Vincenzo Marianella asks me this soberly through his charming, thick Italian accent as we sit in a corner booth at his iconic Santa Monica bar, Copa d'Oro. He believes that in almost all cases, it's the latter. I've caught him an hour before his shift starts for the night, and we have met to discuss a very serious topic.
Marianella is genuinely concerned that today's modern-day mixologists are forgetting what bartending is all about: hospitality.
"In a certain way, nobody gives a fuck about a cocktail," he says. "Making drinks is the easy part. A bartender's real skills are measured by his people skills."
Say Marianella's name to any craft cocktail bartender in town and they will probably credit him for inspiring their approach and introducing them to the concept of a sipping tequila or mezcal, since he was among the first to take those two spirits seriously in LA after becoming friends with Julio Bermejo of San Francico's Tommy's.
When he came back to Los Angeles after working as a bartender in London in 2004, the craft cocktail boom didn't exist yet. It took him two years of applying for jobs and getting rejected for his vision of using seasonal, farmers market produce in cocktails, until a little fine dining restaurant by the name of Providence allowed him to stock the bar with fresh herbs, fruits, and vegetables.
The rest is history. In addition to leaving his signature cocktails dotted around LA through countless bar consultation gigs——three cocktails of which made the cut for Jonathan Gold's essential list last year—he has gone on to consult at places like Seven Grand, The Doheny (which is now Caña Rum Bar), Drago Centro, and Love & Salt. Many of LA's best bartenders have come out from under his wing, including Eric Alperin of The Varnish, Marcos Tello, and Joseph Brooke (who was once named America's Top Bartender).
Even with these accomplishments behind him, you can still find him making gin and tonics five days a week behind the bar. He credits his smashing success story to being "lucky to be at right place at the right moment with the right passion."
As an immigrant from Italy's countryside, he checks entitled bartenders on their American privilege at his door. "In this country, bartending is not a B-job, a C-job, or an F-job. It is a great career and if you make your living off it, you should be proud." He wishes that bartenders would stop "bitching about not having the right-sized ice cube" and instead own their role as someone whose job it is to be warm toward people, regardless of what drink they order.
Marianella credits his turning point to the moment when he walked into a bar in an extremely luxurious London hotel where pioneering mixologist Salvatore Calabrese was working. "I walked in as a stranger and he made me feel like the most important person on the planet. He did his job as a bartender and helped me relax and enjoy his drinks."
As we talk, the bar opens and the bar's regulars start to slowly trickle in. A man speaks to Marianella in Italian and he sprints to the bar to immediately serve him a glass of red wine. Another young man comes in and orders a Manhattan and makes him a strong one with a smile, despite Marianella confessing earlier that he hates making them because Mad Men made them trendy. Both have ignored the basket of fresh fruits and herbs atop the bar, but it does not faze Marianella in the least.
When he gets a free minute in between serving customers, Marianella makes some of his signature drinks for me to try. First, his Smoke of Scotland, which is an exceptionally satisfying stirred cocktail he created at Providence in 2006, when a customer thought that that he could not create a cocktail that would compete with a good sipping Scotch like Laphroaig Cask Strength. It contains extra-dry vermouth, Averna, Saint Germaine, and a flamed grapefruit peel as a garnish. After I carefully enjoy every small sip of it, he makes his Campanula Sour. It is available at every bar he's consulted for, as he considers it a gateway cocktail to mixology. That one has Finlandia Grapefruit vodka, juiced red bell pepper, mint, Saint Germain, fresh lemon juice, and a dash of simple syrup.
Lasty, he asks me to pick a fruit or herb and a spirit—a bartender's choice special that Marianella innovated when he opened Copa in 2008. I request a crisp-looking apple and tequila—my preferred poison—because they're two flavors that I wouldn't necessarily associate with one another. He whips up an iced cocktail using apple juice, his house tequila (Arette), Martini Rubino, fresh lime juice, Jerry Thomas bitters, and ginger beer.
Marianella's simple bartending philosophy is to make customers who spend their hard-earned money on his drinks feel warm and invited. His job, and the only reason he believes bartenders are paid and tipped, is to make sure customers have a good time.
"It is not our fault if a customer had a bad day and is in a bad mood, but it is definitely our fault if we are having a bad day and send these feelings along to a customer. Let's just try to make make their day a little better with a good drink. "