The Michelin-starred Manzke offers rare aged and vintage spirits

Can a bottle of something special capture a moment? Can a cocktail convey the weight of the story?

At Manzke, a Michelin-starred restaurant owned by Walter and Margarita Manzke, a small team of beverage professionals — bar director Shawn Lickliter and bartenders Kyle Bailey and Blake Antrobus — created a jukebox time machine filled with rare vintage spirits and aged liquors from the Environment built around the world and across the decades. The result is an ephemeral and ever-changing beverage program that never repeats itself from night to night, making each visit feel like a moment caught in time.

Three men in Manzke's bar.

Manzke carried director Shawn Lickliter, center, along with team members Blake Antrobus, left, and Kyle Bailey.

(Mariah Tauger/Los Angeles Times)

“We select spirits from the 1930s,” says Lickliter, who has led the beverage programs at Manzkes’ portfolio of restaurants in Los Angeles and the Philippines since 2014. Manzke – which also recently received the Michelin Guide’s Exceptional Cocktails Award – stocks more than 100 bottles of rare and vintage spirits, including whiskey, bourbon, rum, vodka, gin and a confectionary range of liqueurs, fruit spirits and Eau de Vie. Lickliter has secured cases of various spirits from near and far and over time the bar’s vision has taken shape.

At Manzke, you can sip history direct—like a 1-ounce pour of 1970s Appleton Estate white rum from Jamaica or a 1950s Bisquit 3 Star Cognac—served neat in Los Angeles-designed and hand-blown Bennuaine glasses in Europe in titanium crystal. Originally designed for whiskey connoisseurs, these glasses are for things like a dollop of Gilbey’s English Gin from Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s first term, or an ounce of Drambuie old enough to take advantage of the AARP rebate. That would be cool enough in itself, but the Manzke team actually makes cocktails out of the stuff, creating unique drinks from the raw drinks of yesteryear.

Three cocktails are sitting on a bar.

Manzke’s drinks include Widow’s Kiss, left, Negroni, and Hotel Nacional.

(Mariah Tauger/Los Angeles Times)

“People will say it’s better when it’s older, but that’s not necessarily true,” says Lickliter, who is often asked for an elevator pitch on the bar’s concept. “What you taste is the story of a spirit—who distilled and how they made it at a particular time.” And in a way, that’s true. It’s not like wine; something else happens, other than the interplay of oxygen and fermented grape juice over the decades that makes vintage wines so desirable. Fans of vintage spirits or those seeking an education are treated to a distillation of the past instead. For example, you can taste how gin distilleries approached florality and spiciness in the 1950s, or how bourbon makers approached aging and aging to color generations before their work was cult-followed by whiskey zealots.

For drink geeks and history buffs, there’s nothing quite like it – dozens of these rare vintage bottles, each with a specific provenance and story behind them. But even for the occasional drinker, there are noticeable changes that occur in an aging bottle of spirits that can be easily felt by anyone, no matter how deep your interests choose to delve.

Most bars source their spirits from a distributor, with the bottom line in mind; Building another program like this has many risks. Vintage hunters like Lickliter seek out higher alcohol strength bottles whenever possible, as evaporation over the decades actually causes a given spirit’s drinking strength to drop slightly. That’s not always a good thing: Bottles can also lose their fill, with fully capped products only containing liquid up to the ‘shoulder’ of the bottle. Some bottles will oxidize and give off metallic flavors; other bottles taste “cooked”, in Lickliter’s words, with liqueurs and fruity spirits being particularly susceptible to such effects, resulting in a liqueur that tastes more like syrup.

Bottles with vintage spirits.

Some of the old spirits that Manzke uses to prepare cocktails.

(Mariah Tauger/Los Angeles Times)

Significant differences between bottles of the same spirit are common, and this requires Manzke’s bar team to be aggressive in quality control, tasting each bottle served and continually adjusting the ratios and recipes for their cocktails. “Every time we open a new bottle, it triggers a new recipe development,” says Lickliter.

The work of finding these bottles at Manzke’s is like a treasure hunt, and Lickliter lights up when asked for real-life stories. “In the beginning, the idea was simple: let’s do something that you never see in Michelin restaurants,” he recalls. “Let’s fill a cupboard with old vintage bottles – not just chartreuse or bourbon, but the really rare stuff, the spirits you never see.”

To get there, he’s worked with wine brokers, hunted down rare and discarded bottles at widowed wineries, struck fruitful deals with friends within Los Angeles’ thriving rarity community, and battled other potential buyers in the world of online auction sites. Much of what Lickliter has sourced for Manzke comes from the UK, where the aged spirits trade (particularly Scotch whiskey) has long found a home in the upscale bottle shops in and around London’s Soho area.

Building cocktails from such historical spirits might almost seem like a waste; The more logical impulse is to drink them neat and contemplate the rarity of everything like some sort of liquid museum piece.

A Negroni cocktail at a bar.

A Negroni made from old Campari – the characteristic red of the Campari has turned into a watery ochre.

(Mariah Tauger/Los Angeles Times)

The Negroni at Manzke offers proof of concept. The Negroni, which has existed in one form or another for at least a century, is one of the most treasured classic cocktails: equal parts Campari, gin and vermouth (traditionally, at least – there are endless riffs), topped with an orange zest. At Manzke’s, the Negroni uses Plymouth Gin from Devon, England, which was distilled in the 1960s; Campari from near Milan, Italy, distilled in the 1970s; and contemporary Vermouth di Torino. It costs $75, which is what you would ever want to pay for a single cocktail in any setting.

“I source my vintage Campari from bottlings that were originally sent to Spain,” explains Lickliter. “There’s more fruit in it, almost a rhubarb note, and it’s not nearly as sweet as the current stuff.” Nothing about it tastes like regular Negroni, and it looks different; the characteristic red of the Campari has faded to something like watery ochre. “It’s because the cochineal has faded,” says Lickliter, pointing to the prickly pear insect from South America, from which Campari’s famous red color was originally derived (it was replaced by food coloring in most of Campari’s bottlings in the early 2000s). .

The gin is different too, slightly viscous due to the evaporation and concentration of the spirit over the decades, but still floral and expressive. It’s not exactly like drinking old wine, but it kind of is; The Campari’s dominant fruit notes are gone, leaving the drinker with tertiary notes of baked fruit and subtle spice that land somewhere in the balance of subtlety and complexity. The end result is the most paradoxical of all drinking experiences: a touch of history, yes, but also so thoroughly modern and current that one can’t help but be drawn away from its alchemy and the knowledge that it only exists here, at this one bar, to be impressed on West Pico Boulevard.

A cocktail next to two bottles.

The Widow’s Kiss: 1980s Boulard Calvados, 1970s Benedictine, Chartreuse Jaune and aromatic bitters.

(Mariah Tauger/Los Angeles Times)

Other classic cocktails also get the vintage treatment, including an espresso martini with 1970s Tia Maria and a Widow’s Kiss based on vintage Calvados and concentrated aged Bénédictine liqueur. The menu also includes a concise and often changing collection of cocktails, which the bar describes as “Farmers Market Driven” – on a recent visit this included a drink simply called “Carrot”, made from mezcal, an Austrian carrot eau de vie, was produced. the Italian aperitivo hour Bitterheld Aperol, spice jar and aromas of sour orange, ginger and cardamom.

It’s worth enjoying one of these fresh drinks at the first seat in Manzke, where all eyes finally fall on an antique cupboard mounted to the left of the bar. This was home to the bar’s original collection of vintage spirits, during approximately six months of development after Bicyclette began operations downstairs and before Manzke opened upstairs. It didn’t take long for the bar’s collection to spill out of the closet’s confines, and vintage bottles now occupy every niche of Manzke’s sprawling back bar. But the closet serves as a themed hanger where you’ll find some of Lickliter’s most coveted vintage spirits , including an enviable collection of mid-century bourbons.

Bottles of Van Winkle and Old Forester in the bar’s collection are the stuff of obsession and wild spending from the curious subculture of rare whiskey enthusiasts, with a sizzling online market where bottles of bourbon from a bygone age are traded like liquid crypto (vs too illiquid crypto, which is increasingly the case). Vintage bourbon may get the hype, but the list at Manzke is equally focused on digging up dusty bottles from across the spirit spectrum: 1970s Polish vodka that appears cloudy in the bottle after 50 years of dormancy but still tastes refreshingly powerful, or Fernet – Branca Amaro from the late 1960s, a concentrated expression of the drink’s famous dark herbal profile.

The concept of the bar, in which cocktails intended for drinking are made from yesterday’s components, implies a sense of transience. After all, schnapps from 1955 is no longer bottled. And for Lickliter, that’s the whole point. Eventually he will go out; Attention from the likes of Michelin only hastens this reality. “I want this to be an experience that we have together at the bar,” he says. “We drink a bottle and say goodbye. Let this be a moment we had together where we could try something special, meaningful and different.”

Time moves on, always thirsty, ready for another round, but you can now mark the moments in your life by reaching into the past by drinking something otherwise undrinkable, unrecognizable. It’s not that these bottles get better over time per se; It’s like the bottles themselves are little liquid time machines.

A bartender pours a cocktail.

Bar manager Shawn Lickliter pours a widow’s kiss.

(Mariah Tauger/Los Angeles Times)

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