Behind the Bar Stick People

The Key to Being a Badass Bartender in Los Angeles? Ignore Hollywood.

Ryan Wainwright Image: Eugene Lee

Within the past five years, Los Angeles has cemented itself at the forefront of the global cocktail renaissance. Given the city’s broad and dynamic cultural significance, this rise in stature might have seemed inevitable. But it was earned the hard way, built on the backs of a new generation of bartenders, the multitaskers.

Ryan Wainwright is such a bartender. He has been charged with developing and executing as many as four bar programs simultaneously. Last winter, he was crowned one of two U.S. finalists in the Bacardí Legacy global cocktail competition. You have to cover a lot of ground to make an impact in the bar business and even more in a city like L.A., and Wainwright is making moves.

The Ponte. Eugene Lee

During his tenure as beverage director for Bombet Hospitality Group, he has done everything from bottle ready-to-drink soju cocktails to making Cosmopolitans cool again. But whatever the individual task at hand, his M.O. is defined by a less-is-more attitude.

“My favorite styles of cocktails tend to be minimalistic and quite understated,” he says. “I like elegance and simplicity over a beating of the tongue.”

Vermouth at The Ponte. Eugene Lee

Case in point, his seasonally rotating Martini series at The Ponte, a nouveau Italian concept in West Hollywood. Here, Wainwright begins with one of the most classic, straightforward cocktails in history and jazzes it up to rarified results. Currently, he has been tweaking the vermouth element. Rather than viewing the ingredient as mere afterthought, he embraces its unexplored nuances. Oxidizing four separate Italian vermouths, he infuses them with orange peel, propping them up against a botanically rich base of Sipsmith gin. “The play of that vermouth blend makes for a big and round finish,” he says.

But as fun as it is to play with gin and vermouth, Wainwright has his heart fixed on another category altogether. “My personal favorite is our amari collection,” he says. “We were given the green light to go down the rabbit hole, and damn it, we did. I am thrilled by the range of flavors that are so unique and different to anything else that I have tasted.”

Wainwright. Eugene Lee

He’s hardly alone in this town, as L.A. is in the throes of a full-fledged amari love affair. Just don’t accuse him of being trendy. “Sadly, my trend knowledge is fairly weak,” he says. “But what I will say is that I love the attention that people are giving to their ingredients. Across the board, I think, as information rises, people are really pouring over so many aspects of bartending, and that’s really exciting to see.”

Nowadays, Wainwright splits duty behind bar at the two flagship restaurants of BHG: The Ponte and Faith & Flower, a vintage concept in Downtown L.A.

Faith & Flower.

Where does he spend most of his time? “Depends on who you ask,” he says joking. “If you ask The Ponte, I am at Faith way too much. If you ask Faith & Flower, they will say I am always at The Ponte. I somehow seem to be exactly where I need to be and never where I am supposed to be all at the same time.”

The physical and conceptual separation between the two spaces keeps him constantly on his toes. “Faith & Flower has very few similarities to The Ponte,” he says. “It’s a totally different beast. It’s elegance, refinement and the hustle and bustle of downtown life. It’s both quick and slow, but it’s always fashionable. All of these things translate into the drinks. These are the feelings I want to give people. I suppose it’s a bit like playing dress-up, but I’m dressing up the booze.”

Negroni with Sipsmith gin at The Ponte. Eugene Lee

Yet for all the showmanship, Wainwright’s success, much like that of the city he calls home, is marked by a surprising degree of accessibility. “The razzle-dazzle of Hollywood has had little effect on the drinks,” he says. “In its place are well-constructed and thoughtfully balanced perspectives on what it means to be in LA.”

For now, their fortunes appear inextricably linked. “I’m so excited to see what happens to this community and how it keeps growing and expressing itself,” he says. How that unfolds is anyone’s guess. In a city this big, you can expect any number of routes to present themselves. Wainwright will be ready, hands on the wheel.