Meet Your Mixologist: Cari Hah of Neat Bar
Cari Hah went from finance to fashion, and was still miserable. After six years of the corporate world, she traded her computer for cocktails and hasn’t looked back. Taking inspiration from the Violet Hour in Chicago, she helped open a craft-cocktail bar in L.A.’s Little Tokyo. From there, she worked at Varnish and the jazz club Blue Whale.
But she fell in love. With Neat Bar, that is. And swapped the Downtown L.A. bar scene for Glendale to be a part of the Aidan Demarest club.
You can find her most nights, in her words, “loving what I do and transferring that love to my guests” at Neat Bar. When not stirring it up at Neat, she does sangrita (like sangria but made with tequila) soirees around town with her company Lil’ Twisted, co-founded by bartender Jaymee Mandeville of Drago Centro.
Hah sits down with Societe Perrier to expound on the calmness of Japanese whiskey, her best cocktail creation to date and what spirit she considers to be her goodnight kiss:
How did you get your start in bartending?
Cari Hah: My first gig was when I was 21. I was living in Chicago at the time because of school and I started out cocktailing at a club for some extra cash. I was super fast and also the bouncers got really tired of having to intervene on my behalf when drunk guys would try to pick me up (for some reason people really like to pick me up. I have no idea why!) so they stuck me behind the bar. Clubtending is a totally different beast. I didn't really have to explain anything or educate anyone. All I had to do was be very very fast and make everyone else's hopes come true for that night. The owners/managers loved me because my drawer was always right, I'm very good at math (laughs). It was great money and I thought it was so easy.
What are your thoughts on Neat Bar's format (the mixer/alcohol served separately)?
I absolutely love love love the Neat format. It is completely freeing and also the way I really do drink. As much as I love to make different cocktails and taste different cocktails, when it comes to what I want to drink, it will always be a spirit neat and its nice to have a lil’ sumpin' sumpin' on the side to accompany my spirit. The trick is to make that side accompaniment something delicious that will enhance the flavor of the spirit rather than cover it up. That is where our creativity comes in.
What’s your favorite "sumpin' sumpin' " side right now?
There is this traditional side accompaniment to tequila called a sangrita (NOT to be mistaken for sangria) that I am absolutely obsessed with. That idea is how Aidan came up with Neat. I really love to reintroduce our guests to the actual flavor of the spirits that they are drinking. Cocktails these days are innovative and awesome, but a lot of times I cant really taste the flavor of the base. The distillers and creators of these spirits pour their love, sweat and tears into making the spirit, I want people to taste the pure flavor of that love!
What has been a highlight for you working at Neat this past year?
One of my greatest joys from this past year is a guest who came in the first time and asked for "something sweet with vodka" and now she only drinks her scotch/bourbon/tequila/genever/cognac/etc. That’s NEAT. It’s amazing to have taken that journey through the spirits world with her and to have her trust me to choose her next adventure in liquor. Aside from the Neat format, we definitely do make cocktails. If people want cocktails, of course they will get a cocktail! I am here to please you, not to boss you around...(unless you order some sort of amazing single malt scotch and want it mixed with cola. I may have a bit of an issue with that and try to talk you down.)
What is your best cocktail creation to date?
Cocktail wise, I love boozy stirred simple drinks. I'm of the camp that less is more. I personally like cocktails with three (maybe four) ingredients. I love to make all kinds of Old-Fashioneds and Manhattan riffs. There are so many craft bitters these days that are so fun.
Is there a particular bitters you like to work with?
I'm a huge fan of everything Louis Anderman of Miracle Mile Bitters comes out with. He understands round complete flavors. My favorite old-fashioned at the moment is with these "Hello Cari" bitters that he made and named for me. The base is Suntory Hibiki Whisky. It is so amazingly yummy...a perfect light summery old fashioned!
I met you at the L.A. Cocktail Classic working the Hibiji Whiskey table. Are you one of their brand ambassadors?
Heh, no...I wish! But Neyah White is one of the brand ambassadors and he calls me his Suntory fairy because he can track what bars I'm working in by the sales of Suntory in the bar. haha. I just love it, and half of being able to sell anything is loving it enough to transfer the passion and enthusiasm for it. I can sell Japanese whisky to a Scotsman; I swear I can. And the awesome part is that it’s totally genuine. I never have to lie about how delicious it is.
What are your thoughts on Japanese whisky compared to American whiskey?
It’s totally different. Compared to American and even Scotch, Japanese whisky is subtle and pristine. There is almost a calmness about it that you can just taste. The Japanese are known to be very precise and very polite. That is reflected in the flavor of the whisky. I would never choose it as a shot. It has to be savored and sipped and enjoyed slowly. The working culture in Japan is so rigorous that at the end of a long workday when the salary men sit down for a relaxing drink, they want to take their time with it. To breathe out the stress of the day as they breathe all the flavor of the whisky in. It’s what I want to drink when I'm sitting at a dark bar alone in silence having an emo moment. It's also what I drink pretty much every night right before I go to bed… like my kiss goodnight.
What's Lil’ Twisted about?
I have a partner Jaymee Mandeville, from Drago Centro, and we make custom crafted sangritas together. This past summer we did a bit of a sangrita tour where we guest bartended at several bars around L.A. with our creations. It was super fun and a passion project for us to try to get people to drink tequila in the traditional way! We are both lovers of agave spirits so we want to do our part to get the good word out of the beauty of agave. Lil' Twisted is going to do a lot more fun things in the near future so look out for those!
If you could have one mixology superpower, what would it be?
Ooh, there are so many things…I wish I were faster while still being completely accurate. I wish I could shake with more strength. But I am the size I am, can’t do much about that!
If you could only have one spirit or beverage to drink for the rest of your life (not including water), what would it be and why?
The one spirit I could drink everyday (and do drink everyday actually) is tequila/mezcal. Is it cheating to just say agave spirits? Agave spirits keep me going. Really good tequila or mezcal can make me weep, no joke. I feel such a connection to the earth somehow when I drink and breathe it. I think of the labor and effort and everything that went into producing that beautiful liquid and it just floors me. I really think that jimadors (Mexican agave farmers) are REAL MEN. Oh I definitely could drink agave for my whole life...but I would be pretty sad if I couldn’t have whiskey too.
What's one piece of advice you would give to an aspiring female mixologist to make it in the industry?
Respect the bar. Respect yourself, don't overdo the drinking and act like a total ass. Be able to clean the bar and count your drawer and cash out every night. And empty yourself of YOU when you get behind the bar. At that point it’s not about me, how tired I am, how sad, how hungry, how grumpy...none of that matters when I am tending to a guest. Not that I have mastered this, but this is what I strive for every time I work. Above all, love what you do and be able to transfer that love to your guests.
What's your favorite drinking quote?
“We were not a hugging people. In terms of emotional comfort it was our belief that no amount of physical contact could match the healing powers of a well made cocktail.” ― David Sedaris, Naked
Next up, we'll talk to Hah about her experience at the first whiskey summer camp for bartenders - Camp Runamok, in the meantime, swing by Neat for her Hello Cari Old-Fashioned...
Headline Photo by Tatsu Oiye, Flicker heelslide