PHOTOGRAPHY BY MARIANNA JAMADI
The interior of The Wolves, with its stained-glass ceiling, spiral staircase, intricate metalwork, and jazz soundtrack, feels like it’s of a different time and place—say, Victorian London or Belle Époque Paris. But, thanks to bar director Kevin Lee (pictured), this Downtown LA cocktail spot, which opened last fall, offers a menu that’s rooted much closer to home.
In particular, Lee is taking advantage of the bounty of Southern California’s farms to makes seasonal vermouths (fortified wines infused with botanicals) and liqueurs (distilled spirits with flavorings)—a program for which he has historical justification. “A lot of people think vermouth came from Italy or France, but it came from China, thousands of years ago,” says Lee, an Anaheim native who’s perpetually decked out in a three-piece suit. “The whole idea during that time was that vermouth had to be made seasonally. If you made a vermouth in the springtime but took it in
the wintertime, there was no longer any medical benefit.” European liqueurs, Lee continues, are also meant to be fresher than most of what appears on the market today: “If you ever have the chance to have locally made amaro in Italy, it’s a lot more delicate, a lot more complex.”
The result of Lee’s experimentations is an inventive catalog that shifts along with Southern California’s agricultural bounty. Springtime barflies might taste a jammy strawberry-peach vermouth, a vibrant Champagne cherry liqueur, or an hoja santa amaro. An autumn drinker, meanwhile, might taste a colder-season aperitif such as a mountain mint fernet or a bronze fennel vermouth. “There are so many good farms here, we’re always in abundance,” Lee says. “My guy has more than 1,000 different herbs growing throughout the year.”
These concoctions also make their way into Lee’s cocktails. For example, he incorporates a vermouth he makes with oyster leaf—a variety of borage that has the briny taste of a bivalve—into a Scotch martini. “Every single week there’s a brand-new list of produce that we work with and a brand-new list of liqueurs and amaros,” Lee says. “For me, it’s omakase-inspired—when you get an omakase dinner, you’re expecting the freshest ingredients that the chef can find. That’s what we wanted.”