As lead barman for some of Los Angeles’ most sought-after fine dining restaurants —including Forbes Travel Guide Recommended Lucques, A.O.C. and Tavern — Christiaan Rollich succeeds in complementing chef Suzanne Goin’s and business partner Caroline Styne’s farm-to-table menus, making his drink components from scratch and incorporating ingredients that transcend cocktail clichés.
In a town full of want-to-be mixmasters, find out why Rollich stands out as he discusses what’s on tap behind the bar for spring, why Los Angeles is a hotspot for discerning imbibers, and how he’s utilizing unique ingredients such as forbidden black rice and so much more.
How do you sum up the Los Angeles cocktail scene, and what sets it apart from other cities such as New York and San Francisco?
Los Angeles has one major advantage to all other cocktail scenes: fresh produce. Our seasons are longer than most other cities. I can get everything fresh here, from apples to kumquats, to guavas — whatever you want to use. We have amazing resources in L.A. We have chefs stage in the kitchen from the East Coast and they have never seen dragon fruit or passion fruit. We have so many options over here.
I would love to think it is all about my cocktails, but truth be told, I work for one of the best chefs and restaurateurs in the country — Suzanne Goin and Caroline Styne — and these are their restaurants. Don’t get me wrong; we receive a lot of praise for our bar programs, but, it is a restaurant and people go to a restaurant to eat.
How do you keep things fresh at each of the restaurants?
A lot of things are done by process of elimination. Say blood oranges, for example. I can have one blood orange recipe in each restaurant but it cannot be the same. I made a shrub for one, I made some kind of Negroni mix for the next, and maybe I will use straight up juice for the third — or when I make a syrup, I will make sure I use it in a different way.
What ingredients are you eying for your spring menus, and what creations are you working on now?
Spring is a fun one because we still have all the citrus. I am making a grapefruit marmalade for a tequila drink, and a blood orange shrub for a rum drink. I made a red wine syrup, and I’m very excited about working on horchata with forbidden black rice and almonds. We make our own blood orange bitters, which is standing already.
Is there anything new that you’re currently utilizing/thinking of using in your cocktail menus?
Yes, Negroni syrup and beer syrups. I made stout syrup with star anise, cloves and vanilla for a scotch drink on the menu at Lucques. For the new menu at Tavern, I just made a hefeweizen syrup with sage.
Your Pistachio Colada — a heavenly mix of Matusalem rum, fresh passion fruit, lime juices and pistachio syrup — has caused quite a buzz among savvy cocktail drinkers in Los Angeles. How long will it be on the menu at A.O.C. and what inspired the drink?
Yeah, that was awesome and a little bit strange, but people seem to like it. It is a seasonal drink so once it is gone it is gone. It was really fun to create. I love passion fruit; it is an ugly looking egg and when you open it, it looks like a bunch of snot. But when you smell it? Oh, it is the best. I was at the market in Santa Monica, I saw them, and I had to have them. I bought a bunch and I could not stop thinking about them. I remember driving back to the restaurant thinking of the things I could do with it. The week before, I made something with orgeat syrup, so I thought how difficult would it be to make a pistachio syrup. Probably the same process as orgeat, just swap out the almonds for pistachio, and it all fell kind of naturally into place.
What are some of the craziest drinks you’ve ever made that either worked or didn’t work?
Celery and egg white did not go very well together. I also made a play on a White Russian, which was a lot of fun. I made my own coffee liqueur and instead of cream, I made a whipped cream with Ras el Hanout (a North African spice mixture).
When you’re not behind the bar, what are you drinking/where are you drinking it?
I will be honest with you, I work a lot; when I am off, I love to sit with my wife and my kid at home, have a Heineken and relax, maybe sip on some reposado tequila if I feel fancy.
Where are some of your other favorite places to drink across the country?
I don’t go out much; in general, I am a big fan of dive bars. But I would love to see the big cocktail bars especially PDT [in New York City]. Also, I would love to see Bar Agricole in San Francisco or The Aviary in Chicago. However, I don’t think I need to travel very far to have a great cocktail — we have an amazing local scene [in Los Angeles] with bartenders like Matthew Biancaniello, Beau du Bois and Serena Herrick.
What are some essential tools/ingredients everyone needs at home to make a decent cocktail?
1. I love to have a tincture, something that brings an extra layer to a cocktail. And it is very easy to make. Have some vodka and use one spice, sarsaparilla, licorice, sassafras, cassia bark or something you like.
2. Fresh juice, it makes a world of difference if you use fresh lime juice [instead of] pasteurized lime juice.
3. Syrups are great to have and very easy to make. I use syrups with three parts sugar and two parts water. You can add anything you want to it; the sky is the limit — fresh produce, roots, teas, spices and so on.
4. For me, a jigger is very important. You cannot follow a recipe without one. Everybody’s count is different and everybody’s pour is different.
5. Be imaginative and have fun as there is no right or wrong [way]: If you want to stir something even though nobody stirs drinks with fruit, stir it anyway. If you want your martini shaken even though you are supposed to stir it, it is your cocktail — you make it the way you want it.
6. Good classic recipe reading material, this is [essential] to have an understanding of cocktails. I devoured the Jerry Thomas Bartenders Guide, and I love Imbibe! by David Wondrich — he really goes into the depth of where cocktails come from and why they are the way they are. Also, Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails by Ted Haigh [is a] great, great read.
Photos Courtesy of Aaron Cook-AACK Studio