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A la Carte: Bartending is about ‘the experience’ for The Independent’s Lowenstein

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Cups of garnishes, including dinosaurs, line the bar at The Independent. PHOTO BY RACHEL HERGETT

By Rachel Hergett EBS COLUMNIST

I snagged the last seat at the lobby bar at The Independent on Wednesday night. It’s shoulder season, but the promise of a couple rounds of pub trivia drew in the locals. 

The Indy is a movie theater and lounge that also features additional dining and drinking options on the patio and upstairs at Perch. There’s an amusing menu of craft cocktails in the lobby bar that takes inspiration from movies. One is the “Godzilla,” a gin and pear brandy-based cocktail served with a plastic dinosaur perched on the rim of the glass.

But I’m here to talk to bartender, Zach Lowenstein, and ordering off the menu isn’t very telling. Lowenstein suggests a daiquiri. It helps him begin to learn customer tastes. It’s also a test for bartenders: Simple, with three ingredients, but not easy to balance.

I decline. Rum isn’t that exciting to me. I prefer whiskey or tequila, I say. 

“Tequila” seems to be a magic word for Lowenstein, who immediately starts lining up a set of bottles and tasting glasses in front of me. 

Lowenstein sings into a tequila bottle as he measures a shot. PHOTO BY RACHEL HERGETT

Lowenstein was born and raised in San Jose, California, before making his way to Orange County. He’s attractive to the point both co-workers and customers rib him for it, sporting a boyish grin and facial hair straddling the line of scruff and beard in a way that only seems to enhance his stark jawline. He is long and lean and I wonder if he’s a climber. A swimmer, he tells me, specializing in freestyle sprints. 

In a way, the sport led him to bartending. Lowenstein is a talker, admittedly and obviously, and his swim coach at Golden West College in Huntington Beach recognized that as a skill in the world of customer service. As a bartender, Lowenstein said his goal is to get to know the people he serves, and he hopes they will get to know him as well. 

By 21, Lowenstein was working at Hotel Joaquin in Laguna Beach and deepening a love of tequila behind the bar. His interest in the agave-based spirit connected him to an industry trip to learn more about the distillation and bottling process.

On Wednesday, Lowenstein gets excited talking about riding motorcycles through the agave fields in Jalisco shared by Don Fulano and Fortaleza on the trip, and shows me a picture of a tattoo he has on his upper arm featuring a skull crowned with flowers and an agave rosette reminiscent of the hand-painted version on the top of Fortaleza bottles. He tells me that the best tequilas will be 100% agave with no additives, and adds a taster of Don Julio’s 1942 to the end of the line for comparison. The caramel-color additives give the 1942 a bit of sweetness, and after the more peppery depths of the others, I taste Lowenstein’s point. 

Lowenstein has been in Big Sky for three years, following general manager Ruth White from Hotel Joaquin to Lone Mountain Ranch. When White was opening The Independent, she knew she wanted Lowenstein and Michael Duke to run the bars.

“We have the best team in town,” Lowenstein says, insisting that everything they do is a group effort, from creating menus to infusing various spirits with other flavors. There are usually from three to nine different house-made infusions behind the bar, and they are constantly changing. 

Duke is behind the bar shaking drinks on Wednesday as Lowenstein opens a bottle of beer with the lid of a Luxardo cherry jar. They’ve been competing to see who can pop the most bottle caps without a tool specifically made for the purpose. Duke is losing spectacularly. 

Lowenstein jokes and talks with customers during trivia night in shoulder season. PHOTO BY RACHEL HERGETT

But it doesn’t seem to matter, and is maybe all part of the show. That show Wednesday included a Smirnoff Ice for one unsuspecting customer, who, with a bit of prompting, knelt and chugged it as is custom. There was also a round of Jell-O shots at the end of the night, with resounding cheers “To Zach.” Sometimes, Lowenstein said, asking “What do you want?” of a customer isn’t enough. And I understand why he poured me a tequila flight: He knew I would enjoy it.

“Bartending is about the ability to show someone a good time,” Lowenstein said. “It’s an experience.”

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