its 35th year serving New York City-style Chinese food.
Vengroff’s signature drink, Gangster’s Paradise, draws from many of these past-life practices. The tiki influence is particularly evident, showing up in the use of multiple rums—both Bacardi 8 and a smaller amount of spiced rum—lots of tropical fruit and an elaborate garnish setup. As with all her drinks—and her approach to dance—thought and practice are key to making it all look effortless.
“Before I even stand behind a bar and start making things, there’s a map or conceptualized idea,” she says, before quoting a phrase Audrey Saunders used to use. “Then it’s about ‘driving it over the cliff.’”