In a given week, you'll find the creative force of beverage consulting and management firm Proprietors designing menus, tending bar, training staff and teaching sold-out cocktail seminars. Here, Devon Tarby shares her favorite L.A. bars, thoughts on where our scene stands on a national scale, and more.
What makes a great bartender?
It’s three things: craft, professionalism and art. That’s showing up on time, showing up prepared to do the task at hand and dressing properly. I think part of the reason we all come to work is the idea of using your hands to assemble ingredients that don’t really make sense on their own, and creating something. Not only does that connect us to each other as bartenders, but also to any other sort of craftsman, which is part of this centuries-old tradition: the idea of using your hands to assemble ingredients and creating something that’s cohesive—and art—that tells a story and tastes good.
The Walker Inn has an entire lab full of equipment. What are the tools every home bar should stock?
I want to note on the subject of tools that it’s been an additional discipline to only use them when appropriate. That was one of the things we knew when opening [the Walker Inn]: we didn’t want anyone to be confronted with the tools when they came into the bar—the bar feels like a bar. The tools stay in the bar and allow us to aromatize and manipulate ingredients, but only when it makes the drink taste better. That’s our goal.
The iSi Whipper is an awesome tool for home use: It’s what you can use to make foams and whipped creams, but it’s also a really great device for rapid infusions. It’s got two ends of the ingredient spectrum you’d want to use that device with. One is with delicate herbs like basil or mint or sage; if you leave those things to sit over time, the alcohol is so harsh that it will break down the chlorophyll and it’ll become bitter and not taste like you want it to taste. But you can put dry vermouth in an iSi Whipper with basil and charge it with a nitrogen cartridge once or twice, let it sit 20 minutes and you’ve got a beautiful infusion. Another type of ingredient we like to use that with are things that are very, very dense and hard to penetrate, things like cocoa nibs or dry spices like cinnamon or cloves—good for if you don’t want to wait a week for that to sit and chill.
You consult and design all over the country—you’re seeing bars and scenes everywhere—so where does L.A. fit currently?
I think L.A. is on par now with all the great cocktail cities. I feel like there’s been this idea that everybody is still dying to catch up to New York, like that’s every city’s goal, to be New York or San Francisco, and it’s not. I think that it’s impossible to have the conversation without using those cities as pillars because they were the first American cities to build momentum around cocktails, but I think L.A. is just like everything else here: a little bit more relaxed, a little bit more fun, people in general tend not to take themselves really seriously, and the community is really tight-knit, which is something I’ve taken for granted in the past. [L.A. is] a warm and hospitable environment, and that starts from the top down; we have to be that way with each other to give our guests that experience.
When you’re not at one of your own spots, what are your go-to bars?
I still go to the Varnish; I worked there for years. I love the Spare Room if I want to have a night out, and I’ve been going to the Freehand a lot. Hank’s is an awesome bar—it’s a true dive, one of the last left in L.A. Actually, I probably shouldn’t even share that secret!
Devon Tarby is a partner in Proprietors and is responsible for most of the creative development and training within the company. When she’s in town, she holds one shift at the Normandie Club from 6-9pm on Saturdays. We suggest you order not one but many drinks from her.