By OC Weekly Staff
By Edwin Goei
By Edwin Goei
By Edwin Goei
By Edwin Goei
By Edwin Goei
By Kiera Wright-Ruiz
By Cleo Tobbi
Behind a long bar, Jason Schiffer pours applejack, Cynar, lemon juice and simple syrup into a shaker, the labels on the bottle turned out for everyone to see. He claps a cap on the shaker, and the dining room at 320 Main in Seal Beach rings with the sound of ice on metal. Conversations pause, heads turn as 60 or so pairs of eyes swing to him.
He opens the shaker with an audible pop, deftly strains the drink into an old-fashioned glass—a short, squat tumbler that fits ice cubes nicely for drinks served on the rocks—and sets a twist of grapefruit zest precisely on top of the protruding ice.
"What is that?" asks a man nursing what looks like a Jack and Coke.
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"A Michigander," Schiffer replies. "Want me to make you one?"
To drink one of these is to have your idea of what alcohol can do be forever transformed. Despite the fact that applejack is basically a stiff version of the juice you pack in your kid's lunch every day and Cynar is artichoke-flavored liqueur that only the Italians could invent (yes, seriously, artichoke), there wasn't a hint of Mott's or artichoke in the drink—just a homey, whiskey-like warmth, with hint of grassy mellowness. Schiffer positioned the grapefruit zest perfectly to stimulate your nose before you taste the drink, priming your palate with a hint of sour perfume.
It's a straightforward drink, yet in its divine taste floats the spark of revolution. Two years ago, Schiffer got together with Gabrielle Dion (then the bartender at Charlie Palmer, now at Laguna Beach's Broadway By Amar Santana) and Forrest Cokely, liquor specialist at Hi-Time Wine Cellars in Costa Mesa, to bemoan the state of the Orange County cocktail: the excess of artificially flavored liqueurs and neon-green margaritas; the flavored dessert drinks served in cocktail glasses; the foamy, sticky Manhattans that were more sludge than bourbon. The trio decided to meet every month to discuss liquors and technique, inviting other bartenders, liquor distributors and cocktail aficionados along and branding the invite-only events the Orange County Bartenders Cabinet (OCBC).
"People care about where their food comes from," says Schiffer. "They care about wine—it isn't just white Zinfandel anymore. When it comes to cocktails, people need to be just as aware of what they're drinking, and that means fresh juices, attention to technique and a diversity of spirits beyond high-end vodka that's been distilled too many times."
Now, at every gathering of the OCBC, at least 50 people listen to an invited liquor distributor lecture on particular alcohols, such as whiskey, cachaça or absinthe, as well as taste samples of the product line. The hosting bar staff makes cocktails and punches to show off the featured liquor and serves food to soak up the effects of too much Islay Scotch or mezcal. The presentation is followed by a vigorous discussion on technique, such as how to properly "spank" herbs to release essential oils, or a deep technical conversation about muddling herbs with sugar. From here, attendees spread the gospel of a well-crafted cocktail across the county, taking the lessons learned to their home restaurants and bars in Brea and Mission Viejo, Newport Beach and Yorba Linda, each bartender at each place pushing one another in a friendly competition for the salvation of county drinkers.
"The best thing about the Bartenders Cabinet is that if you don't know about something, then just ask," says board member Ricky Yarnall. At a recent meeting he hosted, he took small groups to the bar to demonstrate how to properly stir a drink, explaining it all depended on the vessel used, the kind of ice and the spoon. "We're always willing to help and educate; you just have to be willing to learn."
You can't attend an OCBC meeting, alas, unless you're in the industry. But we're bringing you the next-best thing: a Happy Hour on March 13 at Memphis At the Santora that features KCRW-FM 89.9's Good Food With Evan Kleiman. Four OCBC board members and another bartending star will offer samples of one of their creations free of charge. Yes: FREE. In this issue, you'll find mini-profiles of the participants, along with the recipes for the signature drinks they'll offer for Happy Hour. It'll be the classiest tipple since the season finale of Downton Abbey.
We have great bartenders in OC who are only getting better with every OCBC meeting, people. Who knows? Maybe one day there'll be a bar in every town at which the vermouth is kept in the refrigerator and sticky, sweet bottles of lime-juice concentrate are nowhere to be found. And there's nothing elitist about the OCBC wanting you and me to drink well. "Nobody," says Matt "Rumdood" Robold, a bartender at 320 Main, "should ever be more than 10 minutes from a great cocktail."
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320 Main St., Seal Beach, (562) 799-6246; www.320mainsealbeach.com.
Jason Schiffer started out as a "flair" bartender at the Voodoo Room at the Rio in Las Vegas, making drinks with a lot of flourish, as much entertainment as liquor (think juggling cocktail shakers and lighting bars on fire). Nowadays, he stirs drinks with just enough noise to call your attention but without hamming it up.