Drinking Local

Jeffery Lindenmuth - June 2006

Fresh from California comes the regional American cocktail.

For an elite bartender working in Manhattan, the shift might begin by slicing garnishes, squeezing fresh citrus, and chipping away at blocks of ice. For Scott Beattie, mixologist at Cyrus, located in Healdsburg, California, in the heart of Sonoma wine country, it begins with a visit to his father's house, where he helps himself to armfuls of sunshine yellow Meyer lemons, which he'll squeeze—to order—while mixing his Meyer Beautiful cocktail.

David Embury, a favorite figure of the urban cocktail cognoscenti, admonished bartenders in his 1948 classic, The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, "And when I say to use only freshly squeezed fruit juices, I mean squeezed when you make the cocktail—not the day before, not an hour before, not even a half-hour before." Sadly, it remains impractical, if not impossible, to squeeze juice to order in a bustling metropolitan bar. But growing up in post–Alice Waters California, the 29 year old Beattie instinctively brings the freshness, the immediacy, of northern California cuisine to all of his cocktails. When the Meyer lemons disappear, so too will the Meyer Beautiful.

Beattie believes winter in California is the best time in the best place to be a mixologist. The bartender's favorite bounty literally grows on trees, and he has six varieties of citrus in his own backyard. But even after the Rio Red grapefruits and Satsuma mandarins have faded, he finds plenty of flavors to forage. "We have all this amazing produce, so I try to source everything I can locally and use only what is in season," says Beattie, echoing the fresh food philosophy that ignited here decades ago.

For his spring cocktails, he enlisted Love Farms, an organic farm located four blocks from Cyrus, to cultivate herbs he personally selected, varieties like spearmint and lemon balm, cilantro and Thai basil. "They grow a type of cinnamon basil and the most beautiful mint I've ever seen. I have them plant what I need, so that every day I can stop by and trim fresh herbs. It takes just 10 minutes, and I have these beautiful herbs in glass jars sitting on top of my bar," says Beattie.

When a customer orders a Balmy Spring, Beattie simply snips a handful of spearmint and lemon balm. Eschewing the bartender's muddler for a chef's knife, he makes a hasty herb chiffonade and combines it in a shaker with 1 1/2 ounces Junipero Gin, 1/2 teaspoon kaffir lime zest, and 1/2 ounce cucumber-infused simple syrup. After shaking with ice, he serves the refreshing drink over ice topped with seltzer. By midsummer the cocktails at Cyrus are brimming with heirloom tomatoes and raspberries, often picked minutes before mixing.

Beattie's great co-conspirator in the California cocktail movement is Duggan McDonnell, who recently left his position as cocktail consultant at Frisson in San Francisco. The duo put in frequent shifts at each other's bars and spend the weekends trolling the farmers' markets together. "There's a local style for sure," says McDonnell. "It's sort of based here in northern California. But there's also a lot of local agriculture in Oregon and Washington, so there is good work being done in Seattle and Portland too."

McDonnell doesn't enjoy the same pick-your-own access as Beattie, but he still focuses on local produce, like a cucumber/honeydew puree that he combines with Hangar One Kaffir Lime vodka, Cointreau, and the essential oil of spearmint in his Fountain of Youth cocktail. "I've been criticized for being overly influenced by Jamba Juice," jokes McDonnell, referring to the chain of smoothie bars, popular among health-conscious Californians.

In fact, McDonnell puts an equal amount of effort into his nonalcoholic drinks, creating "elixirs" that blend fruits and honey, green tea and herbs, and boast juice bar–worthy names like Vitality, Zen High, and Blackberry Burst. "It's a liability not to have nonalcoholic drinks. I want to offer something health-conscious, something for the people who are pregnant, who don't drink alcohol, or have kids who want to try a great drink," says McDonnell.

While Beattie focuses on fresh herbs, in season, McDonnell deals in drops of pure essence, like mint or litsea cubeba, a tropical plant with a pepper-shaped lemony tasting berry that is more familiar to massage therapists. It's a page taken, literally, from the book by Frisson's opening chef, Daniel Patterson, who penned Aroma: The Magic of Essential Oils in Food and Fragrance with perfumer Mandy Aftel.

Other San Francisco chefs have also inspired the adventurous McDonnell, who is known to squirt squid ink into a Martini. "I would say I am more inspired by chefs than other barmen. I treat my bar like a kitchen, and I love reading food menus like Michael Mina's. The menu is written so well that it's simply great reading. I modeled my cocktail menu after that. It should seduce the reader."

The friends' near fanatical passion for local ingredients also includes the spirits they use. "Whether it's pastis, rum, whiskey, gin or brandy, we have a potpourri of spirits all made within 30 miles of each other," says McDonnell. "That doesn't exist anywhere else in the world." If the borders of California were sealed tomorrow, happy hour would go right on.

Anchor Distilling in San Francisco provides superb, spicy rye whiskies and dry gin. Hangar One in Alameda crafts flavored vodkas using only real fruit like raspberries from Washington State as well as a wasabi infused vodka. Domaine Charbay Winery and Distillery, overlooking Napa Valley, specializes in liquid exotica like Tahitian Vanilla Bean Rum, Green Tea Vodka, and pastis. There's even sweet and dry vermouth, Vya, from Quady Winery in the Central Valley.

Just like small family farm products, the boutique spirits can be pricey. Hangar One's vodkas are $30 per bottle wholesale. However, Beattie has a solution that allows him to price every cocktail at Cyrus at a very reasonable $10. "I actually cut it 50-50 in many drinks with regular Smirnoff, which wholesales for $11. I find the flavors of these products are so good that a little goes a long way. Cutting it saves me money and also lets the other ingredients shine," says Beattie.

Of course, some imported spirits do appear in the drinks, especially European standards like Cointreau and Cynar. However, Beattie makes every effort to avoid artificial colors and flavors, passing on rainbow-hued schnapps and trendy pomegranate liqueurs. When he desires blue color in a cocktail, he reaches for an iris flower, not blue Curaçao. To impart a red luster to his Rhubarbarella, he adds cooked red beets to rhubarb/ginger simple syrup.

This autumn, McDonnell will open Cantina, a San Francisco cocktail lounge that celebrates the Latin cultures of the world "from Mallorca to Mexico." Cantina will serve both local wine and spirits, occasionally even in the same glass, as McDonnell adds Orange Muscat to a Manhattan, Riesling to a Margarita, and late-harvest Sémillon to one of his many takes on a Daiquiri.

"Our drinks are recipe driven and seeking balance, but where Scott and I are different [from other bartenders] in our use of local products is understanding the quality of the product and how it relates to our community and its economy," says McDonnell.

Celebrating its 200 birthday this year, the cocktail, that great American invention, is today more global than ever. You can order a Mint Julep in New York City, a Margarita in Rome, or a Mojito in Madrid, and no one bats an eye. New York and London cocktails may still boast the greatest selection of fine imported spirits and obscure ethnic ingredients, but just as California chefs renewed the notion that the food we eat should reflect a sense of place, their bartenders now serve us the regional American cocktail.