A BARTENDING STAR IS BORN
You just have to love an underdog story—a real life ‘little engine’ that not only can chug along but also become a locomotive force to be reckoned with. That’s the story of Jesus Gomez, a shy sweetheart of a guy known to his friends as Chuey, who has gone from rising bartending star to a standout among the best mixologists Los Angeles has to offer.
Jesus’ story mirrors not only his bar, the daring and leading 1886 Bar at The Raymond in Pasadena, but that of his cocktails. At only 24, Jesus started off in the kitchen at The Raymond six years ago. Since then he’s worked numerous positions in the kitchen, including bus boy and expeditor, to bar back at 1886 Bar before becoming a bartender. While 1886 Bar looks like a sleepy restaurant bar, imbibers in the know are fully aware that there is no better bar in the City of Los Angeles, at least not one that consistently creates bold and delicious craft cocktails. A bartender for two years now, Jesus’ tiki-inspired drinks first turned heads and now his drinks know no bounds. He’s my winter bartender MVP for his boozy and balanced drinks.
“I’m always thankful to my mentors,” the humble bartender says. “At the beginning I wasn’t trying to be a bartender. I was just a bar back, but once I tried a Zombie, that Zombie got me into cocktails.”
The current winter menu at 1886 Bar features five cocktails by Jesus, and they are mean drinks that pack a powerful punch. It made me wonder if someone hurt out dear Chuey to make him come up with such knockout libations, but it’s just him growing and branching out.
“When I make a drink for somebody else I make it as if it’s for me so I make it the best that I can,” Jesus explains.
Under the tutelage of Marcos Tello, arguably the best bartender and bar programmer in Los Angeles, Jesus, like the rest of Tello’s protégés are trained to always be innovating and moving forward. For a cocktail to end up on a 1886 Bar list it must pass the "5-palate taste test" where a bartender is required to pitch the finished drink to five people that have been through the program. No exceptions. Each cocktail is required to have a story/reason and finally a name.
Jesus’ La Divina Comedia (divine comedy) is no laughing matter. A nine-ingredient take on an Old Fashioned, this boozy drink finds the perfect balance between the peat and oak notes of Kentucky and Scottish whiskeys. A mix of Elijah Craig, Balvenie, 151 Hamilton, Black Hamilton, vanilla and green walnuts, Angostura and orange bitters, and flamed orange oils, this drink was originally called One and Done for good reason.
“That was for one of our customers that really likes to drink and it was really boozy but I found a way to get it balanced,” Jesus recalls.
“Jesus is a perfect example of Tello's training results,” 1886 Bar manager Peter Lloyd Jones points out. “He’s very professional but doesn't take himself too seriously. His attention to detail and creative nature shows in every libation he creates. A huge part of our job is hospitality and Jesus is always able to make our guests feel welcomed and engaged. He contributes every season and always brings the heat.
“Jesus didn't settle for learning along the way,” Jones continues. “During training he would go home and practice more. He would spend countless hours just perfecting his shake. He would shake ice in his kitchen until his mum was yelling at him because water was all over the floor. This feverish perfectionist was escalated to a senior bartender swiftly because of his dedication outside of work. He is a great listener and learner. He always lifts the spirits of people he works with and serves.”
Now that’s high praise.
I recall Jesus telling me of a tiki drink he created. It included 18 ingredients and it took almost a year before he could get all the parts in hand to make the cocktail for me. And even then he only had enough to make just one drink. It was called The ‘80s and it is probably the best tiki drink I’ve ever had. And I may never get it again.
Jesus, like the rest of the bartenders trained by Marcos Tello (Jesus graduating class included Gillian Georges, Adam McLean, Peter Lloyd Jones, Greg Gertmenian, Brady Weise, Rosie Ruiz and Nikita Minin—all top L.A. bartenders) and 1886 Bar as a whole aren’t about flash or bravado. They all let their drinks do the talking. And what they say is that these are the best bartenders making the best drinks without ego or conceit.
While many bartenders often fail to find balance when making creative and complex cocktails, Jesus has really mastered that challenge. His Hades drink, a mix of triple-chili Mezcal infusion with lime, agave, mango, spiced rum and “Acheron” chili salt rim with Arbol and Japanese chili, is very spicy yet very well balanced.
“If you have an idea of what you want to do and you choose ingredients that you want to play with, then you just play until you get it balanced,” Jesus says matter of fact. “This one, with Adam [Vaughn], we talked about it and he said we should do a mango cocktail. We were buying bottles of mezcal and were infusing different things; dry chiles and he decided to infuse three chilies, which I thought was too much at first. He let me try it and it was too spicy but once we shook it, it was perfect.”
So just how does this young bartender get so creative?
“When I’m drunk is when I get most of my ideas,” he says with a laugh. “But it’s always about the balance.”
And how do you find balance between scotch, bourbon and rum?
“At the beginning I start with the cheapest ingredients, bitters or sugar, and once I know I want those ingredients in the cocktail, then I jump to booze and I always choose equal parts between whiskey and scotch so I can have a good balance; the same way with my rums.”
A whiskey drinker, Jesus seems uncomfortable when I tell him he’s finally coming out of his shell.
“I’m still shy,” he says. “But now I can actually talk to people.”
When asked what he enjoys best about bartending, his answer comes quickly.
“Making cocktails is the best part. I like that you get to talk to people, even though I don’t talk too much. But as long as I know I’m making them happy, that’s enough for me.”
1886 Bar is located at 1250 S. Fair Oaks Ave at The Raymond Restaurant in Pasadena. Open Tuesday through Sunday from 4pm to midnight (2am on Friday and Saturday). Call 626-441-3136.
Story by Jose Martinez
Some Photography Courtesy of: 1886 Bar