At S Bar in Hollywood, master bartender Ryan Magarian (second from left) watches approvingly as mixologists-in-training learn the nuances of crafting cocktails.
If cocktails everywhere were designed by Ryan Magarian and made by bartenders who have been through his training program, we'd be a country of seriously raging alcoholics.
But such a scenario would be very expensive. And more importantly, he'd never want it that way.
"I’m not trying to get people to drink more. I’m getting people to drink less. I just want you to drink better," he says. Although some existing and invented buzzwords are tossed around, he uses "passion," "awesome," and "excited" with such frequency and conviction that you just have to believe him.
The 10-plus years Magarian has spent concocting thousands of drinks and customizing cocktail menus for clients large (Holland America Cruise Line, Fairmont and Sofitel Hotels chains) and small (restaurants in Portland and Seattle) have not dampened his enthusiasm one bit. But lately the "associates" in his firm, Liquid Relations, crisscross the globe when he needs to stay closer to home in Portland. Magarian's other venture, Aviation Gin, takes his ambition one step further by allowing him to formulate actual raw materials, not just ingredient combinations. Such is the life of a master mixologist in contemporary American cocktail culture.
Magarian easily bounces between teaching a group of eager bartenders and engaging in one-on-one conversation. He's in Hollywood for a few days to train the bar staff of the newest Katsuya, which just opened within the splashy brand new Americana at Brand development in nearby Glendale. Magarian's presence ensures that when advanced cocktail culture arrives in suburbia, it's done right. This is the third in a string of locations of the Japanese cuisine and style emporium. Los Angeles-based owner and operator SBE Entertainment Group, best known for their slick nightlife venues (think the "Entourage" lifestyle), have found a winning formula in pairing Philippe Starck's interior designs with chef Katsuya Uechiâ's cooking. Not too long ago, quiet Glendale would have been considered an unconventional choice for both a glam-type Katsuya restaurant and a cocktail roster of Liquid Relation's ilk. Times have changed, and Magarian is an appropriate ambassador for the expansion of high-end eating and drinking beyond the confines of urban centers.
Ryan Magarian with his creation, the "Kiwi Envy" (see recipe below).
With his tall stature, Pilates-enhanced posture, well-fitting jeans, dark shirt and sport coat, Portland native Magarian, 34, looks like he can get past the most formidable velvet rope scene at a typical SBE venue. Or any club, anywhere. His down-to-earth charm doesn't hurt either.
And yet he's not interested in just "rooms with alcohol." Hiring Magarian means committing to a whole other level of drink dedication. He frames it as a wise investment. "I call this kind of bar culture an insurance policy. What if the food doesn't live up to the hype? At least you have another kitchen -- a liquid kitchen -- now you have two shots. You'd be crazy to not take that policy out on yourself."
On a weekday afternoon inside the uber-designed S Bar, 20 or so staff members are seated around the dramatically lit bar, with thick training binders perched on their laps. Magarian's exhaustive program (typically five days long, but this one will be cut short so he can catch a flight north for a speaking engagement in Napa at the CIA at Greystone) takes the participants into "the cave" as they learn "the toughest bartending there is." His affable yet firm demeanor keep things humming along. Magarian talks with incredible intensity at a breakneck pace, but every word is clearly enunciated and heard above the din of clacking bar equipment.
"I teach templates," he explains. For instance, Magarian doesn't demonstrate an Old Fashioned and then stand back and watch as trainees learn rote. Instead, he gets them to understand how this staple of the cocktail canon isn't "just whiskey and muddled fruit. Spirit, sugar, water, bitters -- that's an old fashioned." He emphatically counts with his fingers when breaking down each component of a cocktail. It doesn't have to be whiskey. You can use anything. We'll make up twenty different Old Fashioneds. "These foolproof combos help keep customers happy."
This training is also a full body workout. Not only do ingredients have to be carefully selected, measured precisely, and made in specified equipment, Magarian is uncompromising when it comes to the physicality of the craft. His drill is gospel: stand straight, shake at two o'clock for exactly six seconds, left foot forward, stomach tight ("don't let the drink shake you"), pinkie down when cracking the shaker open, and pour. Garnishes and final glass presentation require attention, too. It's all part of "teaching how to never make a bad drink."
It's his brand of "dynamic learning" that enables his clients' employees to master classic cocktails, eclectic signature drinks, and most importantly, their own palates. Hopefully they absorb even a small percentage of Magarian's encyclopedic knowledge. (Ever heard of the Corpse Reviver No. 2, a gin and absinthe cocktail popular at the Savoy Hotel during the 1920s? Magarian will tell you all about it.) And in the process, elevate the field.
Magarian has come to understand the nuances of "how much power we have behind the bar. Because we walk a thin line between being a drug dealer and a societal enhancer." So he forges ahead, one fine, perfectly crafted drink at a time.
Magarian wanted to serve a type of kiwi elderflower Collins cocktail at Katsuya, but "couldn't make it sing." When training the staff members of Katsuya Hollywood he enlisted their help. The following cocktail, which he likens to drinking a "melted kiwi," is the result of this collaborative effort. Its balance, fruity texture, mild sweetness and tiny tart aftertaste make it perfect for summer.
4 thin slices of peeled kiwi
1 ½ oz. dry gin (S Bar uses Plymouth)
¾ oz. St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur (AKA "angel spit")
½ oz. freshly squeezed lime juice
½ oz. simple syrup
1 oz. soda
Kiwi slice (with skin on) and lemon wedge
1. In a pint shaker glass, add kiwis and hand press with muddler
2. Add spirits and mixers, fill glass with ice, cover with shaker tin, and shake vigorously for 6 seconds
3. Add soda and strain over fresh ice into Collins glass
4. Garnish with kiwi slice and lemon
Photography: Masterson. Copyright 2008. All rights reserved.