Behind the Bar The Business of the Bar

Where Los Angeles Bartenders Find Cocktail Inspiration

They love the local farmers markets, Thai Town, and “reference libraries.”

The Snow Bird at Pinky’s in Los Angeles, made with ingredients from Thai wholesaler LAX-C


The vibe at Pinky’s in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles is inspired by 1980s beach pop culture with a hint of Miami Vice and East Coast yacht-y marina life, along with a heavy dose of Venice Beach and Baywatch-esque surf worship. Head bartender Aly Iwamoto’s drinks take cues from that scene and era with cocktails named Straight to VHS, Seashell Sour, and Rip Tai’d. She also taps into the beach-adjacent Santa Monica Farmers Market.  

“Shopping at the farmers market, I always have my finger on the pulse, in terms of crops, the seasons, and new flavors,” says Iwamoto, who especially loves hybrid citrus such as the mandarinquats from Murray Family Farms

But Pinky’s is a good 20 miles from the beach, and Iwamoto and her L.A. bartending peers find ample ingredient inspiration in-between, at mega wholesalers, speciality grocers, bar suppliers, and even bookstores tucked into neighborhoods all over the sprawling metropolis. 

Thai Town

LAX-C, located just outside L.A.’s Chinatown, is the “Restaurant Depot for Thai ingredients,” according to Iwamoto. “More often than not, people shopping there swap shopping carts for dollies. It’s that kind of place.”

Iwamoto is always on the lookout for fresh ideas in the spice and produce aisles, and because LAX-C is a wholesaler, once she nails down cocktail specs, she can buy in bulk for Pinky’s.  “They have all these different formats for one ingredient: dried, fresh, frozen, and puréed,” she says. 

While developing the Snow Bird, a frozen Piña Colada riff spiked with velvet falernum and apricot, Iwamoto experimented with syrups made from dried and fresh coconut and eventually landed on partially processed heavy coconut cream. “I wanted to translate coconut without it tasting like Coco Lopez,” she says. “I wouldn’t have had all those options unless they were laid out in front of me in one market.” 

Cocktail bar and music venue Harvard and Stone is located in the heart of Thai Town, and in the decade Joey Bernardo worked there, he shopped just down the block at Silom Supermarket. “It opened me up to such a spread of ingredients and products,” says the bartender, who’s now working at Broken Shaker in downtown L.A. Ingredients such as coconut and lime leaf wove themselves into his drink-making and appeared together (along with gin, honeydew, and elderflower) in Harvard and Stone’s refreshing Honeydew Collins. That drink is now part of Livewire’s roster, a canned-cocktail line from Harvard and Stone alum Aaron Polsky.

Like Iwamoto and Bernardo, Shawn Lickliter also digs into Thai flavors. Lickliter runs the beverage programs at Walter and Margarita Manzke’s République, Petty Cash, Sari Sari, and Bicyclette, along with the couple’s restaurants in the Philippines. His muse: Northern Thai Food Club, a 12-seat Thai restaurant in a Hollywood strip mall, whose bold dishes and curries inspired République’s Thai Daiquiri made with makrut lime, lemongrass, and ginger-infused Hamilton white rum. 

Bernardo also frequents the Wilshire Center location of Seafood City Supermarket, a chain of Filipino groceries. “Being Filipino, it’s something I look forward to to placate my nostalgia,” he says. A fan of savory drinks, one shopping trip led to a Bloody Mary-sinigang fusion drink. Sinegang is a pork-laden soup, traditionally made sour with tamarind pulp, and Bernardo’s cocktail employed tamarind powder mix and spices to yield a “powerful Filipino hangover cure,” he says.

“Reference Libraries” for Booze and Books

Bernardo also uses Bar Keeper in Silverlake (“The gold standard for Los Angelino bartenders,” he says) as a reference library of sorts for bitters and other obscure liqueurs, apertifis, and spirits. 

Though it’s not a library per se, Lickliter fuels his cocktail creation with rare, old, and used books from The Last Bookstore downtown L.A. There, he has picked up the 1977 Jones Complete Barguide with 4,000 cocktail recipes, including “all the disco-era shitty cocktails, along with all the old stuff that got lost in the ’80s,” he says. 

While in R&D mode for Paris-inspired Bicyclette, Lickliter found a 1930s issue of Esquire with a cocktail recipe for the Queen Elizabeth, a Gimlet variation with dry vermouth, Benedictine, and lime. He added it to the menu, and when Manzke’s fine-dining project opens upstairs at Bicyclette, Lickliter will serve a version with vintage Benedictine. “We’ll be making the 1930s Queen Elizabeth with 1930s Benedictine,” he says.

Farmer’s Markets

République’s food and bar menu are microseasonal, says Lickliter, and his cocktail list often changes several times a week, for which he turns to the Hollywood Farmers Market

Arnett Farms “has all the good stuff,” from stone fruit and tangerines to Buddha’s hand the size of a basketball, according to Lickliter. Cult favorite Harry’s Berries strawberries are available fresh on Mondays and frozen on Wednesdays, and Pudwilll Berry Farms rounds out his berry mise en place with blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries. Lickliter’s pomegranates come from JJ’s Lone Daughter Ranch. “They juice pomegranates for us,” he says. “There’s nothing like it. It’s not the same as buying a concentrate.”

And after working in L.A. bars for more than a decade, Lickliter still finds new-to-him gems like strawberry and pineapple guavas, the latter of which he recently blended into a syrup for an aperitif-style reverse Hemingway Daiquiri. “That’s the market for me. I’m walking around and finding random things. A farmer who usually sells eggs surprises you with passion fruit, cherimoya, and guava,” says Lickliter.