L.A.’s Matthew Biancaniello Is "Obsessed with the Liquid Form"

A bartender with a fedora on.
Bartender Matthew Biancaniello channels inspiration from his yogi sensibilities and love for local, seasonal flavors. Photo by Steven Lam.

In the recesses of the decadent Hollywood Roosevelt’s Library Bar, Matthew Biancaniello found himself. Spending hours making fresh syrups and creating unique flavors, he emerged a premier bartender in the midst of the new urban craft cocktail movement in Los Angeles. His new book, “Eat Your Drink,” will showcase his method and environmental perspective of the mixed drink while he explores the world consulting and crafting a better beverage menu for anyone who pulls up a stool.

Were you always a drinker? What’s your drinking history?

I’ve never really been much of a drinker, just for a very short amount of time in high school. I grew up with an alcoholic parent, so alcohol was a very destructive thing. Instead of joining it, I went away from it. I had a hard time in high school; I didn’t socialize because I didn’t want to be around people drinking. I actually did have a lot of friends, just not a lot of people I hung out with. It wasn’t until I had my girlfriend in senior year high school where I started to let loose. I wouldn’t necessarily be somebody who drank like people that age but like I’m 21, l’m going to have a beer at a restaurant, I’m going to get smashed a little bit in New York. It was the combination of that still being in my psyche, and I just never thought that alcohol sat well with me.

When people found out I was bartending six or seven years, people who know me — I was doing yoga six to nine hours a week, I was such a hardcore yogi at the time — they were like, wait a sec, you’re going to be around alcohol and you’re going to be up late? Because I was a guy who slept nine to five, got to bed before nine, and now I’m up until three or four in the morning. It was a natural progression for me to be doing what I was doing. What I was getting into, the produce and all that stuff, was my way of still staying connected to that healthy stuff, that beautiful stuff. I did this for a year and a half and unconsciously I just didn’t know inside. People were taking pictures of my drinks and savoring them, and I realized I was rescripting my relationship to alcohol and making it something that is beautiful and that you savor.

You have a love affair with making drinks.

I have a huge love affair because I’m obsessed with anything in the liquid form and when I say liquid form, I just mean that things in liquid form have so much more intense flavor. It’s like, when you have the juice from a steak and you taste that juice, how much flavor does that juice have? It’s amazing what transpires in liquid from different things. I was obsessed with liquid, and then alcohol, when I started to embrace it, in a sense it was used as a healing mechanism. I do love the effects of it as well.

Alcohol became a wonderful thing because I saw how much people appreciated it, and I embraced it. I embraced learning about the different flavors. Alcohol was a great way to enhance my palette because I was trying things that I never really liked, but I found a way to fall in love with them in my own way and also give things to people. There was a beautiful challenge to make drinks for people that I would never drink, but I know that person would love.

Where do you think the desire to make cocktails so personal came from?

I had done so much yoga, and the repetition and the practice of that is a meditation. It became a meditation for me; I would watch myself and I was loving the whole process. When I made a drink, I knew almost everything that went into that drink I sourced personally. It was that beautiful connection. I was brought up half-Greek, half-Italian, and at my Greek grandparents they grew everything in their garden. When we would go to dinner on Sundays there, everything was so fresh. I remember the flavor being more intense than other vegetables or flavors that I’d had. I grew up in Boston, and my father, during high school, used to bring me to Wilson Farms, in Lexington, and we would buy stuff every Sunday, and it would be fresh produce.

When I started at the Library Bar, all the stuff we just talked about are the things that were happening that were unconscious. The conscious part was going out there and saying, so listen, I’m not going to let these people put this crap in their body and I’m not going to serve what this is. This is not the kind of quality that is out there and should be in drinks.

At that point, I lived in Los Angeles almost 7 years and I’d gone to the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market but it was far away from Hollywood, so I didn’t go all the time. When I started going religiously, when I started at the Library Bar, it was like, oh, these drinks aren’t worth $15. I can’t believe these ingredients, it’s like, how can someone drink this? I started going to the farmer’s market and replacing the ingredients that were on the menu there with fresh things. Because I was going three or four times a week, all of a sudden I started seeing all of these seasons, all of this produce, and I was blown away. I couldn’t believe the amount of flavors and different things I was being exposed to on a weekly basis.

It was like something that has been there all along but wasn’t used in that space and I was just doing it. I wasn’t thinking about filling a void in that market, it was just this was something huge that was driving me to do that. And then subconsciously, what was driving me was all the other psychological and spiritual things as well. It was kind of like being possessed, in a good way.

Your obsession veers away from the typical simple syrup and citrus context that has been used forever, to just herbs and fruits.

I used to talk about it the same way as vibration in food, vibration in drink. I remember when people would contact me the next day. Like, oh my god, I had four or five of your Arugula Gimlets and I feel great today; I don’t feel hungover. That was a huge compliment. That’s the thing; I want to incorporate everything that goes into that drink. I’m responsible for making and crafting as much as I can.

I love the delicious Arugula Gimlet, aka The Roquette. What’s the origin story behind that drink?

Over 6 years ago, I remember being depressed at the bar because I hadn’t really created a new drink in about 2 weeks. I went down to the walk-in in the hotel and I saw this micro-arugula. I thought, let me try this, this is something that hasn’t been on my radar. Usually when I try a new drink or I’m experimenting with a new herb, I always take gin first and agave and lime juice and I usually do that main ingredient muddled first, just to see how it is at the starting point. I took that micro-arugula and muddled it and I tasted it and I could not believe it, because I’m a gin drinker. Basically, it was a gin mojito with arugula and one of those things I just kept giving to people and they loved it. It’s such a simple drink, I didn’t add anything to it and it’s always to this day, still my favorite drink to drink of all the drinks I’ve ever created. I also think it’s one of the best drinks to have with food as well, if you’re going to have a full cocktail with a meal, because it compliments anything you’re going to eat.

My journey after I conceived that was, okay, let me go to the market and see who has the best arugula for this drink. I kept using different arugulas until I finally stumbled upon an arugula called Arugula Rustica, which is a very spicy arugula that’s from Windrose Farm in Paso Robles. They have the best mild arugula; they have it 6 or 7 months out of the year. That became the arugula I use for that cocktail and it got to the point where I didn’t feel as satisfied with the drink unless I had that.

And the inception of The Last Tango in Modena?

That’s probably the drink that gave me my name; I really truly believe that because back then I knew that I wanted to make a foam, my first foam. I knew I wanted it to be St. Germain. I remember not really knowing how to do that, and I was talking to Vincenzo Marianellas, the great bartender that worked at Providence for a long time in the beginning, and he opened a bar called Copa d’ Oro. I said, how do you foam something like this? He told me how he made a foam with egg whites and Grand Marnier, that I didn't have to use gelatin, and that as long as there was a decent amount of sugar content in the liquor, I would be fine.

I know that I wanted to do a balsamic vinegar drink; I knew that I wanted to do a take on that strawberry balsamic flavor that would be sweet but not too sweet. It was also the first cocktail that I was going to break the rules of a kind of a formula. If you think about it, all drinks, and really, all my drinks, are based on the daiquiri. It’s two ounces of rum, ¾ ounce of lime juice, ¾ ounce of agave. All you’re really doing is switching things in or out, if I take out the rum and put gin you have a gimlet, if I put mint in there you have a mojito, if I take the rum out and put tequila in, there you have a margarita. So the first time I was taking something and not doing my citrus and sweetener, but using the 25 year-old aged balsamic vinegar as sweetener, and it was all instinct. When I made this cocktail, I made four different versions, and where I was at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, we had a lot of ladies of the night that would come through the hotel and I got to know these four women who would come into the bar. One day, I said to myself, I’m going to give them four different versions of this drink and I’m going to see if they choose the one that I think is great. Sure enough, they did. They chose the one that I did with gin, and I decided to use balsamic vinegar.

What other drinks have you created out of a unique experience?

I’m going to tell you the third drink in what I call the trilogy. Anytime I do a pop-up or do parties, the three drinks that I always do to introduce people to what I call my classics would be the Roquette, the Last Tango and the Breeder’s Cup. That’s the drink that I do with the beet horseradish.

It’s a great drink because it’s a cocktail for people who don’t like Bloody Mary’s and who don’t like tomato. I remember the first time I made this for my mentor — his name was Gaston Martinez. He first introduced me to cocktails, and [the fact that] it was an art, when he came to the Roosevelt to do a training I sat in on. The first time I gave it to him, he was like, this is the best drink I’ve ever had in my life. I remember how significant that was, because he had been in the business for so long already and had been influenced with so many cocktails, and that was a huge thing. It is basically a cucumber gimlet with beets and horseradish and smoked salt and borage flowers on top of it and cucumbers around the sides, and I always used to serve it with oysters next to it because I thought it really complimented shrimp and oysters. And that’s, again, a drink that people go crazy over.

Want to try your hand at Biancaniello's trilogy of signature drinks? Below, you'll find his recipes:

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