Thursday
Aug272015

Houston in Hollywood – Part II

It was a balmy Tuesday night in Los Angeles, and the air was thick. The heat was steaming off the hot Hollywood pavement, as we meandered our way down the main boulevard. My wife and I were due to meet Linzie, director of events for Houston Hospitality, at Butchers and Barbers for a late dinner on Tuesday evening, but I wanted to get there a bit early to have a drink at the bar. Located on Hollywood Boulevard at the end of Schrader, the building is a bit of a four-storied oddity, but the interior of the restaurant couldn’t be more classically soothing. The lighting is low, the walls a warming sheath of exposed brick, and the bar itself a polished mahogany. The mood is comfortable, but classy. We grabbed a seat on two of the stools and looked over the cocktail menu.

Butchers and Barbers is the most casual and straight-forward establishment of of the Houston portfolio; a standard American bistro serving burgers, steaks, and hearty cuisine alongside a stellar selection of drinks. My wife, always a sucker for tropical flavors and anything with coconut, went for the Oddly Beautiful—a gin-based tall drink made with jackfruit, coconut cream, lemon juice, and topped with a purple yam foam. I was hooked in by The Time is Ripe—another gin-based concoction with creme de peche, honey, lemon juice, and thyme. The presentation just was as wonderful as the cocktail itself, in that the sprig of thyme rested sturdily atop the giant cube of ice anchored in the middle of my glass. The placement allowed me to whiff some of the dried herb before actually tasting the cocktail itself, which only enhanced the flavors when they did explode on my tongue. The combination of savory herbs with lemon and honey created something like an alcoholic Ricola throat lozenge; and a delicious one at that! You could tell that lot of thought went into this drink, and I definitely appreciated it.

When Linzie arrived we grabbed a table in the corner, grabbed more drinks (the Gold Hat—tequila with habanero-infused Falernum, grapefruit, raspberry, and lime), and ordered some snacks for the table. A basket of popcorn arrived covered in roasted garlic, rosemary, and thyme oil (but it might as well have been slathered with crack-cocaine) and we demolished that in minutes. Small plates of roasted cauliflower soon followed. The conversation flowed effortlessly, as the waitstaff continued to refill the empty vessels that perished in our wake. The atmosphere was completely conducive for socialization and I think all three of us were all reveling in it.

We continued chatting and drinking, discussing the dynamics of the Houston brothers business, as more food arrived. A classic bistro burger, along with a cherry tomato salad with burrata, roasted fingerling potatoes, and a crudité of trout. My biggest pet peeve when it comes to cocktail bar/restaurants is always the lack of sufficient sustenance, but there were no issues here. We were fortified against the long evening ahead, and there were no hankerings or late-night cravings to follow. Both hunger and thirst had been well satiated by a classic and well-executed menu of standard favorites. I would definitely put Butchers and Barbers on my short list of double-date destinations.

Upon exiting Butchers and Barbers, we hung a left on North Hudson and began walking along the side of the quirky building, towards a dark staircase that headed down into the bowels of the facade. Two men were smoking cigarettes at the top of the flight, checking IDs and making sure all comers were acceptable. There is a dress code at almost all of the Houston establishments, and most of them do not allow flip-flops. Linzie began talking to the gentlemen, before telling us that we'd reached the entrance of Dirty Laundry. We would need a code to get in, however, as the door at the bottom of the stairs contains an electronic pad, requiring the correct information upon entry. It would be the first of many clever and creative entrances that to follow. Linzie pushed the buttons and opened the door into the throbbing bass of dance music and a narrow, darkened room with innate tile work floors, stone mason walls, and a ceiling of brick and dark wood; the bartender contrasted against the white-tiled back bar, focusing intently on his craft. 

We walked through the entrance way and around the bar, past a live DJ, and into a separate back room where dozens of onlookers sat comfortably on leather couches, watching the performance at the back of a second narrow chamber. A slideshow was projecting colors, patterns, and light onto the performers and the wall behind them. The music was shockingly good; a combination of Twin Shadow-style, Prince-influenced dance with modern beats and electronic synth. My wife and I were transfixed. “I would hang out here every single night if this is a normal Tuesday,” I said to her. She nodded in agreement. We never just wander into anything this cool in the Bay Area—at least not without a snarky crowd of straight-faced scenesters preventing our advancement into the space. The mood at Dirty Laundry was light and carefree, despite the secretive vibe. No one seemed to be putting on airs, just dancing and having a good time.

After leaving Dirty Laundry, we continued past the main building and around the block towards a dim parking lot, illuminated almost entirely by a neon red light. There were valets scurrying to and fro in the darkness, and as we approached the main entrance I realized we were standing at the back of an extraordinarily old Victorian mansion. “It’s actually a historical site called the Jane House,” Linzie told us as we made our way to the front. Built in 1902, the building is the oldest in Hollywood, named after the James family from Illinois who purchased the home thereafter. I noticed that the bouncer was allowing groups to enter the door systematically, waiting at least a minute or more before allowing more people to enter—almost like the guard at the top of each waterslide who makes sure the kids all wait their turn. I realized why this was happening as we made our way up the stairs and into the main hallway. In a way, No Vacancy is very much a theme park, and a tribute to the eclectic history of the site.

As we walked down the creaky, wooden shaft there were three doors on our left to choose from; each containing a different diorama of pre-prohibition kitsch. I approached the last door, opened it cautiously, and escorted my wife and Linzie into the small brothel room that awaited us. Inside sat an old-timey madam, who greeted us with a bit of sass, before asking us to guess how we might go into the speakeasy from here. My wife guessed correctly; there was indeed a hidden entrance under the bed. The woman hit the switch, the bed lifted and moved into the wall, and down the rabbit hole we went. 

Much like Good Times at Davey Wayne’s, No Vacancy is simply a house that happens to have a bar in it. You can into different rooms, up and down a flight of stairs, and into the main parlor for drinks. The bartenders are incredibly-skilled and nothing but polite to all visitors, introducing a bevy of well-made beverages to a crowd that might normally just ask for a vodka tonic. In my mind, that’s how everyone in the booze should be looking to expand their reach: by casting a wider net under the auspices of a memorable experience, then slowly indoctrinating those visitors with care and sincerity. As Kevin Costner was once told by a whispering voice only he could here: “If you build it, they will come.” Once they start coming, it's up to you to serve them the drink of their life, curate their expectations, and before you know it they’ll be requesting Chartreuse. 

The back patio behind the old Victorian is incredible. On such a warm summer evening there was really no other place I would have rather been. The space has its own bar separate from the main house, and there are strings of lights, comfortable chairs, and plenty of friendly folks chatting the night away. Everyone there was in a fantastic mood. But, really, how could they not have been? No Vacancy is the kind of place where you can come early, grab a seat and have an intimate conversation, or show up late and just people-watch as the masses continue to pack their way in. We grabbed a quick gin and ginger before getting the call from Mark, who was waiting for us over at Davey Wayne’s. We hopped in a cab and made our way down Hollywood Boulvard towards the brothers' ultimate homage.

I’ve explained the scenario a hundred times to my friends and family, but I’ve never had the actual pictures to accompany the description (so this should be fun). Here's the situation: there’s a house on Vista del Mar Street, just a few blocks over from our Hollywood store. You know there’s some sort of party going on because you can hear the music from the street and there’s a gang of people standing out in front, but it's difficult to tell just what exactly is happening.

As you walk up to the front of the house and you can see that the garage door is open. There are a few odds and ends on the walls, a dim lamp that reveals a bit of storage in the lowlight, and a fridge that sits at the back of the unit. But where’s the party? "Why don’t you open the fridge and grab yourself a beer before you ask such questions," says the guy out in front. But wait! That's not really a refrigerator full of beer, but rather the door that leads you into the gigantic house party that is Good Times at Davey Wayne’s—Davey Wayne being the name of Mark and Jonnie’s late father. It’s a tribute to the man of the house; a testament to all the childhood memories and nostalgia that the two brothers have for their late father—a man who always had a cold one waiting for him out in the garage. 

The entire exerience at Davey Wayne's is like a giant party, rather than the typical bar experience. The vibe is incredible, full of energy and life. There’s a standard bar in the right side of the main house, and out back there’s a trailer which—as Mark would later tell me—represents where his father used to sleep when he was in the doghouse. Both their father’s original trailer and the current one located at Davey Wayne’s have seen their share of alcohol. This one just happens to have a window where you can walk up and order a drink. Mark met us for tequila snowcones in the backyard and we quickly continued our conversation from a few months back. We talked about the importance of mood and atmosphere and the superiority of lasting memories over the fickle fade of just another well-made drink. We discussed the excitement of cross-genre collaborations and shared stories about current projects, continuing to find common ground on philosophies grounded in the aesthetics of curation. Mark has no desire to be up in the office, looking through invoices, while the rest of the staff operates the show. He wants to be right smack in the middle of the party, looking to provide a top-notch experience first-hand (and he does so just about every night of the week). Both he and his brother want the message to be on point, which is why they are personally involved in shaping the experiences of their visitors. It’s a level of commitment and a willingness to grind that you don’t run across very often. You generally find it only in people who truly love what they’re doing. It’s contagious and I want nothing more than to stay as close to that energy for as long as possible.

But ultimately we needed to get back to our hotel and rest up for the day ahead of us. We bid Mark and Linzie adieu, thanked them both for a wonderful evening, and walked the three blocks back over to Vine Street. We still had another round to go the following night.

-David Driscoll

Thursday
Aug272015

Houston in Hollywood – Part I

While liquor companies continue to pour huge amounts of money into new brand development, billboard advertisements, and global duty free promotions, I will tell you here and now that the future of the boutique liquor industry lies not in public recognition, but rather the curation of the public. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: brand loyalty is dead in the booze business. Frank Sinatra isn’t around anymore to inspire budding Jack Daniels drinkers into a glass of Tennessee whiskey. There are no more Marlboro men. Fewer and fewer members of the modern generation define themselves by the label, choosing instead to focus on quality, rarity, uniqueness, or historical fascination when selecting a bottle, and that means liquor companies have to be flexible. Today’s adventurous customer is continuously looking for a new experience, rather than a trustworthy and familiar face, and that scares the holy hell out of marketing men, whose job it is to make you a life-long loyalist. But it’s a mistake to assume that the current consumer is short on loyalty because, if anything, the modern drinker is more discerning than ever—they’re just loyal to the cause rather than the company. It’s for that very reason that the success and progression of the liquor industry will rely on better curation, rather than better brands; because it’s no longer about a consistent product, but rather a consistently positive experience that’s constantly changing, constantly in flux, and constantly thinking outside the box. 

In writing a blog about spirits for the last six years, I’ve tried to put those theories into cyber-practice. I’m always looking to intermingle technical information, brand specifics, and distillation data in with romanticism, travel imagery, pop culture, and booze history. I might write about a new Bourbon release one day, then an romp through the streets of Paris the next. I’ve done interviews with master distillers and podcasts with brand owners, while simultaneously transcribing my conversations about drinking with rock stars, actors, and famous athletes. I’m obviously in the business of selling bottles, but my ultimate goal has always been to sell an idea and then continuously curate that idea with a revolving theme of interesting and dynamic experiences. Entertainment always comes first. I want quality, but never at the expense of pleasure. Like today’s liquor consumer, I’m not interested in repeating the same experience over and over and I’m always on the hunt for the next big adventure. I want to be consistently influenced, inspired, and exhilarated, and I’m willing to take risks, put myself out there, and bust my ass to make that happen. More importantly, I want to meet people who think along these same lines, but simultaneously can challenge my expectations and help me to move beyond any limitations I may have unconsciously imposed on myself. I’ve always considered myself at the forefront of this mindset in my industry—usually I’m the person who’s moving beyond the status quo and pushing the limits, while continuing to stress the importance of fun as the ultimate goal—but this past week I realized how incredibly behind I am. There’s a pair of fraternal twin brothers in Hollywood who are already far ahead of me. Their names are Mark and Jonnie Houston, and they’ve already taken all of my dreams and fantasies for curating the ideal drinking experience, and harnessed them into ten incredible bars and restaurants around Los Angeles. 

I first met Mark Houston at the Magic Mike XXL premier party this past June where we were both guests of producer Steven Soderbergh. A series of introductions had brought us together and we ended up chatting intensely for about ten minutes, piggy-backing upon each other’s observations while coming to the same breathless conclusions. Despite coming from two different sides of the industry, we had a lot in common in terms of the way we viewed it. When Mark mentioned he owned the bar Good Times at Davey Wayne’s, I immediately perked up. “I love that place!” I exclaimed. “That’s the Hollywood spot that’s literally a house that’s been transformed into bar, right?” I had been there previously with friends while visiting Los Angeles, and I couldn’t stop talking about it to my colleagues when I returned home. The experience had imprinted itself upon my psyche. Here was a thematic bar—a giant house party from the 1970s—that actually had a serious cocktail program, yet simultaneously embraced the more carefree and fun-oriented aspects of the genre—like alcoholic snow cones, or tall cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon. It was easily the coolest bar I had ever been to, but at the same time it didn’t take itself seriously in the slightest. “That place is so refreshing,” I continued telling Mark. “The quality of the program has already been established, which allows everyone to just move on with the pretense and simply enjoy the show. It’s incredible. I’ve never been anywhere like it.” 

“I can make you a kick-ass Manhattan. That’s not an issue,” he told me as we shared a drink. “But so can five thousand other guys around the country. Proficiency isn’t enough anymore. It’s expected. What about fun? Don’t you want to have a memorable time when you’re out?”

“What’s funny, is people think you have to do one or the other,” I said, taking a sip of my cocktail. “They think only intensely-straight-faced bartenders are going to be taken seriously. Smiling, showing emotion, and being enthusiastic mean you don’t know what you’re talking about, and that’s the kiss of death for snobby booze people. But you’ve really put yourself out there with your thematic elements. You’re inviting people to make a judgment as to whether they’re going to feel comfortable doing both simultaneously. Anyone who can’t have a good time at your bar isn’t someone I want to hang out with anyway, so I’m sure you bring in a pretty laid-back crowd.”

“I think if you can strive towards quality while having fun, people will ultimately respect you for it.”

“Amen, brother,” I said. “You and I are cut from the same cloth.”

“You need to come down and visit my other bars,” Mark finally said. “You know my brother and I have nine other spots, right?”

I had no idea there were nine other Houston brothers bars and restaurants in Los Angeles, but suddenly I was intrigued. As it turned out, I needed to head back down south for business towards the end of August, so Mark and I made plans to meet in Hollywood at that time. He wanted me to at least see Butchers and Barbers—the New York-inspired American bistro, No Vacancy—the Hollywood speakeasy set in a historic Victorian mansion, Dirty Laundry—the subterranean DJ club, Break Room 86—the 80s-themed Karaoke bar, as well as La Descarga—a latin-style cigar bar with live salsa dancing. How could I say no to such an invitation? Especially considering how much I liked what I heard.

-David Driscoll

Wednesday
Aug262015

A Light at the End

Tourists from all over the world come to Hollywood, hoping to merely catch a glimpse of the bright lights that shine each evening on their television set. They walk up and down Hollywood Boulevard, between the seedy tour guides offering maps to the stars, past the encampments of homeless hunkered down on each block, searching for just the sight of a famous face, hoping for an interaction with the world of show business in the mecca of movie-making. This, in their minds, is where the magic happens.

And there is plenty of magic in Hollywood, it's just that very little of it is happening in plain view. As you may have heard in a famous song or two, nobody walks in LA. The luminary legends of the big screen are unfortunately not going for casual strolls down Vine Street. While much of what we see on TV is perfectly and painstakingly ideal, the streets of Hollywood themselves are far from curated in such a fashion. 

Sure, there are reminders of fame and fortune everywhere. Notable hangouts, neon signs, and the latest celebrity entrepreneurial endeavor catch your eye every few blocks, but everything seems to be in extremes. Unlike New York or San Francisco, where much of the energy is palpable along each and every sidewalk, Hollywood feels almost desolate and lonely in comparison; as if the broken dreams of those who didn't quite make it are haunting the obscured offshoots and alleyways. Packs of women quickly scurry from their Über cars, heels clonking against the pavement, as they try to shorten the amount of time spent between taxi and club floor.

But don't let any of that fool you. Don't let any of Hollywood's urban reality crush your spirit or dishearten your dreams. There is plenty of magic happening behind closed doors. There are bars and speakeasies, dark dens of drinking and debauchery, that go completely beyond what we're capable of up north. They are hybrid houses—theme parks of dance, music, classic cocktails, and mazes of magestic history that overwhelm the senses and boggle the mind. Everything is happening here all at once, and the nature of the action changes as you move from building to building. It's a feast of the senses. "How is this even possible?" you ask yourself in disbelief?

There is no going back from this. There is no way to leave these establishments without completely questioning the fundementals of modern bartending. How can anyone compete with this level of vision, built firmly on the basic elements of fun? What I saw last night is completely beyond pretense. 

What I saw was the future.

-David Driscoll

Tuesday
Aug252015

Airplane Fodder

I'm on the road again this week. Lots of reading time on the plane. Not a problem, however, because my wife gave me a book called The Knockoff, about a woman named Imogen in her early forties who returns to work in the fashion industry after some time away, but now has to deal with younger millenial co-workers. Me being in my mid-thirties, I'm finding her observations hilarious. This part killed me (I'm editing it down a bit as there's much more going here):

"Try living with your parents all the time," Ashley said.

Ashley lived with her parents? Imogen tried to conceal a look of surprise.

"Are you staying with them until you find your own place?"

"Yeah, I figure I'll be there a couple more years. The building is getting a new gym next summer," Ashley replied.

"You don't want your own place sooner than that?"

"Why would I? We all live with our parents." The others nodded. "Why would be get our own apartments when we get everything we need at our parents' places? They have all the right food. There is laundry service. Besides. Who can afford to live in Manhattan on our salaries?"

Imogen felt sad for them. These women would never know the joys of sharing a tiny space with two other friends, all in the same boat, all trying to make ends meet over Pringles and bits snuck home from a fancy store opening. One time her roommate Bridgett snuck an entire bottle of Dom Pérignon down the front of her Calvin Klein shift dress. They stayed up that night talking until dawn about the women they wanted to be when they were finished being the girls who stole champagne and smoked a pack of Marlboros in a day. The apartment was little more than a one bedroom closet with small nooks carved out for sleeping. Had it not been for that apartment and that sense of ambition that can only be born out of struggle, she wouldn't be who she was today.

Amen. I remember living in a studio on Market Street near 18th, busting my ass waiting tables at Pier 39 during the day, then working the night shift at Tower Records until closing. After work we would drink shitty beer out of cans, then go up on my roof and smoke a pack of Kamel Reds while looking out over the city. It was in those moments that every bit of hard work became worth the effort. I absolutely would not be the person I am today without that struggle.

I still cherish those memories today. Bravo to Lucy Sykes and Jo Piazza for summarizing something so quintessential about the new generational divide (and including booze and cigarettes).

-David Driscoll

Monday
Aug242015

New Faultline Releases Getting Closer

I spent this better part of this afternoon over in Alameda at the St. George distillery working with Dave Smith on our forthcoming trio of Faultline releases. Ever since word broke out that Jaime Hernandez would be designing the labels and that Frontier Records would be printing limited edition vinyl to accompany each bottle, people have been freaking out. During our interview last week even Magicians author Lev Grossman geeked out completely when he saw that Jaime had been involved with us on a secret project. The excitement is completely palpable at this point. We've got the design of the media completely under control, but today it was time to start fine-tuning the actual spirits.

Dave and I hit the lab hard today, mixing all kinds of different distillates together before making notes as to what we liked and what we didn't. The absinthe is pretty much done, as is the Bourbon. It's the gin that still needs to be tweaked just a bit. I can tell you this, however: there will be some sort of raspberry component.

We're getting closer! October seems realistic at this point.

-David Driscoll