Downtown’s the Varnish, Eric Alperin receive top bar nominations

A nondescript door in the back of Cole's restaurant in downtown Los Angeles leads to the bar called the Varnish.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Word came out on Friday that Eric Alperin, the dedicated barman behind downtown L.A.'s stellar craft cocktail bar, the Varnish, is among the top four finalists vying for the title of “American bartender of the year” at this year’s Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans.

Tales, as it is known to insiders, is the world’s largest gathering of bartenders and liquor professionals, with more than 21,000 attendees last year and even more expected this year.

The event, aimed at celebrating the art of the craft cocktail and promoting it through educational seminars and lots of tipsy networking at a variety of raucous parties and tastings, takes place over a period of five days in mid-July. The culmination of the booze-soaked affair is the annual Spirited Awards, which is where Alperin and his team will find out whether he wins.


The other three finalists in his category are Charles Joly of the Aviary in Chicago, Leo Robitschek of the NoMad Hotel in New York City and Sean Kenyon of William & Graham in Denver.

Last year Alperin was also nominated, but he didn’t win. This was a bit surprising given that the Varnish took the prize for best American cocktail bar. (In my humble opinion, it was similar to “Argo” taking the best picture Oscar after director Ben Affleck got snubbed for best director.)

Located in downtown Los Angeles behind an unmarked door inside Cole’s French Dip restaurant, the Varnish has a low-key speakeasy vibe and a small, shifting menu of serious cocktails with no-nonsense, classic cocktail roots.

This year the Varnish is nominated for world’s best cocktail bar, the same as last year. Only last year it lost to Black Pearl in Melbourne, Australia. I have high hopes for a win this time around as the Varnish vies for the heavyweight title against Callooh Callay in London, Candelaria in Paris and Drink in Boston.

The only other L.A. nomination goes to Harvard & Stone for best high-volume cocktail bar.

The unfortunate theme of this year’s Spirited Awards is “The Great Gatsby,” of which I firmly believe we have already had enough as a country. Plus, the last thing modern mixologists need is further association with Prohibition-era style.

For a full list of nominations, go to


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