Monday, 29 July 2013

Seven Grand: Los Angeles: Part 2 - A garden of earthly delights

Location: Seven Grand 515 W.Seventh St, Second Floor, Los Angeles

Two days later, it's early evening, it's still hot, I'm making my way from my hotel to Seven Grand when I stop for something cold and non-alcoholic...a virtuous start to an unpredictable evening. I people watch near the corner of Seventh & S.Figueroa and I'm confronted by what seem like the LA equivalents of aged extras from "Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas" There's a psychotic on every corner, sometimes more than one, playing out surreal tableaux in which each actor tries to describe a different Hieronymous Bosch painting through the power of mime, gutteral utterances, and the exudation of noxious odours. People walk on by, trained not to notice, avoiding eye contact. The number of homeless people could be a reflection of the warmer clime but the florid nature of the behaviours seems to be some kind of testament to a failed health care system. A brief respite and then onward  I'm crossing 7th and Grand when a vagrant shouts "I like your beard white boy". He is smiling, so am I....for very different reasons I suspect.

Out of the heat and into the bar, the feel is the same. A little bit noisier, well, it is Friday. 

Elijah Craig 12yo Cask strength. 
Mama's Little Yella Pils
The mingling of bourbon/rye, ale, & a new city is a heady and intoxicating mix. Elvis blasts out of the Duke Box.....Costello that is (Watching the Detectives & then "Red Shoes"), closely followed by Bowie (not Jim...David). Am I in LA or my childhood boozer, The Blackburne Arms, Warrington, circa 1982? I don't mean that in a disparaging's fucking brilliant. 

It has taken me roughly two minutes to chill out to a fine "cucumber raita, deep blue green sea, alone on the beach, no debt, no work, enough money, nobody knows me, stranger in a strange town" kind of tranquility. The night belongs to me again, I own it. 

"Who's Pedro"  On one of the signs behind the bar informs me that he's the guy to ask if you want to know more about the whisky society
"He's our whisky guru........he's not in tonight." The conversation ends before it even took off. 

I've been here twice so I can use the term "usual" in an appropriate context! I order my usual - Knob Creek Cask strength. There's the usual sub-frenetic hubbub of early evening pool ball banter, cocktail crowd clamour, and "winding down" schemas. Punters wash up to the bar where bar staff act as breakers, serving drinks and watching the drinkers ebb away before returning as the tide rises. The bar staff are warming to their tasks. Swift shimmies and sharp slaps on steel shakers, flick of the wrist sexy swerves and come & get me movements marking the agitation of alcohol & lemon, or cucumber, or strawberry, or whatever the cocktail demands, finishing in the "art of the pour" is the ballet of the barman/mixologist.

I meet an accent to my opportunity for conversation presents itself. "That sounds like a Brit accent to me"......the evening takes on a new twist. Pat has lived in LA for a number of years (does that make him an ex-pat?). A brief conversation ensues, the "who are you, what do you do, why are you here, what do you think of LA, what do you miss about England" ice breaking checking out chatter to determine whether its worth investing more time in each other. I like Pat, he's a really nice bloke, articulate, engaging, eager to chat and willing to listen, his is a friendly face in the sea of strangers. He moves off to sit with his friend Tai. A few moments later he pops back and invites me over to join them. New connections are being forged. Tai is equally engaging, funny, interested and interesting, and a thoroughbred American - she knows LA and lives only a few blocks away.  

In drinking with Tai & Pat I suggest we recount one funny story from our respective pasts. The art of storytelling is alive and thriving in boozers around the world and I love listening to people tell quality stories that have significance and meaning for them.  We swap stories which are too long to repeat here but nonetheless, they are very funny, unique, and provide clear evidence of the value of our existence here on this beautiful/shitty planet. For the sake of brevity I'll simply include the "punchline" or "highest point" of each of the three tales without attributing them to either of the story tellers. 

Tale 1: "I just hope they put better padded rims on those Test of strength machines in Thailand!"

Tale 2: " this point I realised that not only was I at the wrong airport, but I was in the wrong country!"

Tale 3: "So all the Russian guy kept saying was "I am clean"

In the "rest room" there is a smartly dressed, African-American valet/butler/rest room guy with a smörgåsbord of lavatorial & post-lavatorial attractions (condoms, sweets, tissues, coloured pretty baubles, aftershave). This is new to me and I'm feeling uncomfortable. "Toilet/rest room protocol" is a minefield at best and I am thrown into confusion by this benign urinal confrontation. Do I say anything? If I do say anything, what do I say? What are the rules of engagement? What am I supposed to do? The one thing that I need to do is take a piss (note the American expression; in the UK we "have" a piss, in the US you "take" a piss. The former suggests ownership, the latter suggests theft, I'll leave you to draw your own conclusions). Anyway, even "doing" a piss is proving to be a challenge. It's not so much a case of "bashful bladder syndrome" but more of a case of "I'm trying to piss and there's a shop owner standing no more than 6ft away......syndrome". I wash my hands more thoroughly than I would normally do, it would be impolite not to. I am representing my country in terms of toilet hygiene. Never let it be said that the Brits are deficient in terms of urinary cleanliness. I don’t purchase anything (my level of unease is such that I barely make eye-contact), but my rye largesse is in full flow, I am Lord David of Alcock, I don't have any small change so I give him $5. 

I'm now on "whisky bar" time, where progress through the evening is measured not in terms of the clock but in terms of the shot. The lighting is set to convivial, the background hubbub feels like affirmation, the conversation, nurtured by Craig, Turkey, Grand-dad, Four Roses and Knob, builds in terms of enthusiasm, vigour, scope and sheer imaginative flair. The camaraderie is infectious, this is a transatlantic union of global significance, our discussions could make a difference not just to ourselves but to humankind in general.....and slowly, inevitably, things begin to blur, to merge, to blend, to become opaque, it is time to leave. 

I have the munchies, I need to eat. I purchase a filled bread roll that weighs more than my forearm and weave my way back to the hotel. I wake up at 07.36 in a hotel sheet sea of ham, chicken, cheese and breadcrumbs.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Seven Grand: Los Angeles - Part 1: An evening of short sentences

Location: Seven Grand 515 W.Seventh St, Second Floor, Los Angeles

Craftsman 1903 Pale ale

Knob Creek Cask Strength Bourbon 60%

A Black & White film on a small TV top left of bar, no sound, Juke box, “The girl from Ipanema” permeates the room, 20 punters, and two barmen. The sound of pool balls and conversations being struck. The beer...cold, the Creek...deep, sweet chocolate and caramel rye notes meander down my throat...escape, an escape from the oppressive heat, from the tensions that come with being alone in a sprawling city in a foreign country, from the streets punctuated with business bods and downtrods, and from the demands of having to stay focused. The decor whispers English boozer & American bar in equal measure. It's like a big old-fashioned, old English pub "snug" wrapped in speakeasy.

The whiskey list is impressive, they've even got Ardbog in here & it's only been out for three weeks!

Two guys swing alongside & order 2 old fashioned. I've still not dipped my toe into the world of cocktails, maybe one day. A waft of lemon hits me from the dexterously crafted drinks ... maybe one day. I occasionally try to strike up a conversation with the barmen who are very accommodating, but the problem is, once I've uttered my sentence, my musician deafness kicks in and I can't hear their response, so I come across as a muttering, hapless, odd Brit who's not worth spending time with! Enjoy the solitude.

I ask the barman what the procedure is regarding tipping. I suppose I want to come across as "all cutesy, folksy, quaint, British tourist" whose politeness screams out "look after me, pour drinks down my neck"! He politely explains that I could open a credit account & tip at the end, or "pay & tip as you go". I opt for the former; it seems cleaner, quicker, & less stressful. Perhaps more importantly, it would allow me to forget how much I might be spending. I reach for my wallet only to find that I've left my credit card in my hotel safe in case I get kidnapped, held hostage, caught in cross-fire, or mugged on the 800 yard route from hotel to bar (the unworldly wise, neurotic tourist screwing with my head). I come across as a muttering, hapless, odd Brit who's not worth spending time with!

This whisky/beer combo is hitting the spot. Physiologically, which spot it's hitting I have no idea...but in the head it feels good. 

"I haven't eaten today so I'll have a pint of lunch.... the O'Hara's  Irish stout", my humour goes unnoticed. I should have added “my good man” to the end of the sentence in order to provide the complete “Lord of the Manor” experience... maybe next time.

O'Hara's Irish Stout (in a Guinness glass)

Lost Spirits Leviathan 1 Cabernet Wine Barrel. 53%abv *

The phrase "good pour" has entered my mental vocabulary. There are no "measures" in here, it's at the discretion, manual dexterity, and bonhomie of the barman. The Knob Creek was a good pour. The Leviathan was also a good pour. The advantage of a good pour is a longer, more pleasurable experience with a quality drink. The disadvantage occurs when the whiskey presses your "wrong" buttons! For me, the Leviathan was a slow starter of a whiskey that gradually began to impress.

My immediate opinion of the Leviathan is that it is a marriage made in a 7/11 store, a marriage of convenience, an adolescent underachiever. The Cabernet influence is in my face demanding my attention and I don't have the time, there's too much other stuff to take in. Now this doesn't make it a bad whiskey, in my experience there aren't many bad whiskies, there are whiskies that don't meet your requirements at that particular moment, whiskies that don't match your mood, or styles/flavours of whisky that you don't like. There are those that don't work well due to their proximity to the whiskey you've just had, and so on. There are also whiskies that you need to befriend, to spend time with and appreciate at your leisure, I'm thinking that the Leviathan fits into this category. This is definitely not a bad whiskey. (I realise that I normally taste whiskey in the safe confines of my tasting space, I need to get out more! I'm running the risk of becoming a whiskey technician with a limited understanding of the totality of the whiskey experience.)

On my left, I hear a young man explaining to his new girlfriend how there are many different kinds of whiskey...bourbon, rye, Tennessee, Kentucky.. Should I correct him? I think not (this is America and he's probably packing a piece!). I don't need to look at them to know that this is a new relationship. Their conversation fluctuates between "shallow" and "über shallow" and that's absolutely how it should be. I'm sure the whiskey will massage their confidence genes, allowing them to stumble out of the shallows and flirt with "depth" before confronting the big question that has been on their minds from the moment they met.

On my right I hear a Frenchman trying to impress a Japanese woman....the conversation seems to have moved on to how you stuff geese (a "foie gras" moment if you will)! I can't wait to get home and try it out (not). It's also a new relationship........he's now talking about his mother.

A couple of minutes later, two young men (to my left) ask for tequila shots, I think the barman indicates that he doesn't have what they want, and offers them a whisky alternative. They agree, he suggests one or two possible whiskey options, they choose and agree, he double checks their choice, they agree, he comes back and asks them for $86 ...they are shocked, shamefaced, and shit themselves...they disagree...he is polite, he takes the drinks back and brings them two shots of bottom of the range, hang your head in shame, adolescent shot, puke in two hours liquor....they are happy.

It's been a while since I've turned around. 
I've not eaten for 18 hours, I'm jet-lagged, the adrenalin of the day has eaten into my reserves. Focusing on the bar and drink in front of me provides a much needed anchor.  Everything seems stable when I've only got two things to focus on. Fuck me, this Leviathan is starting to taste good, perhaps that's the secret of whiskey drinking...perseverance, it will all taste good in the end.

I'm walking back to the hotel. I'm smiling, LA seems somehow safer. A great bar, top quality whiskies, and great bar staff.

* I can't remember what cask Leviathan I was drinking (I think it was Cask 3). If you get the chance, try it!

(c) Alcock 2013