“Get to Know Your Favorite LA Bartender Karen Grill of Sassafras Saloon” is featured on LocaleMagazine.com : localemagazine.com/karen-grill-100eats-sassafras-saloon/
Some of the best places to visit, are the ones that transport you to a different time and place. LA has a handful of establishments that have been created with that intention. Like little time machines warping you to Cuba in the early 1900s, to your parents house in the 70s, and even to a Louisiana bayou. Sassafras Saloon has a feel straight out of New Orleans’ creole cottage with vine’s trellising up the wall and ceiling. Behind this time warp lies, Sassafras’ new gem, Karen Grill. Karen is sure to be one of the most talked about bartenders in 2015, and her humility and strong devotion to her craft will continue to make her a pillar in the LA bar community. We had the chance to talk to Karen and ask her some of the questions we wanted to know about who she is and what she has created…
Shout Outs- Julian Cox, Naomi Schimek, and Daniel Zacharczuk
Call Outs- Serena Herrick and Chris Amirault
1. What opportunity up to this point has made you grow the most creatively? (doesn’t have to be bar specific, possibly a childhood art class, or parental support etc.)
Having the opportunity to delve deep and look into who exactly I am as a bartender has challenged me the most. It’s really a culmination of everything I’ve done, seen and learned throughout my entire career that has helped me grow creatively and professionally.
2. What is your process for drawing cocktail inspiration?
Cocktail inspiration can come from anywhere. It can be something I’ve eaten, a particular location, a request from a guest that caught my attention and most often for me, music. I can’t work in silence, so I’ve always got music on. When that is the case, I draw everything I can out of the song that catches my attention.
3. Who do you look up to as a mentor (someone you have worked directly with) in this industry? What have you learned from them?
I look up to so many people in this industry, but there are a few who really are the reason I can do what I do. First and foremost, Julian Cox. Julian was the first person who took a chance on me. I had limited, if any experience behind a bar and he took me under his wing to help me grow. The thing I love most about Julian is that he taught me to never stop learning. There’s no ceiling, no point that you can stop and say, “that’s it, I know everything I need to, so I’ll just stay here.” There is always something new and we as bar professionals should never stop looking for it. What I learned (and continue to learn) from Julian has changed my life profoundly and I’m very grateful for that.
Similarly, Naomi Schimek is a constant source of strength and inspiration to me. I’ll never forget the first time Naomi sat in front of me and asked me for a cocktail. I froze and shook so much I can’t remember if I even made her a complete cocktail, but somehow, she loved it. I look up to this incredible woman because she works and she works hard. Every weekend, you’d find her in the thick of it with her staff and scrubbing down the bar until the wee hours of the morning and it didn’t matter what position she held in her bar. She did it all and still finds the time to teach me everything she knows about this business. She’s a strong, talented woman who I couldn’t be without!
4. When you are looking to go out for a great drink: What is the drink? Where do you go? and who is making it?
I don’t get to go often, but when I can, a Sherry cocktail from Daniel Zacharczuk at The Varnish never disappoints. I love sitting in front of him and watching him work.
5. What inspired the move to Sassafras?
Sassafras is such a beautiful space. I remember the first time I came here, I was so excited to have a place that blended my love of live music and cocktails. The aesthetic, the music and the pace of this place was really exciting to me, so I dove in and here we are.
6. I’m looking for something citrus forward from your cocktail list, what are you recommending?
Sweet Ti. This one has everything. It’s citrusy, juicy, herbaceous and the Rhum JM gives it a serious funk I could drink all day long.
7. I’m looking for something spirit forward and aromatic from your cocktail list, what are you recommending?
The Barrel aged Bijou. I love a bitter gin cocktail and this is one of my absolute favorites on the menu.
8. I’m looking for something I’ve never seen before, or something that you do the best. What are you recommending?
I am most proud of the Root Beer on our menu. A lot of people make non-alcoholic sodas, but I have yet to have a house-made Root Beer that blew my mind.. Root Beer is my absolute favorite and with a great aged Rum? Yes please.
9. In 5 years, what do you hope to accomplish?
I hope to have run this program successfully and to have made it flawless. I would love to work on another program in LA and have branched out and worked in other cities. Ultimately, I would like to be en route to having a bar of my own.
10. If you could ask similar questions to another bartender in So Cal, who would it be?
I would ask Serena Herrick and Chris Amirault. The two of them make some of the most beautiful cocktails and I’d love to get inside their heads for a day and see what makes them tick.
What questions do you want to know from your favorite bartenders? Let us know in the comments below.