Aidan Demarest hides behind the many bottles at his new bar Neat in Glendale. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)
At 10:30 on an achingly beautiful Tuesday morning, the Enabler walked into an unassuming bar in Glendale called Neat. The furious weekend rains had fled, draining the sky of gray and leaving in its place the ice cold blue of Veronica Lake's eyes. It was whiskey weather, and the Enabler craved a warming snort.
Neat was not usually open at such an early hour, but its owner — the wisecracking mixologist and cocktail consultant Aidan Demarest — had agreed to meet the Enabler to talk about his new bar and show off his more than 300 bottles of carefully curated spirits, which he serves straight up (called "neat" by liquor lovers) with a chaser of soda, fresh fruit juice, beer or house-made syrup.
Demarest is one of L.A.'s most prominent cocktail kings, having helped open some of the city's most revered drinking establishments, including Seven Grand, the Edison and the Spare Room. He also creates complex drink menus and trains bartenders alongside fellow star mixologist Marcos Tello as part of a company called Tello Demarest Liquid Assets. That this pillar of the cocktail community had forsaken the almighty hand-crafted mixed drink for a bar that served unmixed booze signaled to the Enabler that a shift was taking place in L.A.'s mixology-happy landscape.
"I love beautiful cocktails from inspired mixologists," said Demarest, standing behind the long, L-shaped bar in a thick blue sweater, his blond hair mussed. "But I feel like we sort of jumped the shark in the cocktail world and it's becoming exclusionary. At one point, I just became totally disinterested in discovering the next cocktail trend, the next foam — it was beginning to feel a little contrived. So, before you go to a cocktail bar, you should learn about spirits. This is like bar 101."
The Enabler surveyed the hundreds of back-lighted bottles on glass shelves behind Demarest, a melancholy ache rising in her throat — that sense of longing that comes with the day's first drink and an engaging conversation. Teach me about rye, she said. The day — breezy, moody, restless — called for the old working man of whiskeys.
Demarest pulled down three bottles representative of what he likes to call an arc: one benchmark spirit (6-year-old Sazerac); one wild card (High West double rye); and one high-end brand (Michter's straight rye). He poured one ounce of each into small rocks glasses. Into a much larger rocks glass he mixed handmade hibiscus cinnamon syrup, fresh lemon juice and Perrier water, stirring them with a long bar spoon over fat cubes of Kold-Draft ice (these don't melt easily, so they won't water down your drink as fast).
"I'm thinking about the cold, that fire [he pointed to the cozy fireplace against the back wall], and this whole sort of moment," he said as he crafted the chaser, or palate cleanser, that was to accompany the ryes. "You have to create something that your chosen liquor will play off well, since you're not mixing, you're just chasing. It's almost like the charcuterie of drinks — you're bouncing flavors off each other, and it's not a prepared dish."
Neat is filled with house-made syrups, including ginger and agave, as well as a variety of hand-squeezed juices, but Demarest keeps them hidden because he doesn't want the place to look like a mixology bar. And the modest room is indeed a far cry from those Prohibition-era dens of pressed-tin roofs, rustic wooden tables and bespoke suits.
The building housing Neat was built in 1960 and was named the Gold Rail. For the last 10 years or so, it was a tacky, Moroccan-themed joint called Sidebar. Demarest, who says that bars are stories, has created a plausible tale for Neat's early years.
"Some GI bought this place after World War II, and moved out to Glendale when the city was living large," he said. "He was that guy with Mason jars full of nuts and bolts. I can feel his work everywhere."
He has no solid history on which to base this story, just the handmade nature of the narrow little room; the odd, lowered ceiling above the bar that cushions sound; the small, crosshatched, colored-glass windows at the front of the house. Touches that indicate love and attention to detail.
There is also a secretive back entrance with a crimson-red cushioned door, which was the main entrance in the 1960s. Men would park in the back and enter through the back. And there were only small, opaque windows. "So your wife couldn't drive by and see you in there," Demarest says. "The same goes for all those motels on Ventura. It was all cheating, drinking dads who built this stuff."
Men who understood a working man's drink, thinks the Enabler, exiting through the back to head into the office, the day suddenly transformed by the burn of double rye.
Where: 1114 N. Pacific Ave., Glendale.
When: 5:30 p.m. to 2 a.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 7 p.m. to 2 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays
Price: Spirits with chaser, $9 to $14 on average, with $40 marking the high end
Contact: (818) 241-4542; http://www.theneatbar.com