Southern California is home to a thriving cocktail culture. And coffee, and beer, and wine, and juice, I suppose, too, but let’s focus on the mixology for now. I want to highlight a location in four local counties where you are guaranteed to experience the state of the bartender’s art. And I’m going to recommend a particular cocktail at each.
Let’s begin in Orange County, which has made significant strides in recent years to its palate. Of course, any place you’re going to go is in a strip mall, but at least at The Blind Pig Kitchen + Bar, that strip mall is on the edge of a lake. The tavern overlooks Rancho Santa Margarita Lake, where runners and dog walkers abound. The food is some of the best you’ll find east of the 5 in the southern end of the county, and is worth the visit even if you don’t drink(?!?).
The cocktail program here is fascinating. It’s certainly not a Tiki bar, but there’s an element of Tiki energy that pervades the menu. Rum drinks have historically been a preferred tropical vacation beverage or, when paired with a cola soft drink, the domain of the uninitiated drinker. But rum represents a frontier that adventurous mixologists are exploring, and The Blind Pig is leading the way.
Try this: Men in Kilts, $15. It’s in the Big & Boozy section of the menu and features scotch, dry vermouth, Jamaican jerk turbo – no idea what turbo means in this context – cask-strength rye, amaro and bitters. And it’s stirred over a large cube of crystal clear ice.
Heading north, you’ll enter cocktail heaven: Los Angeles. This city deserves a lot of the credit for taking cocktail culture into the golden age we’re now living in. For the last couple of decades, L.A. has been home to some of the greatest innovators in this field, who are nothing short of artists. There was a time in which a cocktail menu was five drinks that had originated in the early or mid-20th century, and that was it, day in and day out. No seasonality, no fresh herbs, no craft spirits or artisanal bitters, no adventure, no fun.
West Hollywood is perhaps the epicenter of L.A.’s cocktail sphere, and you’ve got two boulevards to choose from: Sunset and Santa Monica. Formerly the Gold Coast Bar, the newly opened Or Bar is situated in the heart of WeHo, along SaMo Boulevard, and exists somewhere between the present day and peak 80s decadence. Gold is evident everywhere in the light of the ultra-luminous chandelier. This is a cocktail bar, as opposed to a bar that happens to serve cocktails. And that’s a big difference.
The martini menu is impressive and features a now-ubiquitous espresso martini, so you can get your caffeine fix along the way. There’s some good humor at play in the titles of the drinks, and in the ingredients, for that matter, as you may be surprised by some of the creative components.
Try this: Iris, $22. It’s two full ounces of Casamigos reposado tequila, butterfly tea (an herbal, non-caffeinated tea), fresh lime juice, Fever Tree grapefruit soda, and a splash of agave served over ice and garnished with a lemon half-wheel and blackberry.
We’re now on the 10, eastbound, and down for a cold drink in the desert of Riverside County. Welcome to Palm Springs. We’re on Palm Canyon Drive at a lovely French-inspired brunch joint (and dinner restaurant, although I haven’t been for that yet) called Farm. And it feels like you’re in the chef’s backyard. It may be triple digits out, but with the large umbrellas and the mist system overhead, it’s just pleasantly balmy.
Enjoy some savory crepes or a wild mushroom omelette while you’re here (in other words, don’t let them know I’m just sending you there to drink). The cocktails are far more sophisticated than the margaritas you’ve been day-drinking to beat the heat (it’s a rainy winter’s day as I write this, but let’s not nitpick). Everything on the menu feels quite herb- and fruit-forward but balanced to perfection.
Try this: Botanical Berry, $15. This winner of the 2019 Palm Springs Craft Cocktail Competition is composed of Peach-Orange Blossom Ketel One botanical vodka, lemon, sweet vermouth, housemade peach-mint puree, housemade blackberry agave, a dash of bitters and a splash of ginger beer. It’s served over a frozen watermelon cube and garnished with something just short of a fruit salad. You can also sub in bourbon. And you should. For your next round.
I’d say, settle in for a long drive up the coast, but you shouldn’t be behind the wheel at this point.
In my recent LaLascoop article about a Santa Barbara overnighter, I name-checked The Good Lion. Now, I’m going to show them some proper love. This bar at the northerly end of downtown, adjacent to the Granada Theater, is showing the wine snobs of Santa Barbara that there are more options to put in your glass than a red or white.
This place is a cozy little joint with a sophisticated array of spirits and feels light years away from the raucousness of lower State. Don’t worry, you can end up there later after you’ve begun to lose your sense of taste, and maybe dignity.
Try this: Magic Walnut Ride, $12. This elegant cocktail is served in a coupe glass and features Amaro Lucano, Nocino, Italian vermouth, Oloroso sherry and bitters. I believe it was garnished with an orange peel.
So, you’ll notice I drove right through Ventura County and didn’t stop for a drink. My apologies. I haven’t spent any time in Ventura since the pandemic broke out, so I need to get a lay of the land before I write about it. Ventura, feel free to reach out to me. Same deal, San Diego. I suppose I also could’ve covered San Bernardino or Kern counties, but I don’t feel that moonshine ‘n’ meth is a true cocktail. Hey, just kidding, you guys. Trying to keep it light. The fact is, I’ve only camped in those counties and have never done a proper visit. But who knows, maybe one of these days…
So Cal is Cocktail Country