September 2013 Bartender of the Month: Aaron Alvarez
Name: Aaron Alvarez
Establishment: Bar Manager, Chi Lin and RivaBella
Recent Gigs: Even though Aaron Alvarez is only 34 years old, he’s a Certified Sommelier and has worked at a number of prominent establishments. As one of the most respected mixologists in L.A.—he’s managed the bar at the exclusive Vanity Fair Oscar Party for two years running—Alvarez still prefers to modestly call himself a bartender. “I focus on being a bartender in the classic sense of the word,” he says. “The way people drink is changing very rapidly, but I like to remember a time when people trusted their bartender. That kind of hospitality was just as much a part of the craft as being able to make the drink.”
That tradition-based philosophy steers Alvarez to create cocktails well-founded in the classics—yet he never dismisses the need for innovation and takes great pleasure in introducing guests to new flavors and concepts. As bar manager of Innovative Dining Group (IDG) adjoining West Hollywood restaurants RivaBella and Chi-Lin, he created throwback Italian cocktails for RivaBella, while developing more exotic flavor profiles at modern Chinese-themed Chi-Lin. “Our guests can trust us to deliver a product that is second to none,” he says. “As long as the focus is on the guest, I have done my job. At the end of the day, this is all about hospitality.”
For one with such a clear vision of service, Alvarez did not immediately gravitate toward the restaurant business, but instead studied music at Cal State Long Beach. In 2005, however, a job at a casual chain restaurant piqued his interest in wine. “I stopped spending money on records and began trying different wines,” he recalls. Inspired by Master Sommelier Michael Jordan, with whom he had the opportunity to study, Alvarez immersed himself in oenology and became a Certified Sommelier in 2007. “It completely changed my life and opened doors for me in fine dining,” he says.
He went on to manage Commonwealth Lounge & Grill, an Orange County gastropub, at which he built a wine program from the ground up. He next joined the opening team at Hollywood’s trendsetting SoHo House as head bartender in early 2010. The following year, he consulted at L.A.’s historic Sunset Tower Hotel before taking on the full-time position of food & beverage manager for the Art Deco property, as well as serving as general manager at the chic Tower Bar. Prior to coming on board with IDG in December 2012, Alvarez was general manager of Plan Check Kitchen.
Some of his more inventive cocktails at RivaBella and ChiLin include:
- Curry Blossom - Grey Goose Vodka w/ Apricot Liqueur, Curry Leaf, and Raspberry Orgeat
- The Spice Route - Madagascar Tru Vanilla Vodka w/ Fenugreek Leaves, Lime, and Cumin. An Exotic Quencher
- Amore Di Violette - Oxley Gin, Crème de Violette , and Maraschino Liqueur with Fresh Blac kberries and Candied Violet Pedals
- Gilded Lily - Hennessy VSOP, Nocello , House -made Pear Puree topped with freshly grated cinnamon , and gold flakes
Why did you become a Bartender:
My first job in the hospitality industry was as a bar back at the Olive Garden. I was 17. I loved that bartenders seemed to have a craft. They made things. I really liked that, and was intrigued. Also I really like the human side of the craft and the relationships that were made at the bar. It reminded me of the sitcom Cheers that I used to watch growing up.
What are Chi Lin and RivaBella doing differently:
At RivaBella we offer an amazing selection of delicious Grappa, Amaro, and even Fernets. At Chi Lin, we play with a lot of spices in our recipes. In addition, Japanese Whiskeys are offered at Chi Lin.
What's in the mixing glass or shaker:
Right now at Chi Lin it is Cherries. I am doing a special Smash variation using fresh cherries. They are delicious this time of year.
What are some hot fall trends:
Bringing Flip back sounds really cool to me but I highly doubt that it is a trend. I'm not really a trend guy.
What are you sipping on and why:
Vermouth. Italian Vermouth. Barolo Cocchi Chinato is probably my favorite right now. I'm been stuck for a while. It is the perfect drink. Not as high in alcohol as a spirit, but a little more than a red wine. Lots of bitterness and complexity. It doesn't get much better.
What are you dancing to while mixing:
The Clash of course. Duh.
What are some quirks and quotes you are known for:
I'm sure I have lots of quirks. I am very particular when it comes to the bar, but I also like to have a good time. I am constantly sarcastic, and I call everyone “Player.”
I just think that it is very easy to get caught up in the craft of “drink making”, but the true craft of “bartending” is much more difficult. The drink making is only a small part of a Barman or person. The true art of a Bartender is the human part. Being the whole package is actually what the craft is all about. Not just the drinks.