Locals get nostalgic as they order classic cocktails with a spin.
By Laura Gosselin
In this seemingly futuristic era where tiny smartphones navigate us anywhere we want to go, our enthusiasm for “Mad Men” and vintage photo filters confirms we still can’t shake our affinity for the bow tie and the sound of record player static.
Enter the revival of the classic cocktail: From the Manhattan to the Old-Fashioned, these throwback drinks that all but disappeared in the 1980s and 1990s are reclaiming their place as permanent fixtures on bar menus. Proving that less is sometimes more, they require fewer ingredients than the complex cocktails of recent popularity.
Local mixologists are putting their own spin on these timeworn tipples to create old-meets-new libations. Here, we explore what’s shaking (or stirring) in the world of classic and reimagined cocktails at Laguna Beach watering holes.
A classic Old-Fashioned cocktail is an easy formula that has had several adaptations throughout the years. However, the proportions—and the care taken to combine the relatively simple ingredients—make all the difference.
Bartender Dan Vincent at 230 Forest Avenue has updated this traditional cocktail with some distinct adjustments, using Bulleit bourbon to infuse a refreshed flavor. (He notes that Bulleit also makes a rye whiskey if a spicy kick is preferred.) Dan uses orange-flavored bitters to add a little citrus zest, while the restaurant sources the best Italian Luxardo natural cherries to garnish the cocktail rather than the typical red-dyed maraschinos. For a finishing splash, Dan adds a spoonful of the Luxardo cherry syrup to give the drink a hint of sweetness.
“I’ve been shaking martinis at 230 Forest for over 20 years,” Dan says. “In that time, there have been several trends, … good and bad. It’s refreshing to see the current movement back toward the handcrafted cocktail.” Dan notes that, as a bartender, he appreciates the “New” Old-Fashioned for its simplicity, while guests love it for the flavor profile and craftsmanship.
The “New” Old-Fashioned is just one of several drinks on the restaurant’s menu that are inspired by vintage cocktails and re-imagined to give guests some unique choices. Others on the list include: the Moscow mule, an organic basil Collins, the Rock & Rye Maple Manhattan, BLT bloody mary and the establishment’s signature rosemary ginger lemon drop.
EnoSteak at the nearby Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel, has also embraced the trend toward classic cocktails by re-introducing some time-tested favorites onto its featured drink list. The Mexican Mule is a refreshing beverage with an added bite from fresh ginger beer and a cleansing mix of lime and carbonation. It’s strong enough to stand up to grilled steaks, but maintains a light finish to not overpower other menu items, which range from butter-poached lobster to au jus-glazed chicken breast. Delivering a softer side of tequila (made with Partida Reposado), the Mexican mule can be enjoyed by those with more discerning palates.
The restaurant’s classic cocktail menu doesn’t stop there. While gin has always been a liquor that people either love or hate, enoSteak’s basil gimlet may prove to those of the latter opinion that it can be remarkable. Using Hendrick’s gin, mixologists at the restaurant note how the fruity, floral profile of the gin transforms a traditional gimlet (gin or vodka and lime juice) into a more approachable, refreshing drink. Additionally, the establishment’s modern spin on a traditional sidecar (cognac, triple sec and lemon juice), has been given an infusion of passion fruit, adding a sweet side. EnoSteak also serves up a Champagne mint julep and a blood orange Old-Fashioned to round out its classics with a twist.
At Three Seventy Common Kitchen & Drink, the mantra is if the bartenders can make it in-house, it’s more authentic, delicious and rewarding. Classic cocktails are straight to the point—solid drinks that pack a punch without tons of sugar and fluffy garnishes. New techniques and flavorful adjustments elevate them from special to exceptional.
One such drink is Three Seventy Common’s barrel-aged Manhattan. Guests love it because it’s wonderful for sipping but also delivers a hearty kick of flavor. This Manhattan can make an appearance at any stage of the meal: It’s amazing as a starter cocktail, pairs excellently with the restaurant’s signature pork belly dish and is an ideal accompaniment to any dessert. The secret to its creation is quality bourbon, bitters and sweet vermouth—all lovingly aged. After taking a select bourbon and aging it in-house with sweet vermouth and bitters, the alcohol is stored in miniature oak barrels for about 90 days. The aging process imparts the sought-after toasty flavor and mellows out the bourbon. It’s served over a single large ice cube with a twist of orange.
“This drink is the cocktail that turns a bar patron into a regular,” notes Three Seventy Common bartender Tyler Benson.
Selanne Steak Tavern’s Moscow mule starts with premium Forty Degrees vodka, a clean and pure grain spirit imported from Russia. Ginger beer (not ginger ale, a common ingredient in mediocre versions of the cocktail), agave and freshly squeezed lime juice are added before the stirred cocktail is poured into a chilled copper mug garnished with a fresh lime. The restaurant’s owner and retired Anaheim Ducks hockey player Teemu Selanne claims this version of the Moscow mule as his favorite because of the strong ginger beer and traditional copper mug.
“There is a growing trend … for everyone to enjoy classic cocktails in all types of restaurants and bars, as well as a whole new crop of male and female bartenders who care about fresh ingredients, premium liquors and new and old-fangled techniques, recipes and garnishes,” says Selanne’s head bartender Neil Matchko. “We are a contemporary classic steak house and that includes a dedication to concocting classic cocktails with modern spins.”
The cocktail list at Broadway by Amar Santana is built on traditional drinks and techniques, with more than 150 classics in its collection ranging from Negronis to gin fizzes. In keeping with the establishment’s “modern cuisine of the Americas” style, Broadway’s Boulevardier variation uses all American ingredients: Angel’s Envy bourbon by Kentucky-based Louisville Distilling Co.; an aromatized wine, Petal and Thorn, by Imbue Cellars of Oregon; and a Campari trade-out—bitters by Breckenridge Distillery in Colorado.
Broadway bartender Michael Patrick Rooney credits the popularity of the restaurant’s bar menu to having the ability to adapt classic recipes based on guests’ preferences and palates. “Classic cocktailing is more about a depth of knowledge than anything,” he says. “In order to guide people from their old and faithful, it requires a strong knowledge of classic recipes.”
Michael notes that the revival of traditional drinks is less of a trend and more a growing awareness, similar to the farm-to-table food movement, as the general population has become significantly more cognizant of what they’re consuming.
As he explains, “People are gravitating toward properly made cocktails with fresh ingredients over the shots or concoctions of syrupy mix; … quality over quantity.”
In the spirit of throwback drinks, visit some of Laguna’s finest old-school establishments.
Dizz’s As Is: Walk through the French doors of a quaint, wood-shingled, 1920s house and sidle up to the bar of this small, intimate restaurant. The walls are adorned with old Hollywood photos and eclectic antiques, adding to the vintage charm.
Marine Room Tavern: This neighborhood bar dates back more than 75 years to 1934, and was reportedly granted the second liquor license in Laguna after Prohibition ended. Stop by for the stiff drinks, a game of pool and nightly entertainment.
The Saloon: A mahogany bar that dates back to 1906 lends a Wild West-like atmosphere with an Irish pub twist. Take advantage of the fully stocked bar and ask for a classic cocktail—you’ll feel right at home in this vintage establishment.
Sandpiper Lounge: Nicknamed the “Dirty Bird,” this local institution features live music every night. Established in 1942, the dive bar pays tribute to its history with framed military patches from World War II through the Vietnam War in memory of the servicemen credited with keeping the Sandpiper open during those years.
1 sugar cube
3 dashes orange bitters
1 Luxardo cherry
1 orange slice
¼ ounce simple syrup
2 ounces Bulleit bourbon
Ice, to taste
2 ounces soda water
In a mixing glass, muddle the sugar cube, orange bitters, Luxardo cherry, orange slice and simple syrup. Add ice and bourbon. Give it a single shake, then pour all contents into a 14-ounce bucket glass. Fill the glass with soda water.
(Recipe from 230 Forest Avenue)