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How an LA Bar Built One of the World’s Greatest Stockpiles of Rare Spirits

Old Lightning may have the greatest collection of hard-to-get spirits in the world. Garrett Snyder offers a rare look at the secretive bar and the owners' unorthodox journey to build its collection.

The only text you’ll find on Old Lightning’s website is a Biggie quote: “Never lose, never choose to.” Everything else about the Venice Beach cocktail bar, hidden behind an unmarked door in the back of a bustling red sauce Italian restaurant, is a mystery. Reservations are required. There is a dress code. You will be asked to check your phone at the door.

Unlike other pseudo-speakeasies, however, Old Lightning contains a bonafide secret behind its shadowy veneer. The bar is home to around 1,200 bottles of vintage, limited release, discontinued or otherwise unobtainable liquor—a liquid Fort Knox that rivals any drinking den in the country, possibly the world.

Since opening nearly a year ago, the moody, midcentury-inspired lounge—named after a mythical fighting cock whose tail feather was purportedly used to stir the first “cock-tail”—has developed a slow drumbeat of buzz among bar aficionados; this despite almost no press and a mostly blank website. It’s still one of the toughest reservations in LA.

The bar’s owners, Pablo Moix and Steve Livigni, were the creative minds behind the Houston brothers’ first string of smash-hit bars—La Descarga, Harvard & Stone and Pour Vous—followed by their own lauded projects, including Black Market, Scopa and The Chestnut Club. But Old Lightning is the purest distillation of their style and ambitions.

“What we do here is the cocktail equivalent of boiling rice, or making pasta or cooking an omelet,” says Moix. “We’re pushing toward perfection through simplicity.”

In any other context, the cocktails at Old Lightning would be the story. The bar is home to a list of nearly 100 classics, each refined and recalibrated to OCD-level standards. That alone is a staggering accomplishment. But it’s the curated trove of dead-stock booze that’s become the reason cocktail geeks and hardcore collectors are clamoring to make a pilgrimage.

Bartenders at Old Lightning often describe the wall of spirits as “a decade or more in the making,” and that’s probably underestimating. According to Moix, the process began in earnest during his earliest bartending days, in the mid-1990s (“I was making a lot of Mudslides back then”), when he stumbled into a liquor store to buy a pack of cigarettes and “saw an old bottle of whatever and thought it was cool.” Once Moix and Livigni began working together at La Descarga, they bonded over the notion of liquor bottle as time capsule, stashing away finds for special occasions. For many years, their collection was small and personal, augmented by bottles gifted from wealthy patrons and collector friends—gin from the 1950s here, 25-year-old Scotch there.

At that time Moix and Livigni were a burgeoning cocktail duo with a string of hit bars under their belt, thriving in an era when the obsession over American whiskey hadn’t quite taken off nationally. “In the ‘90s and most of the 2000s, there was no real bourbon market, so you had this huge production gap,” says Livigni. “We poured Black Maple Hill as the well bourbon at our bars. It was $19.50 a bottle wholesale. It was my daily drinker.”

But around 2011, everything changed. “I got a call from our distributor at the time who told me, basically, this brand [Black Maple Hill] that we were buying is going away. It’s all being allocated,” Livigni tells me, as he arranges custom-printed silk coasters along the bar. (The price for a bottle of Black Maple Hill now hovers around $500 retail, if you can find it.)

Over the next two years, a titanic shift took place in the American whiskey industry. Bottles started losing age statements, and antique collections from Buffalo Trace, Four Roses or Heaven Hill that previously required only a quick phone call to order became subject to long waits and limited availability. As Livigni puts it, “It reinforced this idea that you have to prepare yourself for the future. This will happen with other spirits besides whiskey. If you want to carry these products in the future, you need to start changing the way you purchase.”

One example was Old Fitzgerald Bottled in Bond, an older bottling made with what Livigni calls “old Stitzel-Weller juice,” a reference to the legendary distiller known for producing some world’s most coveted bourbons before closing shop in the late ‘90s. For years, Old Fitz Bonded was probably the greatest budget bourbon on the market. Once it went out of production, Moix and Livigni bought every case they could get their hands on. In their minds, it was a conservation tactic—a stockpile for the coming winter.

“We’d roll the dice buying stuff,” says Moix, who exudes a savant-like intensity as he ticks through the evening’s inventory list. “It was like commodity trading. You’re buying futures.” Like Christian Bale’s character in The Big Short, they aimed to anticipate the curve of the market rather than bend to it, buying big on brands they predicated were at risk of soon disappearing. Once distributors became aware of what the duo were up to, other opportunities emerged. “I’d get a call saying, ‘We don’t carry that brand anymore, but a liquor store in Sherman Oaks has a few bottles left,’ so we’d hop in the car and go buy them out,” says Livigni.

This was the start of what Livigni and Moix now refer to as their “hunting phase.” In the year before they opened Scopa in 2013, they spent eight to ten hours a day, six days a week, driving around to old liquor stores, forgotten hotel bars and estate sales, snatching up anything that caught their eye. “All this great whiskey and tequila was just sitting on shelves collecting dust,” says Livigni. “No one wanted it.”

The hunting ground soon radiated outward from LA County. By early 2013, they were road-tripping across Northern California, Arizona and Nevada and beyond the Mexican border in search of rare or valuable spirits. Many times they’d hit the jackpot, loading up on old bottles of Herradura and El Tesoro tequila from the pre-diffuser days, or tax-stamped whiskies dating back to the ‘60s. Competition for these hidden troves was almost nonexistent at the time.

But the advantage Moix and Livigni had in building their collection wasn’t just about showing up first—it was knowing what to look for. “There were two components,” says Moix. “There’s the physical search process, and, when you’re not doing that, you’re reading, you’re researching, you’re talking to people in these strange and wonderful communities. You’re identifying what’s worth sniffing out.”

Inside Old Lightning

Moix and Livigni ultimately faced competition from both ends. Suburban liquor stores were soon wiped out by home collectors, giving way to an underground fan community that revolved around bartering via online forums and bottle swaps. On the other end, high-end liquor stores began negotiating private allocation deals with large distiller groups, using their buying clout as leverage in procuring what remained of the big-name bourbon market. “I remember when Russell’s Reserve 1998 was released,” says Moix of the coveted bottling that hit the market in 2015. “It was like trying to buy U2 tickets or something: As soon as the inventory showed up on online, you’d refresh the page and it was gone. On the resale market, bottles went from $200 to $1000 in less than week.”

As their hunting days came to a close and competition for limited releases became financially untenable, they realized that turning Old Lightning into something sustainable would require going further. “It had gotten to the point where everything was so prohibitively expensive, we started see what we could get away with,” says Livigni, pointing to a box of small flasks sent from various distilleries as test batches. “We’d reach out to Four Roses about a single-barrel 100-proof release, and they tell us, ‘We don’t release that anymore, but I guess we can do it for you.’ After that we thought, how much further could we push this?”

Last year, Livigni and Moix began collaborating with distillers and producers on special customized blends, single barrel selections and other bespoke projects with the goal of obtaining spirits that are exclusive to their bar. “Sometimes the results are cool and weird; sometimes it’s gross,” says Moix. “But you find interesting stuff.”

So far these collaborations have yielded a single barrel Smooth Ambler Old Scout 11-year bourbon (picked out by Moix himself, after Smooth Ambler announced they were discontinuing their single barrel program), a single barrel Elijah Craig 12 1/2-year and a recent collaboration with Mezcal Vago, which yielded a mezcal aged in 100-year-old clay cántaros to replicate a historical process used to produce agave spirits in the 1800s. They’ve also started working with importers like Charles Neal to bring in tailor-made blends of Cognac, Armagnac and calvados.

“These bottles aren’t available anywhere else in the world,” says Moix. “That’s the frontier for us.”

A year into Old Lighting’s run, Moix and Livigni are taking the long view. As a matter of policy, they don’t finish bottles they know they can’t replace. Once half their stock is consumed, the remainder is force-pressurized with argon gas to prevent oxidation, sealed, wrapped and then put into one of the several storage units they rent around town. Their hope is to make their supplies last as long as possible, and to prevent high-rollers from waltzing in and draining priceless bottles. To help spread out the impact on certain products, the back bar selection rotates out every three months, augmented by a special quarterly theme (currently: whiskeys of Asia) that offers a deeper rabbit hole to fall down. Choosing a focus also allows the staff to deep dive into a particular spirit every quarter, a training program that Livigni believes is producing “some of the most knowledgeable working bartenders in the country.”

In case you’re wondering, it is indeed possible to drop a grand on a couple pours of vintage American whiskey at Old Lightning. But it’s equally possible to sip your way through decades-old El Tesoro and Willett Family selections without dropping more than $100, especially if you choose to build a tasting flight from half-ounce pours, which the staff encourages (prices on the menu are listed by two-ounce pour). In that way, an establishment that might seem tailored to the elite becomes oddly democratic. “After people leave, it becomes this treasured experience they want to share with other people that are special to them,” says Livigni, “like, ‘I’m gonna show you something that can fuck with your life.’”

If Moix and Livigni come off as protective, it’s understandable. But Old Lightning’s barrier to entry—the hidden entrance, the reservation system, the no phone policy—is meant less as a deterrent and more of an implicit statement, one that says, We spent a decade of our lives building this thing that’s special to us and we hope you appreciate it. The bar is, after all, the culmination of their careers so far—a long-fermented “progression of thought” developed during their own evolution as drinkers and bartenders.

“There’s nowhere else to go but back to the spirit itself, back to the classics,” says Livigni. “We’re not going to do the seasonal thing, or the molecular gastronomy thing or bottled cocktails. The only thing left to do is focus on serving the best and most unique products.”

One evening, I watched Livigni pluck a bottle from the dozens upon dozens lining the bar’s shelves—a Del Maguey San Luis del Rio he picked up as a gift for Moix’s birthday. “It was just gathering dust at a liquor store, probably for 15 or 16 years,” he says. “Pablo looked up the production number later, and it turned out it was the first bottle of this mezcal ever produced. It might not taste any different than the second one, but to us there’s something special about it, you know—this is number one.”

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