In good spirits

Mixology fever has swept Los Angeles, with house-made syrups, fresh juices and craft spirits popping up on menus from downtown to West Hollywood. Now AKA Bistro, in Old Town Pasadena, is betting that thirsty patrons in the area are ready to stir up their drinking habits at their new series of spirit tastings, hosted by bartender Brady Weise.

“Cocktails are now blasting onto the scene in a big way, and you see a lot of bars in Pasadena adopting what would be called the downtown cocktail style,” Weise said.

Every Friday and Saturday, Weise hosts up to 15 aspiring spirit experts, or curious novices, at AKA for an hour-long session that combines tasting technique, a deep knowledge of spirits and, of course, a cocktail to close. Each month focuses on a different spirit — September was tequila, while October will be rum.

Weise said he enjoyed helping drinkers find a specific flavor or spirit that they enjoyed, especially given the overwhelming number of choices out there.

“The idea is to introduce people to specific brands. The bar can be a very expensive mystery,” Weise said.

Weise, a Los Angeles native, said he became interested in bartending while working for a Japanese trade bureau in Chicago, after an assignment teaching Japanese bartenders about wine.

“I kind of made it my personal mission to learn about everything that was on the back bar,” Weise said.

After accomplishing that goal, Weise decided to return to Los Angeles a few years ago, when craft cocktail bars like the Varnish in downtown L.A. were starting to change tastes in the city.

“I was born out here, so I wanted to bring it back home a little bit. I thought I could kind of help out my city,” Weise said. “Turns out there was a whole lot of guys thinking the same thing, so it was good.”

Weise ended up in Pasadena when he was brought on by Marcos Tello, from the Varnish, and his partner Aidan Demarest, with whom he designed the cocktail programs at downtown hotspots Seven Grand and the Edison, to bartend at the new 1886 bar at the Raymond Hotel.

When Weise decided to start a tasting series, he saw AKA as a natural fit.

“It was a place in Old Pasadena that I felt was adopting the cocktail culture,” Weise said.

Robert Simon, owner of AKA Bistro, said he and his wife became interested in limited-production, high-end spirits while they were running the original AKA Bistro in the Napa Valley.

“We got to know a lot of very interesting liquor, small-batch producers when we were up in Napa,” Simon said. “So we got totally captivated, even before we came back here, by the idea of limited-production spirits and what they could be used for in the cocktail and alone.”

The tastings aren’t a moneymaker for the restaurant at $25 a head, $10 of which goes to Weise, but Small said the benefit of drawing in new customers and making a mark with something different was well worth it.

“When you’re opening a restaurant during a recession, you’d better think outside the box as much as possible,” Simon said.

Beyond raising the restaurant’s profile, the tasting series raised the bar for its spirits program, he said.

“Having people like Brady around inspires the rest of our bartenders,” Simon said. “This month we probably increased our tequila stock by 300%. Next month we’ll increase our rum stock by at least 300%.”

For Weise, this increased focus in spirits and cocktails is the real reward for the work he puts in.

“If it was a perfect world, I’d love to see different venues in Pasadena adopt the whole culture,” Weise said. “For example, you walk into any bar in Pasadena and they have a great selection of everything.”

AKA Bistro's Spirits Tastings. Friday-Saturday. 4-5 p.m. $25. 41 Hugus Alley, Pasadena. Tickets: (626) 564-8111, www.akabistro.com.

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