Hailing from Chicago, James Bowers began making drinks nearly a decade ago. After working at various establishments, including dive bar Coach and Horses, he landed prettily as Head Bartender for Soho House West Hollywood. At his pop-up bar at The Taste we talked cocktail competitions, his favorite figs and drinking bourbon as a baby (well… not really).
“I drank bourbon when I was younger. I think bourbon was the first liquor I stole from my parents.”
How did you get started crafting cocktails?
I worked in different positions at restaurants and bars in Chicago until I came to Los Angeles. I was a bar-back at some places, learning from bartenders who knew infinitely more than I did, and who were always coming up with new ideas and techniques. I found it fascinating and wanted to do that.
Is the cocktail scene very different in Chicago than it is in L.A.?
When I was in Chicago, about nine years ago, the cocktail scene was definitely on the rise, but not where it is today with amazing places like The Aviary. Also, I was a little young when I lived there and wasn’t really in the mindset of looking for craft cocktail bars. In the past six years or so, craft cocktail bars have been exploding across the country. It’s been amazing and really exciting for bartenders everywhere.
Do you make different drinks in colder climates?
The season definitely has an affect on cocktail menus. They want to do something that’s appropriate for the season. The beauty about California, Southern California especially, is that we have access to such good produce year-round, which you just don’t have in Chicago. Having the freedom to be able to really play with any ingredient that you can imagine is great. You can drive 15 minutes in any direction in Los Angeles and find some awesome little area, like Thai Town or Korea Town, where you can find amazing products. The combinations are just limitless.
Do you have any favorite produce coming up in the fall that you’re looking forward to working with?
Well, right now we’ve been doing a lot of things with figs and pears. Figs are delicious right now, especially green figs, which are one of my favorites to work with.
How would you go about making a drink with figs?
It all depends on the flavor profile and the fig itself. Some figs are really sweet. In that case, I like to mix them with a tiny bit of bourbon to enhance that sweetness, but then add a tiny bit of lemon juice to pick up some of the tartness and the flesh of the fruit. If you get a fig that’s on the sour side, I like to do things with gin and more sour fruits to balance it out—a little bit of lemon zest, orange zest and citrus flesh rather than the citrus itself.
The Soir—a Bowers concoction with genever, pastille, lemon juice, honey and mint—looks refreshing, no?
You were a southwest regional finalist in the Diageo World Class Competition. What kind of cocktail did you do for that?
Well, it was an eight-hour competition. We had to submit a cocktail, which they blind tasted, and they only accepted five percent of people across the country in their different regions. There were three different rounds. One was “Classics With a Twist,” where we had to invent a twist on an IBA-certified classic cocktail. There was a speed round where we had to do four cocktails in six minutes. Then the final one was called Ritual Theater, showcasing yourself as the bartender, the ambiance of the bar, your energy and also showcasing one spirit and the accoutrement that would go along with that spirit. As bartenders, we’re not just mixing up cocktails and hiding spirits. I try to accentuate every spirit when making a drink because I love spirits.
Do you have a favorite?
If you’re making me choose… tequila has always been a huge one for me. I grew up… well, not grew up on, but I drank bourbon when I was younger. I think bourbon was the first liquor I stole from my parents too. I love working with gin as far as making cocktails. So, I have an appreciation for all spirits. Choosing just one is so hard.
Is there any spirit that’s trending right now?
There are a lot. There is Ancho Reyes, which is an ancho chile liqueur that just came out and is delicious. It’s sweet and spicy and adds this amazing complexity to cocktails. I’m a huge fan of cynar, which is an artichoke liqueur. It’s an amaro from Italy that adds such a beautiful bitterness and brightness to a cocktail. I’ve worked with it as a base spirit, a modifier and even as a bitter. Gran Classico is really nice—a little sweeter and brighter amaro that’s similar to a Campari.
Do you have any advice for the home bartender? How do they start to experiment with their favorite spirit?
Absolutely. The very first thing to do is make sure you have all the necessary tools to measure. Unless you’ve been free pouring for a very long time, it’s not easy to pour a two-ounce pour or one-half ounce pour exactly. Learn the building blocks and the basics of making cocktails first. It’s like building the foundation of your house before you paint the shutters, paint the doors and put the nice little roof on it. You want to be able to base yourself in all the classic cocktails and you can find the recipes anywhere. Then, after you’ve gotten those down, it’s easy to start experimenting and deviate based on your own personal palate. I push people to go with their palates and not be afraid to try new things. If you don’t like the cocktail, you don’t have to drink it.
Lead photo: Kiana Laing