It was almost a year ago now when I met Tuan Lee, one of the co-founders of LA’s freshest, and most original canned cocktails, Vervet. It was March 2020, the pandemic had just descended upon California, and due to social distancing guidelines, plenty of in-person meetings and events had turned into product drops left on my doorstep for editorial consideration. Except, most of those drops were done by messenger or delivery service, not by a founder themselves.
Instead of a quick exchange, Tuan and I stood and talked for close to a half hour about the origin stories of our brands, the fears we had as entrepreneurs with new companies and a looming economic crisis, and the importance of creating more diversity and inclusion in spaces like publishing and the cocktail world. It was one of the last times I got to meet someone “new” in 2020, and also one of my first experiences having a long outdoor conversation while wearing a mask. But what the interaction immediately communicated to me about Vervet is that it was a brand with an ethos that dovetailed with Cinnamon’s purpose, and that I wanted to be involved in their story and their growth.
A few days or weeks later — who can parse time anymore, especially when it was months ago — I hopped on a phone call with Hope Ewing, the other primary founder of Vervet, and the mixologist mastermind behind the four sparkling cocktail flavors and their freshness. Growing up just outside of Buffalo, New York, Ewing spent the better part of the 2000s in New York City, working at Williamsburg haunt Nita Nita and pursuing a Masters in Creative Writing at Columbia University. From 2003 to 2014 she soaked up the city, working in nonprofits that supported arts, doing grant writing and development, before eventually attending graduate school herself.
Though she’d worked in service jobs before — her first job was hostessing at a country club in Buffalo — this shift back to bartending was spurred by Ewing’s return to academics, and the need for flexibility and night shifts. Given her educational background, it’s no surprise that Hope’s elegy for Nita Nita when it closed in 2016 is a beautiful distillation of what a neighborhood bar can really be, and the inky possibilities that emerge within late night, manual labor-inspired epiphanies. Hope had already made her way to LA when that Brooklyn bar closed, but some of the spot’s DNA had traveled with her to California, where she began working at a restaurant called Messhall.
Part of the craft cocktail training at Messhall, a Los Feliz staple that Ewing describes as coming from the tradition of LA cocktail bars like The Varnish and Rivera (now closed), included memorizing close to a hundred drink recipes, both pre-prohibition standards and modern classics. This helped Ewing not only develop a palate and a preference for cocktail templates, but also realize she didn’t always want to go through the full process of making some of the more complex drinks at home.
“After a while it falls into template making,” she explained. “There’s different ratios of flavors that go into every single drink, and for the most part, they’re translatable. The aspect of having so many cocktails from so many different eras in my brain made it much easier and more exciting for me to say ‘these are the flavors that I want to drink.’ And… I don’t always want to make them at home.”
As her knowledge of cocktail-making was expanding, Hope began to get involved with the drinks-focused publication Punch as a contributing writer. By engaging with the history of different spirits and stories behind certain liquors, she began to expand her views on drinking and cocktail culture, too. “Writing about it was helping me better understand the culture,” she remembered. “The parts that I loved about dealing with spirits, which was not just the social aspect, but the culture and the history around different spirits, and the culinary aspect. I was coming to a point in my life where I was at an impasse about what to do next, and I realized I could put these two things — writing and cocktails — together.”
Eventually, casual freelancing for places like Punch, Serious Eats and Lit Hub turned into a more serious pursuit of writing about cocktails, and specifically about women’s place in the industry. In 2018, Hope published her first book, Movers And Shakers: Women Making Waves in Spirits, Beer & Wine through Unnamed Press, an independent LA-based publisher that emphasizes women and underrepresented voices. Speaking with lots of women in the spirit industry for her book also contributed to a desire to start a ready-to-drink cocktail, because it was a chance to separate the drink itself from the context of those bars, where not everyone feels safe or welcomed.
“There’s one thing that comes up over and over again, people don’t want to be defined by their gender in the context of their job,” she explained. “They want to be defined by their work. But there are undeniable, historic challenges and barriers to being a woman in a male-dominated field, which it still is, especially at the higher levels. So I also wanted to take this thing I loved out of the cocktail bar, out of a place where there are lots of people who might not feel comfortable in that scenario. Here’s something delicious, enjoy it wherever you want to enjoy it.”
So even as Hope’s career as an author began to unfold, the prospect of becoming an entrepreneur started to build as well. While the groundwork for the idea of creating fresh, locally-made canned cocktails was being laid, a lot of the momentum for launching Vervet came from her partner. “Tuan is the driving force and the ideas guy,” Hope said. “He came to me and was really passionate about building this, and I was on board. I was skeptical at first, because I was a bartender and I was like ‘no, everything has to be fresh, made from scratch, by hand, to order!’ But, I decided if we were doing ready-to-drink cocktails, I wanted them to all be really special and representative of what we love about Los Angeles — like the flavors we find at the farmer’s markets.”
There are four Vervet styles — and yes, the brand is named after these cheeky monkeys — and each flavor profile was influenced by a process Hope calls “neighborhood foraging.” As they began to ideate recipes she remembers “pinching trees and herbs on the side of the street to figure out ‘What is that smell that I’m smelling? And how do I bottle it?’” Around that same time, Hope happened to become obsessed with removing the solids from tomato juice to make clarified tomato water, a component that became the base for a most necessary savory flavor, The Pale Mary. This tomato water, and everything else that goes into their canned drinks, is made by Tuan and Hope first. Nothing is artificial, chemical, or dumped in out of someone else’s bottle.
“I was from a fresh cocktail tradition, so I wanted to do everything the hard way,” Hope laughs. “If we had been more savvy and been more experienced in ready-to-drink production, we might’ve thought twice about it. But we didn’t!” After learning some about the corporate world of packaging, artificial syrups and flavor labs, it took Tuan and Hope a while to find their perfect niche partnership: Ventura Spirits, the distillery who makes Wilder Gin, used as the base spirit in The Pale Mary, and were happy to let them make all their ingredients from scratch.
Tuan and Hope actually had to invent a lot of the methods they use to make Vervet work — that’s how rare it is for a canned cocktail to have 100% fresh ingredients. While most of us are happy to slurp down a White Claw or a Truly here and there (guilty!), I’m well aware that the chemicals and additives in those beverages aren’t ideal. But that corporate/commercial aspect of canned drinks felt like a necessary evil during a period when bars are closed. Vervet, on the other hand, doesn’t sacrifice the principles of craft cocktails in their production process. In fact, all of their ingredients are made locally, too.
“I made all the recipes at home,” Hope explained. “It was a year-plus development process of figuring out what would work, and what would be the most stable. I didn’t want to rely too much on using fresh citrus because that doesn’t age too well. We really had to get creative with how we were building flavor to make sure it was always on point. So I developed the recipe at home, and then I had to figure out how to get those ingredients on a mass scale. We had to build everything from the base spirits up, but we got complete control over the flavors that way.”
Aside from the savory Mary, which is a front-runner for my salt-loving palate, another personal favorite is the Angelicano. A red, bitter spritz in the Negroni style, this flavor uses their own homemade Killer Red Bitter (think the Campari family, but made in California) and other herbaceous notes like anise, hibiscus, and their own bianco vermouth. A step up from the Angelicano in citrus and fruit notes is the shrubby Sundowner, a tangier drink that also includes the bitter red base but veers off into champagne vinegar, vanilla, and even unexpected oak-y notes. It’s like if sparkling rosé went to the brink of acidic, then pulled back earthy and caramelized.
The last flavor stands on its own, breaking away from the herbaceous and bitter side of things and embracing the world of citrus. True to its name, Tiki Tea combines a hint of lime cordial with oolong tea, vodka, and ginger/allspice/clove triple threat that places it firmly in tropical drink territory. While this isn’t the flavor I gravitate toward, my Tiki-obsessed bartender brother declared it his favorite when we split a four-pack on a recent desert trip.
A conversation with him about the ability to have drinks of that quality while out on the road, led to discussion of a phenomenon that many bartenders know well. Going to a bar is an experience in itself, but aside from the memories, there isn’t a whole lot to show for a night out. Even for those who treasure the time spent, having an actual physical product — “evidence,” as Hope calls it — is a unique opportunity for a mixologist.
“Part of entering this ready-to-drink space was sort of about that,” she said. “How can I take this thing that I love and future-proof it a little bit? I think there’s something very beautiful about a night at a restaurant or a bar; it’s a sensory experience, but it’s ephemeral. It’s an experience, you have it, and then it’s gone. I do think chefs and bartenders are artists. At the best places, there’s an art to it. But unlike other artforms, you’re not left with any physical evidence. Part of founding Vervet was wanting to create a sense of permanence out of something that is, by nature, ephemeral.”
I’d be lying if I said that Vervet either captures or replaces what it feels like to spend the night at a bar when my brother is working, or that cracking one open mimics that euphoric feeling of a buzzed, post-work happy hour with friends. But it does offer a sense of sharing something local and thoughtful, the way the best cocktail bars do. And, it does provide an alternative to at-home drinking that isn’t wine or beer, and isn’t anchored by a colorless, tasteless grain alcohol.
The thoughtfulness embedded into the process of making this drink does more than just provide another alcoholic option, though. Vervet captures the soul of LA bartending and puts it in a can, preserving it, until we can safely gather in a dim-lit room again. But when we can, I’ll welcome the return of clattering shakers, sloshing spirits, and yes, possibly, the sound of a Sundowner cracking open. As this year of isolation and compromise changes us, some of those changes will be worth keeping.
Learn more about Vervet here.