Wen Yeh founded Neat to share the complex pleasures of drinking spirits without mixers
By Richard Foss
Wen Yeh’s bar serves cocktails, but he’d rather you didn’t order one. At Neat, the focus is what you’d expect from the name. Within the mixology-focused local scene, it’s a contrarian attitude.
A real estate developer turned restaurateur, Yeh is part owner of the beer-centric BRÜ HAUS on Wilshire Boulevard in West L.A. and The Belmont gastropub in West Hollywood, but his passion is Neat. The former Liquid Kitty was a dive bar specializing in martinis before Yeh remodeled it into a quiet and intimate space, bringing in a team of alcohol enthusiasts to serve more than 300 different spirits.
Isn’t this an odd time to open a bar that isn’t focused on cocktails?
We have a strong cocktail program, but it’s not about mixology, it’s about the classics. We make Old Fashioneds, Sazeracs, Daiquiris — and we make them properly. The citrus, sugar and bitters make an enjoyable experience, but over time someone who drinks those starts identifying the taste of the spirits, and they start savoring them. That’s how I started.
Aren’t straight spirits an acquired taste?
We try to educate people about how to taste spirits. Too many young people think you have to shoot them. Anything you have to gulp down is not worth drinking. You should learn how to taste slowly, to savor. … You sip them to understand what you’re tasting. You use your nose before tasting it. It’s not that we know everything, because we don’t, but we know how to get people started in learning for themselves.
Which are the easiest drinking of the neat spirits?
Rum, because of the sweetness. Or bourbon. Rum has a mostly negative connotation because the ones most of us try first are pretty bad, and we get sick on it. People associate scotch with heavy peatiness, so that’s not where I tend to start people even though there are some that have a little sweetness on the palate.
What’s the hardest sell?
A lot of people have a bad conception of mezcal because the first one they tried was some souvenir bottle with a worm in it. People check it out and say, ‘Oh God, that’s terrible,” and they think they don’t like mezcal. That wasn’t a good product to begin with, but it has set their expectations.
I noticed that when someone ordered a scotch and water, the bartender suggested the water on the side. Is everybody here subtly trying to change people’s behavior?
We all appreciate the idea that these spirits are meant to be savored as they are. You don’t go into a really good restaurant and automatically pour ketchup or A-1 sauce on a steak, because it has been served the way it’s supposed to be eaten. The people who have been distilling this for generations meant it to be served this way. If you’re buying some mass-market brand meant to be mixed, fine, whatever. With good spirits, try them first. You might add a little bit of water to a cask-strength whisky to open it up, but please do that after trying it first. Don’t change it off the bat.
Your menu is without tasting notes. Why?
People have different perceptions. It’s like when you taste wine and someone is asking, “Do you taste the lavender? Do you get vanilla?” And I don’t, or at least I don’t call that flavor or scent the same thing that you do. Once you have put those expectations on paper people feel like they have to taste the same thing, and I don’t want to start people down that path. I’ll ask them what they taste because I’m curious, but it’s a subjective thing, and there’s no right or wrong answer. One palate isn’t better or worse than the other.
What do you wish everybody would try?
Mezcals and Japanese whiskies, as categories. For a specific brand, El Jolgorio mezcal. Their mezcals are made from silvestre, which are wild agaves, and they’re phenomenal. They take longer to mature, and there is a significant flavor difference. One is more earthy, another is creamy and spicy. There’s a wide, wide range of differences. I could go on and on about it. They have about 18 families who each produce a different mezcal for them.
You have pours for as little as $5. Which is most expensive?
Louis III is $190 for a one-ounce pour. What makes it worthwhile is the history of it. It spends 100 years in that bottle. The guys who started making it never get to taste it. Would I spend that much on a pour? Probably not, but there are people who would.
Are some people paralyzed by the number of choices?
They’re usually the ones who always drink mass-market brands, and we don’t have anything they know. We actually don’t have the biggest back bar, but we have a very eclectic selection. There are thousands of bourbons; we have perhaps 30, but they’re the best representations of those categories.
When someone comes in and says they like to drink a certain expression of Johnnie Walker, we tell them we don’t have that, but we have something better: “Try this Monkey Shoulder. It’s fantastic.” We don’t look down on them, because most of us didn’t know three quarters of these brands when we started this.
With all but the most expensive things we’ll give them a little taste just to get the conversation started. We want to have people excited by discoveries, by trying new things. It’s a learning bar. We’re all learning.
Neat 11780 W. Pico Blvd, West L.A. (310) 881-7081