We are all searching for memorable experiences to light up our senses, whether joyful, flavorful or pleasurable. For Jason Eisner, the Beverage Director at Gracias Madre, this is exactly his mission: to take us on a ride that gives us the ultimate culinary experience. Eisner takes great pride in developing more than just a unique cocktail layered with flavor. It is his passion that gives his spirits soul.
While I sipped on my organic, house-made almond milk horchata latte, (yes, that’s a thing), Eisner and I chatted like old friends by the outdoor fireplace at Gracias Madre. Just like its sister restaurant Café Gratitude, Gracias Madre has great design and a delicious organic vegan menu—and it also includes seasonal, organic, agave-based cocktails. If you find yourself there snacking on delicious homemade tortilla chips and salsa, a bright orange cocktail layered with deep red and crowned with an edible purple flower might catch your eye as it passes by, perfectly balanced on the waiter’s tray. Suddenly, you might have an irrepressible notion to flag down your own waiter to order what she’s having. This boldly flavored, visually stunning cocktail is one of Eisner’s many creations.
For Eisner, all of the pieces that build a great culinary experience are the same for a great cocktail. The plating, the aromas and the depth of flavors all build the experience collectively.
“Why is plating so important? What does that experience do for a person?” Eisner asks. “If I take two sets of ingredients and put some on a plate and hand it to you, and then I make art out of the other plate, why is that experience so much more deep and layered for people? I am starting to understand the connection between the senses. It’s a huge deal when you get a chance to really understand how that enriches a person’s life.”
Mezcal Rinsed Glass
2 oz. Mezcal Espadin
.5 oz. Lemon Juice
.25 oz. Organic Agave Nectar
2 dashes Habanero Bitters
2 Heaping Barspoons of Apricot Jam
Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker and shake with ice. Add 1 large rock to your mezcal-rinsed double old fashioned glass. Fine strain into your glassware. Float .25 oz. of Spanish Rioja by pouring slowly over the large ice cube. Add one edible flower.
In the early 2000s, Eisner joked with his buddies about making white dog or bathtub gin—before craft cocktails were “a thing.” The craft cocktail revival was in full swing by this time thanks to a few popular speakeasies like Milk & Honey and Death & Co. Eisner was honing his craft at a few bars in New York and Los Angeles, and then got a dream job with his mentor, Jaymee Mandeville of Drago Centro in Downtown L.A.
“Jaymee, in my opinion, has the best pallet in L.A. The way she makes cocktails with such immeasurable nuance, each one is a masterpiece. I really wanted to work with her and got lucky to score that job. I worked for Jaymee every day for hours and hours. She would give me homework and have me work events—basically working for free to learn how to make tinctures, shrubs and bitters.”
As a dedicated jiu-jitsu martial artist, Eisner thrives on pressure and is empowered by a challenge. This martial arts training gives him the discipline and commitment to focus on perfecting each element of his creation. As a “blue collar guy,” working long hours with this intensity is built into his DNA.
“I don’t want to fake anything. I want to be authentic. I am a student of the game. I’m not trying to pretend I know everything. I just know if you put in 18 hours, I will put in 36,” Eisner says. “I am in love with knowing as much as I can.” He dives into the culinary science headfirst and wouldn’t have it any other way. Creating these masterful cocktails involves many pieces and he wants to perfect every piece.
“I want to learn it the right way the first time and explore that before I delve into what I want to do. I want to know all the formulas and all the science behind it so I can take all of it and run with it.”
Studying and learning from acclaimed chefs and bartenders invigorates him. However, nature is one of his favorite—and most crucial—sources of inspiration. Nature is where he seeks to find the understanding of why certain flavors work well together.
“When I’m on a farm or when I’m hiking, I’ll think why does nature choose to put certain elements together? Why does that happen? What’s the culinary science behind it?” Eisner asks. “We were meant to find these things and eat them and smell them and know what they were. Why does nature do that? Why are perennials all in similar structure? Why does a black walnut tree want grow near these other things? Getting my hands dirty, making something out of nothing. Foraging things was something I was always interested in, but trying to find the platform to do it or the means to do it. L.A. really gave me that platform, finding mentors really gave me that platform, and Gracias Madre has been the greatest.”
After his time at Drago Centro, Eisner’s reputation had gotten around and he was presented with an extreme challenge from one of the owners of Gracias Madre, Cary Mosier. “Cary said to me, ‘Let me just throw something at you. What if you had to use agave-based spirits only, and they had to be 100-percent organic? It has to be seasonal and most of the things we will be using will be sourced from our farms.’ So immediately I realized that 90-percent of any bar I have worked in, was gone. Disappeared. Without even hesitating, I said that would be the most interesting challenge I have ever been given. I’ll totally crush that. Within 12 hours, I went home and made 13 pages of a menu. The limitations that were set, that box that was created for me, set me free. It’s deepened my respect for what I do.”
Eisner began a journey of seeking out high quality organic spirits. Discovering the best quality products gives the consumer a better overall experience. Not just run-of-the-mill tequila, but discovering a world of small batch, pure tequila and mezcal produced by mindful artisans. What appears to be a simple bottle of booze has so much heart—not to mention a little romance behind it.
Making mezcal is very rustic. Eisner explains, “It’s one of the last un-mechanized, handmade things in the world. Most of the agave that is found are wild harvested, not estate harvested. A dude literally takes a donkey out into the mountains, like human GPS, looking for an agave to harvest.”
The mindfully prepared food, the warmth and style of Gracias Madre makes it one of my favorite places to dine. It also seems to be the dream place to work. The owners want their culinary family to grow, create and thrive in an environment of supportive, loving people so they can provide the best of the best for all of us.
“They use the words sacred commerce, because they want to make the people in here happy. They really do. They want to make all of the people that work here and eat here, happy in their experience here, and happy in life,” says Eisner. “There are plenty of places saying it, but these guys are really doing it. I love working here.”
With the freedom to create whatever cocktail program he wanted at Gracias Madre, Eisner far exceeded the expectations set out for him. He knows so much about flavors, and I was interested to know which ones he loved the most. I was naive to think I would get a simple answer such as, “sweet and savory,” but the answer I got from him explains it all:
“I’m an aromatics person. It is difficult to pull off in a way that’s actually very well done. You can’t hide it under a bunch of sugar and shit. It has to be balanced. It has to have nuance. It has to take you on a ride. I like to see the scientific, theoretical aspect of a cocktail like an old fashioned. Maybe all of the best drinks have three ingredients. So an old fashioned, it has an element of base spirit, and then it has a modifier for sweet and a modifier for bitter. I use an aged mezcal. It has massive depth, and it’s got pine and smoke. I make a wood syrup with food grade mesquite wood that I like to try to harvest myself. And then, I make my own homemade cardamom bitters. So it’s a smoky, peaty aged mezcal with a wood syrup and some cardamom, and then expressing some orange oil over the top. That’s a nice flavor combination.”
Eisner’s commitment to finding spirits with the integrity has given him a unique edge. Not only can he create some of the most beautiful, aromatic, delicious cocktails, but he can also do it in the purest way possible. His soulful cocktails excite our senses of sight, smell and of course, taste. When I asked what his favorite cocktail was to drink, he said, “If I could turn most of the cocktails I personally like to drink into people, they’d probably be old men, wearing weird suits, pipe smokers on leather couches.”
Can’t you just see it? Can’t you just smell it? Can’t you just taste it? Eisner is creating an experience in a cocktail. This is a master at work, though he does not want to be called a master. In his humble opinion (which, sure, we’ll respect), he is still a student of the game.
“I’ll consider myself a student forever. I’ll never be satisfied or feel like a master. I want to be a master—it is my driving force—but I am hungry for knowing more.”
Crafting a cocktail is so much more than just giving a tasty buzz, though that’s a perk. It is a science and an art where we get to indulge. Eisner is kind, genuine and his passion for creating the best gives him a glow and spirit that is intoxicating. So, I suggest you belly up to his bar at Gracias Madre, pronto. I promise you will have one of your favorite culinary experiences to date.
8905 Melrose Ave, West Hollywood, CA 90069