Ryan Hooks is a LA bartender who mixes up flavorful creations at Saint Felix in Hollywood. He’s also the big winner of El Jimador’s Margarita Trail, a competition for the best margarita in LA. We spoke with Hooks about his favorite creations, delectable ingredients, and being a fearless mixologist.
LAC: So Ryan, how long have you been bartending? What’s your backstory into the career?
Ryan Hooks: I’ve been bartending for about eight years. When I was 20, I went to pick up my mom at a martini and wine bar in my town where I met the owner. She said she liked my look and wanted me to cocktail serve there. That’s where I first started bartending at 21. I paid my way through college doing it. I left hospitality in 2009 and went into sales for four years. In 2013, I moved to LA and started up again. This is when I realized bartending could be more than just a good way to make some money. I learned that there was an art to creating cocktails and a lot to learn. So I started doing research and here we are.
LAC: From your research, for you, what technically makes a “good” cocktail versus a lackluster mix? Also, what makes a “good bartender versus a lackluster bartender?
RH: Obviously for a cocktail to be considered “good” there has to be a balance in the flavors. But—which I think is more important for me—is the cocktail has to appeal to the people drinking it. I’m also huge on bartenders giving a great customer experience. For example, when I am working and it’s slow, I’m spending time with my guests finding out what they like and trying to create a unique cocktail for them. Maybe even teach them a thing or two about bartending. As a guest however, I don’t like when I see people at the bar not getting attention because the bartender is too busy talking to the other staff or spending too much time checking their phones.
LAC: In a YouTube mixing tutorial, you mention your favorite cocktail is an Old Fashioned. Is the drink still holding up for you?
RH: The Old Fashioned is and will forever be my favorite cocktail. I love the balance of bitter and sweet. I also love that there are so many ways you can spin off the same recipe idea and make Old Fashioneds with bourbon, rye, mezcal, Scotch or even gin.
LAC: You’ve penned plenty of your own cocktails. Can you tell us about your favorites and what their components are?
RH: Many of the cocktails I have created have been for contests, like the Margarita Trail. So it helps to have a guideline when starting. But if not, then I often make drinks with ingredients I simply like. For example, I love egg white cocktails with gin. Recently, I made one with raspberries and thyme. I also like to do bourbon and mint smashes with fruits; mango is my favorite. As for inspiration, I frequently walk around the produce section at the store and see what looks good. I also spend a ridiculous amount of time walking the aisles of the liquor store.
LAC: Can you talk about any trial and error experiences with cocktails? You must have to drink a few shifty drinks before perfecting things.
RH: [laughs] More than you can imagine. Luckily, once you figure out the general drink structure, it’s not too bad. Most drinks can be made based off 6 basic recipes. But sometimes it’s fun to try really weird combinations and see what happens. Like a bitter liquor with snap peas or basil and jalapeno in tequila.
LAC: We’re in the midst of summer in LA. What are the three cocktails you’re suggesting for warm nights out this June, July and August?
RH: The first summer drink every reader needs in their lives is my El Jimador Margarita, “The Mango Tango” with El Jimador Mango Mango Tequila, fresh basil and strawberries. When I put the ingredients together I envisioned sitting on a patio in summer with some friends drinking them. Second, I enjoy a nice mojito; and when I am feeling like living on the edge, I’ll add blackberries to it. Finally, when I am feeling lazy, for me, nothing beats bourbon and ginger ale with a squeeze of lime…in a really TALL glass.
LAC: Lastly, can you share the cocktail that won you the prize during El Jimador’s Margarita Trail?
Sure. The Mango Tango!
.75 oz Agave Syrup
.75 oz Lime Juice
1 to 2 Fresh strawberries hulled & halved
Muddle 1.5 oz El Jimador Mango Mango
3 Basil leaves clapped in hands
Ice. Shake and strain over fresh ice
Garnish with strawberry half and basil leaf