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Have you ever been to a great rock club with amazing live music? Chances are, their cocktails list was minimal (probably not going beyond the realm of vodka tonic and Jack and Coke) and most of your fellow revelers were most likely drinking draft beer. That’s because, well, most music venues don’t have an emphasis on high-quality cocktails because they assume nobody will order them. But, why is that, and can craft cocktails and live music co-exist?
According to Aaron Polsky, not only can they exist together, but they were made for each other! Polsky, bartender and manager at Harvard & Stone in Los Angeles, first got into music when he would tag along to rock shows with his older brother. He saw bands like Jethro Tull, Simon & Garfunkel, and The Rolling Stones.
“I’d really only see big, aging classic rock bands until I got turned onto Black Rebel Motorcycle Club,” he says. “At that point I started to fanatically follow bands of that ilk—the Black Keys, the Kills, all of Jack White’s groups.”
Polsky already had a love for music before he even began bartending. Before Harvard & Stone, he worked at a variety of establishments which included: White Star, Eleven Madison Park, Boom Boom Room, Neta and Amor y Amargo. Each has the trappings of what most drinkers would typically associate with a place to get a world class cocktail.
Along the way, he learned about precision in technique and executing to the highest degree, and also the values of how to be an upstanding, decent person. “That last part’s the hardest,” he says.
People come to Harvard & Stone to have a good time without the pretentiousness that comes along with some of cocktails culture these days. “It’s not a twisty-moustache kind of place,” he says. That’s why it’s the perfect spot to elevate drinks past what you typically get at a rock club in both drinks and atmosphere. “You can’t be so aggressive as to alienate the people who would actually prefer a beer and a shot, which, incidentally, is always available.”
In terms of spirits, Polsky sees people gravitating towards whiskey and agave. “As far as styles, our guests like the familiar, the tropical, and maybe one or two exotic culinary notes.” Joey Bernardo, the bar’s longest-tenured bartender, has created quite a few winners over the years — one is the Honeydew Collins, which combines gin, St. Germain, coconut cream, lime, honeydew, and lime leaves. Another is the Tiki-Bent and Hell-Bound, which consists of Suntory Japanese Whiskey, homemade melon liqueur, passionfruit, lemon, and Hawaiian papaya.
Much like a band, Polsky even created an album (the menu) and then took the show on the road to an actual music festival. “We had a really fantastic reception at Coachella and Desert Trip.” Essentially, they had to come up with a way of making delicious cocktails without fresh juice but also without using syrup-y, sugary garbage. “We used acids and organic extracts custom-made for us to replace fresh juice, and then used top-quality spirits to deliver cocktails to the attendees.” He sees this as somewhat akin to a band recording multiple tracks or cool effects on a record and adapting them to a live performance. “You need to use some creative thinking while accepting some limitations, knowing as an upside that you’re reaching a lot of people. We served around 10,000 drinks per weekend out of our modest bar. “
Polsky doesn’t just think that craft cocktails and rock music can co-exist, he believes combining the two actually elevates the experience. “If you can offer people a great cocktail or whiskey while they listen to live music, why not do it?” He adds, “Especially when as an establishment you can deliver it with the same speed and efficiency as you would a beer or a vodka-soda.”
It’s important to note that modern live music venues outdate modern cocktail bars by a long time. Drinkers had no choice but to buy a bottle of PBR or a shot of Jameson. People settled for what was available for decades. As the cocktail renaissance began, small, intimate bars began to open. “That allowed the industry to learn the craft at a manageable speed of service,” says Polsky. “As the movement evolved, we saw cocktails being served faster and in larger venues.” So, can rock music and great cocktails co-exist? According to Polsky, that’s a definite yes.
Lead image via Getty.