After a long, hard day pitching ad campaigns at the office, Don Draper sits in his Eames chair and pours himself a stiff cocktail. He grabs his hand etched rocks glass and picks up ice cubes from his leather encased ice bucket with a gorgeous set of stainless steel tongs. Damn he looks good, but his bar looks even better. Of course it does, because it all came from Barkeeper – a bar supply store in the Silverlake area of Los Angeles that specializes in classic, vintage barware and small batch liquors.
If you are hip enough to be in the know of the Los Angeles cocktail scene, or just have a set of ears on you to hear the buzz, then you know about Joe Keeper’s boutique bar shoppe, Bar Keeper. It is every bartender’s dream come true, and every cocktail enthusiast’s mecca. With everything from a glass case of vintage absinthe spoons to a wooden library wall full of small batch liquors, to the largest and most varied selection of bitters we have ever seen, Bar Keeper is everything cocktailia. And owner and proprietor Joe Keeper is everything you want in a shopkeep: friendly, knowledgeable, and just a guy you want to buy a cocktail for.
Joe’s story is one of love and inspiration. Graduating from USC in 1984 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts, Joe found his way into television production. Unfortunately for Joe, he landed in reality television, which left him both dissatisfied and embarrassed. His last straw came when, while sitting in video village (where the director and producers sit and watch a feed of what is being filmed), the crew all high-fived while a contestant on the show literally got the sh** scared out of her, causing her to defecate on camera. Inspiration soon came from Joe’s father, whose advice was to only work at doing something you love. It was at sunrise during a Death Valley camping trip with his wife Anna that Joe got the blessing to open his own bar store. The couple had purchased a house in Silverlake in the early 1990s, a part of town that they knew was up-and-coming. And in 2004, Bar Keeper became a reality.
It is Joe’s outlook on life that makes his store unique and successful. Anyone can open a shop: pay enough, and anyone can obtain a liquor license and sling booze. But Joe’s mantra is “Sell the ritual.” He has a rich understanding of why the cocktail revolution has made such headway in the last decade. It’s not just about drinking anymore; it’s about the ritual. It’s about exquisiteness. It’s about creating a home – a place where anyone who walks through the door feels and is treated like family.
Keeper’s taste in bar paraphernalia doesn’t hurt, either. The hit show Mad Men uses Joe’s shop exclusively to set dress any bar scenes. Cocktail bars throughout California that are looking for a vintage feel come to Bar Keeper for their specialty items. When we asked Joe where he finds his collection, he said that he and Anna go on buying trips throughout the Midwest. On their last adventure, Joe and Anna came equipped with (and we’re not joking) one mile of bubble wrap, special made three-layer corrugated boxes, a bad ass UPS account, and a laptop with a portable label printer. At one point they even had a theater company in Oshkosh, Wisconsin bubble wrapping en masse just to get their shipment finished.
In 2010, after a long application and approval process, Bar Keeper got its license to sell liquor. This was a game changer in many ways. For Joe, it was about having amazing products, but this came at a cost. He laid out close to $100,000 when all was said and done in terms of getting the license. That is a large amount to make up when you consider the markup in a retail store on alcohol is only 30 to 40 percent. Making it onto the Bar Keeper liquor wall is like winning a SAG Award – you’re being recognized by the best of your peers. Everything that Keeper carries is “small batch, classic or essential” and most importantly “made with love.” It is illegal to taste in liquor stores in Los Angeles, so Bar Keeper wants products that they are enthusiastic about. They want to personally taste, know and love their spirits so that they can help interpret other people’s tastes.
We spoke with Boston native, Bar Keeper employee and resident mixologist Jon Rhinerson about what it takes to be a spirit carried by Bar Keeper. Rhinerson says, “There is a seismic shift going on toward small batch alcohols. It is the job of liquor distribution companies to put their products everywhere. Knowledge is the difference. It is about having a conversation with the customer. We would rather talk someone out of buying a more expensive liquor if we know they would like something else better.” It is that kind of small town mentality that has lifted Bar Keeper to the upper echelon of their industry, even in a big city like Los Angeles.
Whether he admits to it or not, Joe and Bar Keeper played a huge part in the Los Angeles cocktail movement. But if you ask him, Joe claims he was “nothing more than a flea on the butt of a dog,” simply along for the ride. We disagree. His understanding of the recent push for craft cocktails has thrusted his store to the forefront of the cocktail scene. Joe says “the mixology movement is like fine sushi and the bartenders are like trained chefs.” If that is the case, then Bar Keeper is the fish market that only carries the finest and freshest fish in town. Though there at the very beginning of the cocktail movement, the ever humble Keeper still credits a large part of his success to others. “I feel indebted to the early cocktail leaders in Los Angeles – people like Aidan Demarest and Naomi Schimek,” says Keeper. “Los Angeles lets us exist.”
In a cocktail revolution focused on handcrafted care, it is the ardor for the craft that makes a place stand out. A work of art in itself, Bar Keeper is a meticulously designed store that is run with unbridled passion and a sincere love for the art of the cocktail. Whether you consider yourself to be a true mixologist or just someone with a passion for cocktails, you’d best find yourself inside inside the walls of this Los Angeles cocktail institution. Joe would probably just tell you to come by, taste some bitters and stay for a chat.
Bar Keeper is located at 3910 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90029. Check them out online at www.barkeepersilverlake.com
Added Bonus- Joe’s wife, Anna, commisioned a song by Keeper’s favorite LA band as gift for opening Barkeeper. Here’s the Barkeeper Theme Song: