October 13, 2019

Cheers to L.A. from Tel Aviv’s King of Cocktails

Yuval Soffer is a mixologist on a mission.

We met up earlier this year at La Otra bar and restaurant in Tel Aviv, located inside the Imperial Hotel and across the lobby from the city’s seminal cocktail bar of the same name. La Otra is an eclectic, exotic ode to Mexico and the Caribbean filtered through an Israeli lens. It’s kitschy and tiki-esque, but the drinks aren’t textbook tiki, per se. Soffer, a fan of La Otra, explained that establishing a true tiki bar in Israel still is impossible “because there’s no variety. There’s no high-proof rum, there’s no Martinique rum.”

One of the leading figures in Tel Aviv’s burgeoning cocktail scene, Soffer, 38, who claims to sleep only about three hours a night, currently is involved with projects that run the gamut from hyper-local to large-scale. In early summer, he opened a bar called the Guest Room in the up-and-coming Levontin area, roughly between Florentine and Shapira. He described the mostly outdoor spot as “building on the concept of a neighborhood bar. There’s no menu. You come in and ask” for what you want to drink, gimmick-free. While the products will be top-tier, “it’s about the experience there. It’s about being a guest.”

But it hasn’t been easy getting to this point. After finishing military service and working in Tel Aviv nightclubs, he headed to the United States to visit family in New York and pursue theater. He then “fell in love with film” and moved to Los Angeles, where he studied directing at UCLA. That is, until side gigs in bars and nightlife venues became his primary passion.

At a certain point, he said, “it was time to choose. I chose the bar life.”

During the seven years he spent in L.A., Soffer’s stints included Culver City’s erstwhile Fraiche restaurant and chef David Myers’ Comme Ça casual French brasserie, as well as a bar called Neat in Glendale.

In 2013, he settled back in his native Tel Aviv. He consulted on the concept and opening of the well-regarded Gatsby Cocktail Room in Jerusalem in 2014, which helped get the ball rolling.

“I felt like it was a good time to help the evolution of the industry over here,” Soffer said about his return. “I came with an agenda to be a consultant, and from the second I landed, I’ve been busy ever since. I haven’t stopped working. Opening bars, helping bars.”

What was initially a creative frustration of working in Israel compared to L.A. and New York turned into a fun challenge. According to Soffer, the relatively limited range of spirits available to Israeli bars reflects the monopoly of corporate brands in Israel and sky-high import taxes on alcohol. (That said, obscure labels still can be spotted on La Otra’s shelves. Israeli bartenders find a way.)

Soffer explained how the cocktail revival trend took a little longer to reach Tel Aviv. When it happened, however, the demand was quick. 

“In those four years, there have been a lot of changes. It’s become really big, really fast — which is a little bit dangerous for an industry,” Soffer said.

Skeptical of places where “there’s no knowledge of the classics,” he’s part of a movement in Israel that involves understanding certain traditions and history. He said he has less respect for an establishment where the staff is more concerned with “visual effect and lot of show in the glass,” rather than knowing how to make cocktails that might have been served from Manhattan to New Orleans to San Francisco in the late 19th century, such as a Sazerac or a gin martini. 

Soffer’s time in Los Angeles proved to be invaluable to his work in Tel Aviv, but he admitted he misses the West Coast, where “life was less hectic.” In fact, a bunch of his belongings are still back in his former West L.A. home.

So, what was the main takeaway from his Southern California sojourn?

“The first thing that comes to mind is the support the industry has, which was something I never experienced in New York,” he said. “Sharing information and trying to help each other grow and share knowledge … is what L.A. did from the get-go.”

That spirit of cooperation has resulted in L.A.’s robust, ever-growing craft cocktail scene, he explained, mentioning bar consultants Aidan Demarest and Marcos Tello, whose regular gathering, called the Sporting Life, was a salon-like forum that has petered out somewhat since its founding. At regular meetings, participants would talk shop about everything from the nitty-gritty details of making their own bitters, to the merits of various barware brands, to recipes and bar design.

“It’s just now starting to happen here,” Soffer said.

Soffer is not a man in need of more gigs, and yet he also is a brand consultant for Milk & Honey, the ambitious distillery located in south Tel Aviv, which is open to the public for tours and tastings. The company hired master distiller Jim Swan, who died in February, to help create a kosher Israeli single-malt whisky in the Scottish style, barrel-aged for three years.

While that specific product is not yet ready for release, Soffer’s job is to spread the word about the product and educate fellow bar pros about how Milk & Honey’s gin, unaged whiskeys and other Israeli-made spirits currently in development can be used for kosher and non-kosher drinkers alike.

Who knows, maybe this track will bring him back to L.A., so he finally can pack up the rest of his stuff.