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Last month at the 2012 Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards in New Orleans, Los Angeles cocktail bar The Varnish took home the trophy for the Best American Cocktail Bar, beating rivals Anvil Bar & Refuge in Houston, Clover Club in New York and Columbia Room in Washington DC.

The unassuming, speakeasy-esque cocktail bar, located in the back room of landmark restaurant Cole's French Dip and which features a rotating list of only five cocktails, lost out in previous years at the annual cocktail industry award to New York bars Death and Co in 2010 and Employees Only in 2011. This year, however, The Varnish garnered a big win for Los Angeles, which has been building its reputation from serving the vodka Red Bulls popular on Sunset Strip to a cocktail-serious destination.

The Varnish, brainchild of LA nightlife impresario Cedd Moses and renowned bartenders Eric Alperin and Sasha Petraske, both from Little Branch in New York, has been the go-to spot for cocktail enthusiasts, foodies and off-duty bartenders since it opened in 2009. Even though there is no sign marking the bar's location at the back of the restaurant, the 50-person space is so popular that there's often a waitlist to get in. Once inside, patrons have their choice of sitting in vintage, slatted-wood booths, which were resurrected from a New Orleans trolley graveyard, or standing at the bar to watch the skilled mixologists at work.

Although the short cocktail menu showcases unusual drinks like the Nice Legs -- made with gin, Barolo Chinato (an Italian digestive), Gentian (a bitter root) and orange peel -- many patrons will order a classic like an Old-Fashioned (bourbon whiskey, sugar, Angostura bitters, club soda and lemon peel) or leave their choice in the hands of the bartender. Simply tell them your favorite spirit (tequila, rum, whiskey, etc) and the taste profile you're looking for (such as bitter, sweet, citrusy) and they'll create your new favourite cocktail.

The Varnish is open every night from 7 pm to 2 am and has live music on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday nights.

Caroline Pardilla is the Los Angeles Localite for BBC Travel. She also writes Carolineoncrack.com.

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