"Just nose it. What food does it remind you of? Lemon cake? Brown sugar? This is a judgement-free zone, so let's all have at it."
I am standing in front of Pedro Shanahan at Caña Rum Bar's patio in downtown Los Angeles. A group of about 35 men and women of various ages from all around the city have showed up to participate in one of his legendary Spirit Society tastings. Tonight's spirit is rum—specifically limited, private selections of aged rums from Panama, Barbados, and Guadeloupe bottled by Berry Bros & Rudd Rum that average well over $100 a bottle.
As the small staff of the rum bar start to pass along small snifter glasses filled with an ounce of each rum, people start to shout out random flavour profiles: "Vanilla!" "Cinnamon!" "Tobacco!" Shanahan acknowledges each response and then continues with, "That's right! Remember, everyone's set of taste buds is different, and a lot of it revolves around your own heritage, so there are no wrong answer, let's all keep going!"
All of Shanahan's public tastings have this sort of laidback vibe, whether he's sampling rare rums, Scotches, mezcals, tequilas, or more mainstream bourbons and whiskeys. This is because underneath his extremely chill demeanor lies 18 years of bartending experience, during which he worked with some of the most notable bartenders and establishments in Los Angeles.
It was that same bartending career, however, that made him burn out and lead him down the road to become 213 Hospitality's "Spirit Guide" (actual job title). His resume includes OK'ing the 800 whiskeys for LA's iconic whiskey bar Seven Grand and overseeing the rest of the spirits used throughout the entire 213 Hospitality empire. (Thus, the first Spirit Society sessions were strictly about whiskey.)
Now, the man's goal with weekly tastings is to create community within spirits and bring people together, and to take away the pretence that can come along with some liquors. When he is done with the rum tasting, I ask him a little more about his goal for these extravagant tastings, where they never shy away from pouring you a little bit extra if you ask nicely.
"Some people might think that because our bars have leather booths and dark woods, that it is only a place for old, rich white people," he tells me. "But I'm really not from this world, nor do I want anyone to think that the world of spirits is exclusive in any way." He adds that the production and consumption of alcohol has historically helped to foster community throughout the world.
His ethos toward alcohol is one up as a skater playing in punk rock bands in Eugene, Oregon."Our society has grown around alcohol and it has always brought humans together. I'm just trying to tear away at all of the elitist, classist, sexist marketing that booze has gone through."
His strategy in making booze approachable to all is simple: Ask what people are tasting instead of telling them what they are supposed to be tasting. "Some people have never had some of the flavour profiles that are described on the back of labels. I just want people to know that whatever they are tasting is cool, too."
This lofty goal is seemingly becoming a reality. During another tasting that showcased some special selections of Nikka Japanese whisky at Bar Jackalope, the crowd of 75 varied from downtown executives in expensive suits to 20-somethings with hoodies who drove all the way from south and east LA. In this tasting, there were seven whiskeys being generously poured, including a special, one-off bottle that the Nikka whisky presenter made by accumulating the ends of many different Nikka whiskies over the years. The excess in booze in this tasting resulted in an even more communal environment, with even more conversations between total strangers.
"Booze has always been by the people and for the people. I just want to remind people of this fact. Whiskey is and will always be for everybody," he tells me later.