Armed with a cocktail shaker and a dream, Marcos Tello is on a mission to elevate the profession of bartending.
A mixologist's mixologist, he has helped bring together a community of Southern California bartenders and cocktail aficionados in a club called the Sporting Life, a monthly gathering that started last year with only eight people and has grown to more than 100, among them some of the region's top barkeeps and most devout imbibers.
It's a testament to L.A.'s growing drinks culture and a nascent society of like-minded bartenders who are reclaiming a craft.
"I've been working in L.A. for nearly 20 years," said Jones bartender Eric Tecosky, "and there was never anything like this. It was more dog-eat-dog. [This is] a chance to exchange ideas, get exposed to new things. It's hard to be part of a group like this and not want to be better."
The Sporting Life -- whose members meet to trade cocktail arcana, catch up on bartender goings-on, conduct tastings, raise a glass to one another (and occasionally play flag football) -- is part of a trend happening across the country. In the last year, independent bartenders' guilds and clubs -- bringing together craft-cocktail makers intent on educating themselves further in the bar arts -- also have sprung up in Seattle (Washington State Bartenders Guild); Portland, Ore. (the Oregon Bartenders Guild); Chicago (Third Coast Cocktail Club); and Washington, D.C. (D.C. Craft Bartenders Guild).
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, July 23, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 25 words Type of Material: Correction
Bartenders guilds: In Wednesday's Food section, an article about the growth of bartenders guilds misspelled the last name of cocktail author Gary Regan as Reagan.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, July 29, 2009 Home Edition Food Part E Page 2 Features Desk 1 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
Bartenders guilds: A July 22 article about the growth of bartenders guilds misspelled the last name of cocktail author Gary Regan as Reagan.
"We're not quite at the stage of the pre-Prohibition era when bartenders were considered such an integral part of society or even as civic leaders," said Keith Waldbauer, vice president of the Washington state guild, which started in September. "But you now can make a respectable career of it."
The clubs' pursuits include education and training, raising public awareness about the industry and community involvement. "One of our big things is to get enough members to get a group rate on health insurance," said Jeffrey Morgenthaler, a founder of the Oregon guild. "This industry of ours doesn't lend itself to professionalism. One of the reasons is there are never any benefits available."
Bartenders in San Francisco and other cities have been actively involved in the U.S. Bartenders' Guild, a 61-year-old organization that also has seen explosive growth. It now has 11 chapters (plus three more in the works) and 1,400 members, up from only three chapters and 120 members in 2005, said president Livio Lauro. "People are taking this job a lot more seriously."
Tello, once a bartender at an Islands in Brea and now at the Varnish and Edison downtown, takes it seriously. In 2006, he attended a retreat led by cocktail guru Gary Reagan, followed by a four-day New York City pub crawl. "Everyone knew everyone, and it was such a tightknit community," Tello said of New York's bartenders. "I thought to myself, 'I'm gonna go back [to California] and find this community.'
"I searched and searched and was crushed [not to find it]. I vowed to make it happen."
He started e-mailing an earnest, info-packed "Sporting Life" newsletter to his peers that announced bartending events and competitions and featured bartenders about town (including himself on occasion), cocktail recipes, a "historical note of the month" (such as who first distilled the agave plant in 1521) and an invitation "to revolutionize the way the City of Angels approaches drinks."
They always started the same way: "Hello. This is Marcos Tello and for those of you who don't know me, I am a bartender. I wear that badge proudly. In an effort to bring honor back to my profession. . . . I am trying to unite bartenders in Los Angeles that are truly interested in the 'craft of the cocktail.' "
In the jungle of the drinking world, Tello is sort of like an amicable, sane Fitzcarraldo, determined to carry the steamship of bartender-dom up an incline riddled with flavored syrups and oft-maligned vodka. (Instead of a linen suit and Panama hat, he wears suspenders and oxfords.)
That incline is far less steep than it was only a year ago. Just look at the list of bars and restaurants deemed "cocktail-friendly" in the newsletter; it has grown to 17 from four.
The first meeting, at which Tello provided sparkling-wine cocktails ("I didn't even have glassware, just some cheap plastic flutes"), drew a meager crowd, but word spread and the club gained steam. "When Ted Haigh [drinks authority Dr. Cocktail] showed up at the second meeting, I thought, 'Whoa!' " Tello said.
Liquor reps are allotted time at each meeting -- emceed by Tello -- to provide a brief educational presentation about their product. (Otherwise, liquor representatives who attend aren't allowed to talk about what they're shilling.) "We try to focus on smaller brands," Tello said, "as opposed to the big liquor companies."