If you’ve ever had the pleasure of attending a Garrett Leight event, you may have crossed paths or at least ordered a drink from Ryan Wainwright. Since the early GLCO days, Ryan has been making some of the best margaritas from A. Kinney Court’s neighborhood courtyard parties to anniversary celebrations at the La Brea flagship store. These days Ryan is still making cocktails, but raising the bar by spearheading acclaimed drink programs and even winning a competition here and there.
Originally aspiring to be a teacher, Ryan moonlighted as a DJ in the Bay Area. During a Big Sur Dead Meadow concert, he found himself stepping in at the bar when the bartender didn’t show. After realizing he made more money that night than three days worth of teaching, he decided to give the bar world a try.
Ryan eventually settled in Los Angeles and worked his way into the Venice restaurants Gjelina and The Tasting Kitchen. He found bar culture in Southern California to be quite different; in the Bay, bartenders didn’t take themselves too seriously while the LA bar scene “prepared me for the actor’s guild,” he jokes. Ryan quickly realized most LA bartenders tended to care more about their image than the drink they were making. Looking past the vanity he managed to find a community, a mirror of what life was like up north, which helped shape the way Ryan makes drinks today.
By the time he was running his own bar program at Terrine, a Beverly Hills French style brasserie, Ryan was in a place where he could question everything about how to make drinks. He began to break down the classics, trying out different ingredients and methods and testing firmly held convictions. He wondered why a particular sugar was used when making an Old Fashioned, so he made twelve of them, each with a different sugar, discovering some assumptions weren’t always right. Just as certain chiefs are renowned for their spaghetti pomodoro or cacio e pepe, Ryan wanted to be known for making the best martini or negroni. And by questioning the norm, he began to raise the bar.
After he took apart the classics, creativity came easily, and refinement followed. Yet Ryan would modestly describe his drink aesthetic as very uncreative: “If you look at my drinks you can peel away the ingredients to see which classic I pay homage to,” he says. Ryan’s drinks tend to be minimal, made of carefully selected ingredients chosen to make the spirit shine. When crafting drinks, Ryan starts with the alcohol first, focusing on finding what will complement the spirit’s flavor profile. He laughs when describing the worst insult a customer could give him: “Oh wow that’s so good, I can’t even taste the alcohol.”
The Playa Fortuna, one of Ryan’s latest creations, is a refreshing shaken concoction of lime juice, coconut cordial, falernum and tartaric acid balanced to highlight the rum, Bacardi Superior. This spirit driven method seems to be working: the Playa Fortuna has gained recognition in Legacy, a world-renowned cocktail competition that asks bartenders to not just make a drink, but tell its history. Ryan’s honest approach and philosophy works not just for Legacy, but also in the way he runs his bar. It’s what he tries to bring out in himself, his drinks, his staff and customers.
At his most recent undertaking, The Ponte, a new Italian restaurant on Beverly, Ryan invites his customers to experience his drinks in the same way he makes them, with an honest and open mind. With his new drink menu, Ryan hopes to avoid common comparisons and challenge popular opinion, giving the customer a new experience. Nevertheless, if Ryan’s customers aren’t up for expanding their horizons, they’ll have no trouble finding a delicious drink on the menu.