Bernard Lax is riding a big change in the spirits world. The founder of KIN White Whiskey, Lax revamped your typical 'moonshine' into a refined and adventurous product--helping reshape the category in the process. Claiming to be "interchangeable with vodka, gin and rum," KIN packs all the punch of your standard 80-proof alcohol without the bite of its predecessors. KIN's new-age taste and old-school rebellious culture is making its way across Southern California restaurants and retailers.
KIN also exemplifies the significant role that branding plays in the food & beverage world. While Lax has created a heck of a product, he doesn't come from a distilling background. He comes from a marketing background, and that's exactly how he discovered the niche for KIN to establish itself as an industry leader.
I had the opportunity to speak with Lax about the past, present and future for KIN White Whiskey. His insights make for an excellent case study on how to crack into such a competitive market
How did you develop the idea for KIN?
"It started with a friend based in Cartersville, Georgia, who used to bring in some ‘less than legal’ whiskey that came from down south. Most people had made [commercial moonshine] on more of a kitschy type of situation, and we thought there was a market to make a premium version of the product. We're taking a legacy element of the US and turning it into a premium product."
"One of the issues with most white whiskeys is that they’re pretty harsh, so we made it more drinkable and easier to be mixed. It’s how it should taste. We fought for two years with the TTB* to call it white whiskey rather than moonshine. We're definitely not the first moonshine, but as soon as we got white whiskey approved, a bunch of people jumped on the bandwagon."
Who is your target consumer?
"Our demographic is the 21 – 40-year old risk taker and innovator. Spanning across sexes, they live an alternative lifestyle...more of a Kurt Cobain type, Someone who sees the world differently. Everyone pretends they’re a nonconformist until they walk up to a bar and order vodka.We're after someone who likes to discover, someone who takes a chance. We want people to ‘discover’ [KIN]. We want the people who ‘get it,’ someone who wants to try something else."
What inspired KIN's "proud to be immature" brand culture?
"White whiskey was derived from people who don’t follow the rules. It's the whole aspect of not following the rules, of being different. Marketing a product that doesn’t easily fit into a category is what we’re all about.
Where can we find KIN right now?
"We’ve targeted very specific locations in LA and San Diego. We're preparing a sales performance outlook to present to distributors. We started in California because we knew we needed to prove there was a market, and many core customers live here. Liquor stores are our weakness. They’re more ‘service by distributors, but those who carry [KIN] sell a lot of it. We'll also be online soon"
KIN is currently served at The Churchill, Hutchinson, Barrel & Ashes, Sonny’s Hideaway Highland Park, Standard Rooftop Bar, Porta Via, Justice Urban Tavern, Public School 213, Sixth Street Tavern, Kitchen24 and Cliff’s Edge. Retailers include Almor Wine and Spirits, Keg ‘N Bottle and MiniBar Delivery
Where do you see KIN going from here?
"We see ourselves with distributors in every state eventually. Our goal is to get a 6-pack case in as many places as we can so that we can build ourselves in as many markets as possible. We want to be the product where [restaurants] go through a case every week. We’re doing that in restaurants right now. I don’t see our product as being on the shelf. I see it as what reach for when they’re making a martini. [KIN is] something fun to mix, shoot...more versatility than other product. The people we compete against, you can’t use their stuff in a mixed drink.
*The TTB is the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, which oversees labeling and classification [among other items].
Mi Piace has been a staple of Old Town Pasadena for about as long as restaurants have stood on Colorado Blvd. A combination of aesthetic experimentation and culinary genius are undoubtedly two of the biggest reasons that this Italian haute spot has been serving patrons for 30 years and counting, with no signs of slowing down. This is a rare scenario where modern design, contemporary ambiance and a timeless menu that embodies authentic Italian classics come together in perfect harmony. Dare I name Mi Piace as one of the top Italian restaurants in Los Angeles.
Mi Piace is made to feel like a home away from home for anyone who walks through its doors. On the surface, the chic pendant lighting, beautifully-lit bar and dark wooden tables sans white table cloths could be mistaken for just about any other trendy spot that doles out new-age fusion. But there’s more to this ambiance than good looks. It’s an intangible warmth typically reserved for coming home for the holidays or seeing a good friend for the first time in years. It’s the genuinely welcoming tone you get from everyone on staff. It’s the smile that comes not just from you upon first bite, but also from everyone on the team that brought that dish into the world just for you. That familial Italian hospitality is becoming harder and harder to find in LA, but has found sanctuary within these four walls.
And while classic Italian doesn’t seem to be enough in an era of global fusion, Mi Piace shines with its iconic menu, where traditional classics have aged like a fine wine. Reading more like a novel than a menu, the seemingly endless list of handmade pastas, wood-fired pizzas, and meat and seafood specials holds an identity far stronger and a level of flavor far more developed than the typically narrow and terse selection of trendy ingredient combinations you’ll find on a clipboard in some of your nearby counterparts. Let’s digress no further on the new kids on the block thought. Let’s talk about how Mi Piace has helped establish Old Town Pasadena as a culinary powerhouse for decades.
Unquestionably, the pasta is going to be memorable to say the least. Mi Piace features two entirely separate selections, one of pasta made from scratch in house, and another of pastas imported from the motherland. Among the many highlights here is the tagliatelle con gamberi, boasting handmade spinach tagliatelle that holds perfect texture and earthy character, soaking up a rich cognac cream sauce and pairing with perfectly-cooked prawns. Then there’s the spaghetti a la carbonara, another impeccably delightful creation that brings together rich pancetta and peas that snap open with even the softest bite.
For something on the meatier side, look no further than the pork ragu papperdalle Bolognese, with mile-long house-made pappardalle woven into a hearty Moroccan-spiced meat sauce with a touch of fleur de sel. Conversely, on the lighter side (but far from light, in traditional Italian fashion) is the ravioli al burro, or handmade butternut squash and ricotta-filled ravioli with roasted sage sitting in a brown butter sauce.
For those crazy enough to divert from pasta, pizza proves to be a lovely suitor, with fresh ingredients atop a perfectly blistered crust. The mixed mushroom pizza with ricotta and micro greens was something else, but with a long list of toppings and endless custom options, there should be a pizza for everyone here.
And while Mi Piace could easily stick to a traditional Italian wine list, they really go the extra mile in their cocktail program. The food menu may pay homage to purebred Italian history, but their futuristic drink menu can go head-to-head with just about any young gun in SoCal. Try the smoke in the water, a martini at heart but an Instagrammer’s dream in presentation, served over a fishbowl-looking base lined with dry ice to make the drink look like a medieval potion. There’s a gin and tonic that changes colors before your eyes, spritzers served in simply the coolest glasses, and so much more on this dazzling list that assures you this place may have been around for 30 years, but has unquestionably ‘gotten with the times.’
Then there’s dessert, where at Mi Piace, there’s always room for chocolate soup. Described as part souffle, part molten chocolate lava cake, it looks like the former and tastes like the latter. Every bite is like an entire chocolate bar just went and melted on your spoon, with vanilla gelato and fresh whipped cream pairing like a charm. But it doesn’t stop there. Creations like the almond rocha cake and the Mi Piace special—chocolate and raspberry mousse layered between white cake, wrapped in white chocolate and topped with French raspberry marmalade—are made to look beautiful and taste even better.
Mi Piace is located at 25 E Colorado Blvd, Pasadena, CA 91105. Open 11a – 11p Mon – Thu, 11a – midnight Fri, 8a – midnight Sat and 8a – 11p Sun. Avg. out-the-door price for appetizer, entrée, split dessert and 1 – 2 drinks is ~$90/person. For more information, call (626) 795-3131 or visit MiPiace.com.
The Blind Pig attained regional acclaim in Rancho Santa Margarita for its flavorful twists on classic dishes. Now, Executive Chef Karl Pfleider and Bar Manager Ryan Autry have expanded their knack for new American flavor and artful execution to Yorba Linda, where the restaurant’s second location has been received with overwhelming praise. The place was popping—popping!—on a Sunday night, traditionally among the slowest times for a restaurant, demonstrating that The Blind Pig is satisfying a long-time local thirst for culinary novelty and innovation.
The new dining room is a big step up from the RSM location in terms of capacity, but plays to the same loose speakeasy theme, putting the bar at center stage amidst a surrounding perimeter of chic tables and comfortable booths. Servers have just enough room to maneuver between bargoers captivated by whatever game is playing on TV and high-energy groups reaching for the next small plate on the table. A lovely patio adds further seating and perhaps a quieter environment than the comradery taking place inside.
While the bar is the physical focus of The Blind Pig, Autry and his team have crafted a cocktail, beer and wine program to walk the walk. Pages and pages of artful cocktails, separated by different categories and cleverly labeled with flavor profiles to ensure patrons get exactly what they’re looking for, make up the majority of the leather-bound drink book (yes, it’s more of a book than a menu…quite a good read!). The socialite, made with vodka, aperol, strawberry rose, prosecco and lemon, lives up to its claim of ‘fruity and effervescent’ while the real Vinnie holds distinct sweetness to mask an otherwise potent bite. If you feel like splurging, the high roller cocktails are a fun venture into the unknown, with creations like the billionaire and ‘a damn good margarita’ bringing nuanced flavors.
The food menu is every bit as creative, with items like chicken lollipops and pork back ribs coming out with sauces that play with heat, sweet and tang in a way that holds onto each dish’s flavor foundation while deviating from the norm enough to raise eyebrows and beg the question of ‘what’s in this that I haven’t had before?’ Same goes for the short rib tacos, where Chef Pfleider has perfected the ability to inject every bit of umami flavor into those short ribs and compile them with a mystical combination of creamy, crunchy and hearty additives, served atop a perfectly robust tortilla. Then there’s the hot chicken, a trend that’s sweeping Southern California but one that The Blind Pig can own long after the fad is gone with its just-spicy-enough sauce, excellent crunch and sizeable Texas toast that it’s served on. And whatever you may order, pair it with a side of fries with heavenly garlic aioli or some killer kimchi fried rice.
If you have room for dessert, those melt-in-your-mouth churros served over rich panna cotta are sure to please. Or maybe you’ll cap the night with another one of those intricate cocktails.
The Blind Pig Yorba Linda is located at 4975 Lakeview Ave, Yorba Linda, CA 92886. Open 3 – 11p Mon – Wed, 3p – 12 midnight Thu, 3p – 1a Fri – Sat and 3 – 10p Sunday. Avg. out-the-door price for appetizer, entrée and 2 drinks is ~$90/person. For more information call (714) 485 – 2593 or visit TheBlindPigOC.com/Yorba-Linda
Benjamin Brown is a seasoned restaurant writer and hospitality consultant, serving up SoCal's hottest food news and reviews.