Though the tiki cocktail was invented in Los Angeles, when it comes down to it, Angelenos don’t consume a whole lot of its signature spirit: rum. Outside of select tiki bars such as Trader Vic’s and Tiki-Ti, our interest in rum drinks doesn’t go much further than the mojito. L.A. likes vodka and whiskey, says Craig Trager, who owns five bars including the Well and NoBar. If it weren’t for his $3 margarita special at El Bar, which has a Mexican theme, he says he’d even have a hard time pushing tequila. “I order more vodka and Jack Daniels than anything.”
Mark and Jonnie Houston, 31-year-old twins who grew up locally, intend to change that — along with a slew of other tried-and-true night life conventions. With their new East Hollywood bar La Descarga, they not only specialize in vintage rum cocktails, but they also have a rum education program that takes place on an enclosed patio, which doubles as a cigar room. “We don’t want to play it safe,” says Mark, stressing that “this is not a tiki bar.”
That’s for sure. Walking up the long staircase to La Descarga’s lobby is akin to stepping into a time machine and landing in old Havana. Patrons are greeted by a woman sitting at a desk with a built-in turntable playing Latin music. They are then welcomed into the bar, a gorgeous den bursting with authentic details: Caribbean colors in red, green and amber; wrought-iron railing, weathered wooden ceiling, antique sconces, Cuban artifacts, cigar boxes, Spanish Colonial doors, a red oak bar and a selection of about 70 rums that sit on shelves that take up an entire wall. “It’s baroque and rustic and deteriorating,” says Mark of the look. And, of course, there’s the music, which alternates between era-specific play lists and live bands playing salsa, rumba, mambo and Caribbean music. Their mission never waivers: “No Top 40 or reggaeton,” Mark adds.
To help fulfill their vision, the twins brought on Steve Livigni, one of L.A.’s most respected barmen. Before coming on board, Livigni was the general manager at the Doheny, a membership-only bar that specializes in artisanal cocktails, and before that he worked at the Four Seasons. As GM of La Descarga, he hit the ground running, working with buzzed-about cocktail consultant Pablo Moix to create the bar’s drinks, many of which predate tiki. “I did a lot of research,” says Moix, who managed to find a cocktail menu from the early years of Bar Florida, one of Cuba’s most famous bars.
Together they came up with a menu that includes the traditional daiquiri as well as the Hemingway version, which comes with a double portion of rum — of course! — as well as fresh lime juice, grapefruit juice, Maraschino liqueur and a touch of sugar. There’s also the Bad Spaniard, a guilty pleasure made with Cruzan Blackstrap Rum, Amaro Averna, sweetened condensed milk, one whole egg yolk and cinnamon. In the process, Moix, who has a day job as portfolio mixologist for Bacardi, became so inspired he signed on to tend bar at La Descarga on nights he’s available.
The bartenders were as carefully selected as the cocktails. And, as Livigni points out, many of them are women. “I believe this is the first time this many women will be behind the bar of a mixology venue.” They all went through extensive training to learn the history of rum, the various ways it’s made (for example, rum agricole is made of sugar cane that gets distilled immediately after it’s been pressed for a fruitier, more tropical taste than the mass-produced rums we’re more accustomed to), and how to serve it in a manner that’s not intimidating to patrons. “That’s what we’re here for, to guide you through our beautiful selections of rum.”
That said, you won’t find the kind of snobbery common in many of L.A.’s classic cocktail bars. “If someone comes in and orders a Grey Goose and tonic, we’d be very happy to do it without a snicker,” says Livigni.
For the Houston brothers, this is only their latest partnership. “We had a cellphone business at the age of 19. We were making four grand a week,” says Jonnie, who then went on to work on night life projects, including Temporary Spaces, an indie DJ-driven club. His brother Mark was formerly in commercial real estate.
“We’re taking seedy old dive bars and cleaning them up,” says Mark. Hollywood’s Piano Bar, which he and his brother acquired and reopened in August, now has the feel of a New Orleans bar complete with complimentary barbecue and blues on Sundays. “Our mom owns [Koreatown bar] Monte Carlo,” says Jonnie. “It’s kind of in our blood.” In May, the twins plan to open a ’60s-inspired manor in the former Forty Deuce space. They also have plans to revamp Hollywood’s Stone Bar. With an eye for authenticity and an inclusive cocktail culture, they might be a new power team in L.A. night life.
Published in Brand X and The Los Angeles Times in February 2010. Learn more about my work at Brand X.