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Ron Sheriff Makes A Lot of Martinis

The head bartender at Los Angeles’ iconic Musso & Frank has been serving cocktails for more than 30 years.

There’s a new sheriff at Musso & Frank Grill. 

Actually, he’s not that new. Ron Sheriff, 68, has been tending bar at the Los Angeles institution for seven years. That would be a considerable tenure at most joints, but Musso, which was founded in 1919 on Hollywood Boulevard, boasts waiters and bartenders who have been there for decades. Still, Sheriff’s hardly a greenhorn—Musso & Frank is just his most recent gig. He has three decades of service behind the bar, previously mixing drinks at Morton’s, Tony’s Fish Market, Snakepit Alehouse and many other watering holes.

That’s more than enough experience for Sheriff to merit Musso’s iconic red jacket, white shirt and black tie. He currently holds the title of head bartender. Appropriately enough for the town he works in, he looks like a bartender straight out of central casting. His old-school mug, with its high forehead, long nose, close-cropped hair and saturnine seen-in-all continence would not look out of place in a movie from the 1940s. (It has to be said that there is also a passing resemblance to Lloyd the Bartender from “The Shining.”)

Just as he did during his term at Morton’s, Sheriff spends most of his hours at the timeless wooden bar turning out classics. He’s particularly known for his Pisco Sours, Old-Fashioneds and Sidecars. And, of course, he makes his share of the restaurant’s famous Martinis, served dry and accompanied by a small sidecar, nestled in an ice-filled metal caddy. The customers at Musso & Frank are as traditional as the drinks; asked to cite a particularly unusual drink order he’s fielded, Sheriff was stumped. “I really can’t say that’s happened to me very often,” he finally admits.

How did you find your way behind the bar?
“I actually started in the business as a busboy when I was 19. I worked as a waiter for a few years. I don’t actually remember the place where I got the opportunity to train as a bartender. I took it from there.”

What do you think makes for a good bartender?
“First of all, you’ve got to enjoy what you do. You have to enjoy making cocktails. You have to be a people person. You have to be an engaging person with a pleasant personality. You’ve got to enjoy your job. If you don’t enjoy your job, you’re not going to be successful.”

What advice would you give a bartender just entering the field?
“Take your time. Learn your craft. Don’t try to be the fastest bartender in the world, and things will just come as you get more and more experience. Just concentrate on what you’re doing. Make your guests feel welcome. Make them feel like they’re at home. I always felt it was like you’re inviting a guest into your home and you want them to have a good time.”

Has bartending changed over the course of your career?
“Different drinks have changed a lot. Obviously, craft cocktails are the rage these days. I continue to grow and learn all the time. I feel I have a lot of knowledge, but I’m always willing to learn new stuff, even from the young guys. It’s always evolving. When I started, if they asked for a vodka and soda, you’d say, ‘You want Stoli or Absolut?’ Now there are dozens and dozens of vodkas out there, dozens and dozens of gins. Different bourbons and rye whiskeys.”

Does the craft cocktail movement really have an impact on a traditional place like Musso & Frank?
“In a way it does. We’ve tried to incorporate some of those things. We’re known for our traditional cocktails, but we try to stay current if we can. We do such volume, we’re so busy, I don’t want to spend 10 minutes making a drink. But we try to stay current.”

Martini drinkers are usually pretty picky about the way they like their drink. Have you gotten such unusual Martini instructions from customers?
“Not really, because the Martini is such a traditional cocktail. There’s not much you can do to alter the Martini.”

What’s an unusual encounter you’re had with a customer?
“The first week I was working there, during the day, I was by myself. I had my back turned to the dining area. I was stocking some supplies. And a voice behind me said, ‘Excuse me. Is there a server over here who could take care of us?’ I turned around and it was Tommy Lee Jones. Welcome to Musso’s!”

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