It’s Going Down In Chinatown: How General Lee’s Is Changing The Cocktail Game

Occupying a space once frequented by the likes of Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr., General Lee’s acknowledges its neighborhood’s history unlike few others. Taking its moniker from a historic Chinese restaurant, the modern General Lees has become a hotbed for craft cocktail innovation, consistently using new and interesting ingredients that nod to the Asian community. After all, where else would you find cocktails with cucumber bitters, hibiscus gin, or Szechuan tinctures? We sat down with cocktail wizard and bar manager of General Lees, Philip Ly, to talk about his favorite food trends, how he approaches creating new cocktails, and the link between fresh food and spirits.

Q

General Lee’s has been a mainstay of the Los Angeles food scene in some shape or form since the late 1800’s. How does it feel to extend that tradition into modern day?

A

I think it speaks to the Asian-American experience. I grew up in that neighborhood (Chinatown) and when I came back as an adult, I remembered walking those streets with my grandpa. So we’re taking these old Asian flavors that I grew up with and making them contemporary and palatable for younger generations. That’s what I love about the bar.

Q

Many would argue that Los Angeles is the craft cocktail capital of the country. In your opinion, what sets the scene apart and what can other areas learn from LA?

A

The cocktail scene in Los Angeles is very unique because we have an amalgamation of a lot of different cultures within a five mile radius. You can visit Koreatown, Chinatown, Little Tokyo, and little Armenia in the span of a ten minute bus ride. So you can draw from so many different cultures and explore different flavor combinations to make it into your own thing. At Lee’s, we’re trying to push the envelope, but we still want to make it a comfortable environment for everybody. I think other bars tend to focus too much on their drinks and forget what it means to be a bartender. You can make a kickass drink, but you still need to be welcoming and hospitable at the end of the day.

Q

General Lee’s is well known for using unique ingredients that aren’t on your everyday menu, particularly ones that derive from Asian cuisine. How do you and the bartenders decide to use these ingredients?

A

That’s another great thing about being in LA, that all of these ingredients are so readily available. We do homework where I’ll send people out and just explore an ingredient. Let’s say ginseng. I’ll bring it in for everybody and see what they can do with it until we have one whole cocktail. I can only think of so many ways to use a specific ingredient, but if I have all my bartenders working collaboratively, then we can come up with something great.

Q

Do you find that there are any benefits or challenges when using some of these hyper-specific ingredients?

A

I don’t know if there are challenges because when I find a specific ingredient, I get obsessed and play around with it. This past year, I studied and used Szechuan peppers, which has become one of the most vital ingredients in our cocktail program. I cooked, pickled, and even made ice cream with Szechuan peppers. Not all of them were good, but it allowed me to stretch that ingredient and see where it fit in terms of flavor profiles. How we think about flavor is almost chemically defined. Some ingredients will work with a certain ingredient but not another. The challenge of being a bartender is asking “why doesn't this work,” and seeing what you could substitute instead. I honestly don’t think there’s any “wrong” ingredient.

Q

A lot of your syrups are made in-house. Do you find that there’s a clear change in quality when you focus on in-house production?

A

Oh there definitely is and that comes with consistently. I always know what my syrups are going to taste like because I make them every week. I’ve come across instances where i’ve ordered products from vendors and they taste entirely different the next month. Control is a big benefit and it allows us to play more with different flavors if we’re doing it ourselves.

Q

How important do you think the link between fresh produce and spirits is in craft cocktails?

A

It’s essential at the end of the day. I think we’re past that point were bars are using sour mix now. Most bars in LA have a fresh juice program because it’s not going to serve your cocktail justice if you’re using old juice or pre-bottled juice; especially with citrus which is vital to cocktails. Fresh citrus is just so bright, whereas if you’re using bottled sour mix, it’s really muddy and can cloud all the flavors you’re going for. If you use fresh lime or fresh lemon, a lot of the more subtle notes you’re trying for come out clearer. When I first started bartending, I worked in bars that used sour mix, but when I moved to General Lee’s and started working with a fresh juice program, the drinks were night and day. However, there is the added challenge of waste. With fresh juice there is a lot of waste, so you need to figure out how to combat that. We try to do justice to the fruit itself by using as much of the fruit as we can.

Q

Besides being the bar manager at Lee’s, you’ve helped plan drink menus at various places throughout the city and event guest bartended at a night focused on pairing sherry tiki drinks and luau food. Do you find it harder or easier to create cocktails with specific food pairings in mind?

A

For me, it’s a little easier because I tend to think of flavor combinations whenever I come up with a cocktail concept. So let’s say that someone’s telling me that they’re making ribs for example. So now I know you’ll have certain dark flavors that pair well with whiskey, mezcal and pepper. Then I ask “what cocktail can I make out’ve that?” I construct with flavors before I choose the spirit itself. Fortunately, it’s easier for me to come up with drinks if I have something to pair it with.

Q

Do you have a go to fruit when creating new drinks?

A

It depends on what’s exiting to me at the time. Right now, I’m into hawthorn berries, so i’m trying to do as much as I can with hawthorn berries and blueberries. In terms of fruit, I love seasonal items. Being in LA, the farmer’s market has everything for you, so I enjoy going out there and seeing what’s exciting and playing around with it.

Q

How does working with seasonal ingredients effect the quality of the finished product and your drive to create?

A

When you’re trying to go seasonally, there’s a deadline. Trying to keep the menu relevant becomes the fire for you. We’ll sit at a roundtable and say “okay, spring is coming up, what can we do? Let’s do something with cucumber or mint.” Then we talk about the season quite a bit. Our program is very collaborative, so everyone bounces off each other, but the seasonal approach helps zero-in certain flavors that we are going for and keeps things fresh. You won’t get tired of making the same drinks if you are constantly adapting with new fruits and vegetables.

Q

If someone walked into General Lees and could only order one drink, what would you recommend and why?

A

I think our baby is the Lost Orient Sour. I think it hits on everything we’ve been talking about. It uses flavors that are a little more forward thinking; you’re not going to see a lot of sesame flavored cocktails out there right now, plus it pairs mezcal and sake with fresh lemon juice and sesame. I think it’s our most unique drink.