Mixologists at the best Orange County cocktail destinations reveal what turns them on—and off— when it comes to cocktails.
By Benjamin Epstein
How do mixologists come up with their cocktails? What on others’ lists irks them? And what’s on the horizon? We ponder these questions while sipping such concoctions as Flower Power and Belly of the Beast at our favored five cocktail destinations; their mixologists provide the answers. First, alphabetically by venue, some background.
Andrei’s Conscious Cuisine & Cocktails in Irvine offers striking decor, conscientiously created American fare by French chef Yves Fournier and globally inspired cocktails. Cocktail picks: Algerian Boulevard, with Absolut citron vodka, blackberries, lemon juice, basil leaves, agave nectar, ginger ale splash; Chilean Spice, with spicy citrus-infused vodka, muddled orange, agave nectar, lime, homemade sweet ‘n’ sour.
Chef Amar Santana has opened Broadway by Amar Santana in Laguna Beach, offering sophisticated American fare and two cocktail menus: house and classic. Picks: Sergio Leone No. 2, with Bulleit rye whiskey, Luxardo morlacco, Averna amaro, mesquite smoke infused and sage-leaf garnish; Hops and Gin, with Dutch-style, Gran Classico bitters, grapefruit and lemon juices, agave nectar, IPA and grapefruit-peel garnish.
Chapter One, a library-themed spot in Santa Ana, presents novel American cuisine and an eclectically inspired Culinary Cocktails list. Picks: Belly of the Beast, with house-made bacon bourbon, Luxardo cherry liqueur, Dolin vermouth and Kampot peppercorn tincture; Ridin’ the Night Train, with Aviation gin, blackberry liqueur, allspice dram and velvet falernum.
Chic and stylish Charlie Palmer at Bloomingdale’s South Coast Plaza offers exceptional modern American dishes by chef Sea Kyeong Kim and elegant cocktails to match. Picks: Vino Fresco, with Grey Goose vodka, basil, grapes and lime; Blood Orange Mojito, with Bacardi rum, lime, blood orange, mint and soda.
Stellar Cal-French cuisine by Chef Craig Strong at Studio, at the Montage Resort & Spa in Laguna Beach, deserves stellar cocktails; many are made with fruits, vegetables and herbs from the garden that is steps from the door. Picks: Spicy Ginger, with Bols genever, ginger beer, crushed jalapeños, velvet falernum and sparkling water; Kentucky Reserve, with Woodford Reserve bourbon, kumquats, tarragon, raw sugar and a splash of ginger ale.
Andrei’s owner Natalia Olenicoff
Broadway Gabrielle Dion, Ricky Yarnell
Chapter One owner Jeff Hall, chef Ryan Velilla
Studio Tashina Bross
Where does a new cocktail begin?
Olenicoff/Andrei’s: Travel. Many of of our drinks are named for places where I’ve been inspired by the flavors and spices. It starts with one ingredient I’m struck by. The fun part is finding what complements it, trying different concoctions. Our new Flower Power uses Buzz Buttons, tiny edible flowers that create a tingling sensation in the mouth, like Pop Rocks–a real conversation starter on a date! It’s like cooking–we look at dynamic flavors and use them in unexpected ways.
Bross/Studio: Passion! Desire! The right ingredients! The Studio garden is 20 feet from my bar, so I always have fresh herbs and fruits and vegetables to inspire me. I love to see what others are doing. The presentations–a copper mug from the 1930s, a sugar cube and flame, the edible pansy. People say, “Whoa, what is that, what are those people drinking?” I recently saw a Moscow Mule at Broadway in a copper mug, and I said, “All right, let me have one!”
Whorley/Charlie Palmer: Fresh ingredients. A mental picture– sitting on a patio, being on a beach. That might lead to citrus and cucumber, light and refreshing. Very different pictures for the late-night cocktails–dark liquors, brandied cherries, burnt oranges, actually lighting the orange zest….
Velilla/Chapter One: A new ingredient, the season, something I smell in the kitchen. Sometimes nothing more than a play on words and I flip into creative mode.
Where do you go from there?
Hall/Chapter One: We want every drink to have a three-part complexity, to drink like a wine. You’ve got your initial flavor, a middle where it develops, and a great lingering finish. That concept helps us when a cocktail is not quite there yet–it might start out great, but the finish is blah. It’s our litmus test in determining when it’s ready to be one of our Culinary Cocktails.
What are your pet peeves on others’ lists?
Velilla: Simple syrup is in every drink. Fruity-beachy-omigosh-this-is-undrinkable drinks. No natural ingredients. You want raspberry? Bam, raspberry syrup! That bothers me.
Hall: I want the bar to up to the level of the bar list. they offer classic Prohibition cocktails, then they slam them together and dump them out like a factory. I love that the [Prohibition-cocktail] movement is permeating the corporate chains. I don’t love that the drinks end up being kiddie-frou-frou. If you don’t have the right tools, or respect, or right glass for that cocktail, why bother?
Whorley: They don’t use brandied cherries for a Manhattan, just maraschino cherries like a Shirley Temple. Or just doing the standard, citrus and liquor and nothing else.
Bross: The same thing all the time. Lemon drop, Red Bull and vodka–same ingredients, different name. You don’t need to be a bartender to put those together!
Gabrielle Dion/Broadway: The pointless mixing of base spirits. There has to be meaning behind it–not because it sounds cool.
What trends are you embracing?
Dion: We hand-juice every single day. That’s a corner a lot of places cut–some places juice at the beginning of the week and use it all week!
Ricky Yarnell/Broadway: Cocktails on draft. Carbonate it, put it in a stainless-steall keg, dispense it from a tap. Ours is the first in Orange County for sure.