Although we've been boozehounds here at SaFII since forever, 2012 was the year where we really took off and became full-fledged drinkers. Not only did we hold an epic Happy Hour with KCRW and the OC Bartender's Cabinet (and stand by for the next one...) but we began reporting on alcohol as its own serious subject worthy of admiration.
As a result, we drank. A lot. Especially me. Right now on my desk, I have two bottles of bourbon, five bottles of tequila, a bottle of gin, and a tall boy of Fernet Branca--and this doesn't count the Weekly's official booze table or my own private stash. They are all bottles for consideration, or bottles I received as Christmas presents, or bottles I bought meself--mucho drinking ahead for 2013! But here are my top 5 picks for 2012.
5. Death's Door Gin
As I explained in my original review, I'm not a gin man--that would be my best friend Art, who drinks so much that his liver is now British. But of all the spirits I reviewed this year, Death's Door Gin was the best: not just a great gin but spectacular, so florid and nuanced that it can turn anyone into a gin man--but only this one. Man, the Negroni that Death's Door can make... Available at Hi-Time Wine Cellars, 250 Ogle St., Costa Mesa, (949) 650-8463; www.hitimewine.net.
4. Widow's Kiss at Broadway by Amar Santana
This one is currently off the menu, as head bartender Gabrielle Dion is on maternity leave (congrats, Gabby!), but it's a stunner: Calvados, Benedictine, yellow Chartreuse, bitters, and an orange rind. As Dave wrote, "Any of those three would be a flavor punch upside the head, meant to be drunk as digestifs, helping a stereotypically huge and rich French dinner down, but together they complemented each other well. The reaction from other patrons at the bar was immediate; after I let people take a straw's worth of the cocktail, at least one other order for a Widow's Kiss went in."
I was there. And I concur. 328 Glenneyre St., Laguna Beach, (949) 715-8234; www.broadwaybyamarsantana.com.
3. Frisco at Chapter One: The Modern Local
This SanTana spot is so damn crowded that it's doubly amazing that their drinks always come out stiff, subtle, and super, but quality here never suffers, and the bartenders are always creating new concoctions. And the best of the bunch is the Frisco: Templeton Rye, Benedictine, and lemon--nothing more, nothing less. Almost like a simpler Widow's Kiss, now that I think of it. The sweetness of the Benedictine, tempered with the tartness of the citrus and that gorgeous Templeton, makes the results taste like a fabulous punch. A very dangerous drink that'll get you telling the wife of the guy you just spent half an hour debating the finer points of the Second Amendment that she's hot--not that I would know that, of course. 227 N. Broadway, SanTana, (714) 352-2225; www.chapteronetml.com.
2. Something That Jason Schiffer of 320 Main Made with Mezcal
Schiffer shouldn't even be on this list--in fact, I officially retire 320 Main from any future Top 5 Cocktails of the Year lists, only because these guys are so badass that there is simply no competition when you involve these guys. This is how talented Schiffer is: one night, I asked him to make something with mezcal that wasn't too alcoholic. I said this because I was drunk out of my box (didn't drive, though) and didn't want anything too heavy on the hooch, but nevertheless subtle. Ah, the requests of the town drunk...and Schiffer complied with a simple creation of mezcal, chocolate, and something else. I can't remember the name, forgot to take a picture, yet that drink has stuck with me all of this year. 320 Main St., Seal Beach, (562) 799-6246; www.320mainsealbeach.com.
1. Anything by Jefferson Van Billiard at Memphis at the Santora
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I'm also retiring my regular watering hole, Memphis at the Santora, from these Top 5 lists, but I had to rank Jefferson at the top, not just because of his amazing abilities with any liquor, but for his fabulous story. I remember this kid from Phelan--fucking Phelan; who the fuck comes from Phelan?!--a couple of years back starting at Memphis as a waiter, a jovial but humble kid from the desert--fucking Phelan!!!--who was in awe of the big city. I saw him slowly transition to behind the bar, absorbing all the knowledge bartending legends Johnny Sampson, Dave Mau, and Ricky Yarnell instilled into their young ward. I saw Jefferson apprentice under them all, then get his own nights, then take over Wednesdays, then get the weekend shift, and now see him as the bar manager for Memphis. And all along, I've seen Jefferson's humility stay the same as he's experimented like Tesla (the mad scientist, not the car maker) and seen his reputation grow. Anything this kid--from fucking Phelan!--makes is gold, and he's learning every week. How talented is he? We named him Best New Bartender this year--and it wasn't me who wrote that blurb.
Congrats, Jefferson. And don't let the siren song of Los Angeles lure you away from us... 201 N. Broadway, SanTana, (714) 564-1064; www.memphiscafe.com