This Former Firefighter Is Making Some of the Best Drinks in LA
"If I’m willing to risk my life for a random-ass person, then I have the mentality that whoever is sitting across from me should be having a good time."
Photos taken by the author
Darwin Manahan is what some people call a "startender" in LA. Drink nerds follow him, cocktail writers gush over his twists on classics, and his skills have even been recognized by the likes of national publications. So why then can you still spot him bussing tables on any given night?
Well, Manahan has a theory that bussing tables (and cleaning bathrooms, for that matter) makes him better at his job as the general manager and beverage director at two restaurants: Osso, a 100-year-old space that once housed a brothel and now serves killer fried chicken in the Arts District; and Cliff's Edge, a lush, outdoor spot in Silver Lake.
"The bar is one entity out of a larger puzzle—I just can't concentrate on one," he tells me. But even with all of this multitasking, he still dreams up some of the most intriguing cocktails in town. Watching him work, you can tell that crafting drinks brings him a lot of pleasure. His extra-boozy Hola Chingon is a riff on a multi-liquor shot known as the Adios Motherfucker, replacing blue curaçao with housemade blueberry cordial. In the Portola, an outside-the-box bourbon drink, he adds drops of bitter beeswax to provide honey flavor without overt sweetness.
If I'm willing to risk my life for a random-ass person, then I have the mentality that whoever is sitting across from me should be having a good time.
His compulsion to keep moving originally fueled a different dream: for years, Manahan worked at becoming a firefighter. He went through the Fire Academy, where he spent months completing grueling tasks like jumping out of three-story buildings, surviving smoke-engulfed boxes, breaking through stucco walls, slicing through chicken wire, shimmying through tiny pipes, and staying calm when his oxygen tank ran out.
Manahan threw himself into it, but somewhere along the line he started feeling disillusioned by the politics of the profession and decided to take a break. That's when he got the idea to become a bartender.
"It's interaction with people, it's creativity, it's grunt work," he says. "Then you have that instant gratification when you make a perfect cocktail, and it literally makes that person's weekend, you know?"
Before starting behind a bar, he snared a job as a bar bouncer. He then took it upon himself to start bussing tables until he was officially made a busser. It was then that Manahan was able to transfer his firefighting work ethic into bartending: "If I'm willing to risk my life for a random-ass person, then I have the mentality that whoever is sitting across from me should be having a good time."
When I started as a bouncer, I was like, once I get into bartending, it's going to change my life, and when I got there, I was like, shit. There's 100,000 more steps—it just never ends.
Success came fast. He took his first real bartending job with his friend Robin Chopra (with whom he played in a hardcore band as a teen). Chopra had just partnered to open Corazón y Miel, a Latino gastropub in southeast LA whose chef was nominated for a James Beard Award last year.
"When I started as a bouncer, I was like, once I get into bartending, it's going to change my life, and when I got there, I was like, shit. There's 100,000 more steps—it just never ends."
After a month, Manahan was asked to be the head bartender. A few months later—after reading one bartending book a day and watching YouTube demos until his eyes glazed over—he was rewarded with a visit from his hero: cocktail historian and Esquire drink correspondent David Wondrich. Then, to his shock, Corazón y Miel made the magazine's coveted best bar list.
"I walked down to Rite Aid, and I saw the Mark Wahlberg issue of Esquire. I opened it up, and I was, like, 'Holy shit!" he says.
The nod gave him the guts to tell his dad he was giving up firefighting for good—but it was also followed by a big blow. Due to lease issues beyond their control, Manahan and Chopra lost their side project Punch, a critically adored speakeasy that specialized in alcoholic punches from the 1600s to the 1800s. For those who got the chance to experience the laidback lounge and potent drinks, it felt almost too good to be true; and when it turned out it was, the setback had a "down and out" effect on Manahan, who resigned from Corázon and took a month off to reassess.
He considered opening another bar, but ultimately decided to dive into what he's doing now, learn everything he can, and hopefully have some influence on the industry that he credits with helping him find himself. Maybe it is because he comes from a big, close-knit family; he's one of six kids, all of whom have names that start with the letter D. But being part of crew—another parallel to his firefighting days—is what makes Manahan tick. He chooses every member in his team carefully because, ultimately, he wants a hand at shaping a new breed of LA bartenders.
"I have the tools and opportunity to change [the] LA bar scene," he says. "I'm going to do my best to put a different face to us. We have your bartenders that are cool guys, who have the fanciest tools and the coolest threads. I want the next round of bartenders to be normal, everyday people, honest and hardworking, who just want to have a good time. I don't need any frills or any of that stuff, but I'll make damn sure that your cocktail tastes great."
The new gigs appear to have revived him, to say the least. And his team is receptive to his style. "He motivates people. If someone's not 100 percent that day, he might just talk to them and get them back on a positive track, and you really see that person bounce back," says Jordan Young, the head bartender and bar manager at Osso.
Even though Manahan admits that he feels like he's in a race with no end, he appears to be having an amazing time. "I was born in the bar, and I'm probably going to die in the bar. I've accepted it," he says. "I accept who I am. I am a busser, I am a runner, I am a host, I'm a bartender, I am a porter. This is who I am, and I love it."