When we lived in Fullerton, our two favorite reasons to head into downtown were for The Reagan Years and Steamers. Our arcade may be long gone, but the independent coffeehouse breathes new life in the evening, thanks to Lucie Wood and Sean Schickling. For a brew more potent than espresso, this duo will conjure up something to suit all tastes. We modify this week's
interrogation questionnaire to match their expertise.
Most undervalued ingredient in a bar: Lucie Wood: The basics - freshly squeezed juices and real cane sugar. They are essential to making great cocktails, but we also like to keep an assortment of seasonal fruits and vegetables on hand (for when we want to improvise). It allows the guest to improvise, too; people respond well to fresh ingredients. Even something as simple as a cucumber daiquiri or a margarita with muddled strawberry can convert the non-believer into a serious cocktail lover.
Sean Schickling: Hands down, fresh produce. In the culinary world, using fresh, locally-sourced ingredients isn't a trend-- it's par for the course. Why should cocktails be any different?
Favorite places to eat: Wood: The Cat and the Custard Cup in La Habra, for their seared scallops. And Langer's Deli in Downtown LA. The #19, every time.
Schickling: I agree, but for me, nothing beats burgers and beer. I like the Burger Parlor in Fullerton and the Bottle Room in Uptown Whittier.
Was Steamers ever a coffeehouse? Schickling: It still is, in the daytime. It's like a cross between Thunderdome and Mos Eisley Cantina. Do certain drinks go well with certain types of music? Schickling: Absolutely; that's one of the reasons we chose to do this cocktail program at Steamers. Jazz and cocktails have a shared history. The birth of jazz was fueled by cocktails in the speakeasies of New York and Chicago. It's no coincidence that the Prohibition Era and the Jazz Age are one and the same.
What do most bartenders do wrong when making drinks? Wood: Free-pouring. It's very common, and even some bartenders who use fresh ingredients and know their classics still do it. The problem is it's inconsistent. Counting doesn't work; different spirits pour at different rates, and it's easy to pour too much of one and too little of another.
The key to a great cocktail is balance, and the key to a good bar is consistency. There's nothing worse than ordering a drink from one bartender and enjoying it, then ordering a second one from another bartender and it's completely different. That's why we feel it's vitally important to use measuring tools. I say, nine times out of ten, if you see your bartender pouring two bottles at once (or worse, four), it's probably best to just order a beer.
Schickling: Good spirits are the foundation for great cocktails, but most bars mix with the cheapest swill they can find. Using high-quality spirits is just as important as using fresh ingredients.
Best tip for the home bartender: Wood: Don't waste money buying expensive mixers. It's easy to make your own grenadine and infused simple syrups, and it's way more fun than buying it.
Schickling: If you're looking for all those wonderful, obscure spirits you read about in books, Hi-Time Wine Cellars in Costa Mesa is the place to go.
Where was your most recent cocktail? Wood: Dark & Stormy, poolside at the Ace Hotel in Palm Springs Schickling: I had a barrel-aged Mai Tai at Sassafrass in Hollywood. Innovative and inspiring. Also, delicious.
What are Straight No Chaser Sundays? Wood: On Fridays and Saturdays at Steamers, it's basically a concert. There's a cover charge; it's crowded. We wanted Sundays to have a more relaxed, low-key atmosphere. There's no cover charge on Sundays, and we feature some really exceptional music. We have a great New Orleans-gypsy jazz group called the Manouche Troubadours, and an organ trio called 2+1B3 who do a cool, 60's Jimmy Smith thing. It's a nice way to end the weekend.
Weirdest customer request (and did you do it?): Wood: I had a guy ask for Black Label and Red Bull. Fortunately for him, we don't carry Red Bull. I think he settled for a Scotch and Soda.
Schickling: Recently, someone ordered a Van Winkle and Coke. I poured the Van Winkle, neat, and gave him a glass of Coke on the side, so he could taste the bourbon straight before deciding whether or not to mix it with Coke. Thankfully, he did not.
Strangest thing you've ever sipped: Wood: Our reps bring us all kinds of awesome spirits to taste, but sometimes they bring in bizarre new products, and we try them purely out of curiosity. Cognac-infused vodka comes to mind.
Schickling: We tried Absolut Cilantro the other day. I was baffled, but some older gentleman told me it tasted like Old Spice Lime. Apparently, Old Spice used to make a lime-scented aftershave. Who knew?
One food you can't live without: Wood: Eggs. I bake a lot, and I make ice cream. So between that, breakfast and cocktails, we go through, like six cartons a week. At this rate, I should probably invest in some chickens.
Schickling: Does beer count?
Tell us about the last original cocktail you created. Wood: Our Farmer's Market cocktails are a fun challenge, and they've been a big hit. Our latest was made with Rhum Clement VSOP, lemongrass syrup, lime juice, basil and a fresh-pressed cantaloupe agua fresca. We garnished it with a lemongrass stalk swizzle stick. I think it was our best one yet.
Schickling: We create a new cocktail every week. Well, more often than that, actually. But we feature a new cocktail every week, after we go to the farmer's market. We pick out our ingredients in the morning, and then we have just a few hours to create something we'll serve later that night.
What are your favorites on the drink menu? Wood: It's a tough decision, but I think my favorite is the Man O' War cocktail. It's a mezcal drink, which can be tricky; I've had a few that taste like barbecue sauce. We use Ilegal mezcal, which is very refined. It's great for mixing. We infuse it with seeded jalapenos for three days to give it a crisp, vegetal flavor without too much heat. We then do a second, very brief infusion with a whole jalapeno (seeds and all) to give it that extra kick. The jalapeno-infused mezcal is then mixed with Drambuie, lemon juice, agave nectar and a few dashes of celery bitters. It's fantastic. All these unique, challenging flavors working in harmony: heat and smoke balanced by citrus and honey, with herbaceous notes from the Drambuie and bitters. Schickling: My favorite is the Saz-Arrack! cocktail. We wanted to put a sort of summer twist on one of our favorite classics, the Sazerac. We combine Rittenhouse bonded rye whiskey with Batavia Arrack van Oosten, an exotic rum-like spirit from Indonesia. We add Angostura orange bitters, then sweeten it with our house-made demerara gomme syrup, an old-school style of simple syrup made with gum arabic, which adds a rich, silky texture to the drink. It's stirred, then strained into a chilled glass rinsed with Nouvelle-Orleans absinthe. Lastly, we twist an orange peel over the surface of the drink, then serve. Some say it's better than the original, but I'll let you decide.
Favorite meal growing up: Wood: My dad's homemade pizza was, and still is, one of my favorites. He was baking bread, and he brewed beer, too. Way before it was cool. I'd get to try a sip every now and then.
Schickling: Mexican food. My great-grandma used to make homemade tortillas and fresh salsa with rice and beans whenever we would visit. The salsa was always too hot, but that never stopped me.
Your recent food/beverage find: Wood: Local honey! Honey is one of our favorite ways to sweeten cocktails, especially ones that contain fresh fruit. We've been experimenting with various types, like sage, eucalyptus and buckwheat. The Bee Ladies at the Fullerton Farmers Market have a nice assortment.
Schickling: Sculpin IPA in cans. I'm happy to see craft breweries like Ballast Point releasing their beer in cans. I hope the trend continues.
Your earliest food memory: Wood: As a child, I wasn't a particularly picky eater, but I remember going through a phase during which I only wanted to eat bread and jam. There's a children's book my mom would read to me called Bread and Jam for Frances, about a little badger named Frances who refuses to eat anything else. In the book, Frances' family accommodates her until she finally tires of bread and jam and becomes an adventurous eater, which is exactly what happened with me. Schickling: I remember my first Dodger dog. My dad bought me one at Game 1 of the 1988 World Series. I got sick. Sometime during the eighth inning, it was apparent I had to go home. We left, and as we were driving back, listening to the game on the radio, Kirk Gibson hit his legendary home run. He says he doesn't, but I'm pretty sure he still hates me for it.
You're making breakfast. What are you having? Wood: Two eggs over medium with bacon and a sourdough English muffin. I also like to make fried egg sandwiches with bacon, tomato, sprouts and avocado, and pretend it's healthy.
Schickling: Ideally, I'm having eggs and bacon.
Culinarily speaking, Orange County has the best: Wood: We have a rapidly growing food culture, and a lot of passionate, adventurous people who are creating and seeking out great food. We also have a really enthusiastic craft beer community and some world-class breweries.
Schickling: The craft cocktail movement is picking up steam as well, and we hope that the people of Orange County will soon be adventurous and enthusiastic about cocktails as they are with food and craft beer.
Favorite bartender. Schicking: Jim Meehan. Sure, he's a brilliant mixologist and a James Beard award winner, but his book, The PDT Cocktail Book, is a revelation. At a time when many craft cocktail bars were notoriously secretive, even stand-offish, Meehan chose to share his knowledge: not only his detailed drink recipes, but recipes for house-made syrups, tinctures and infusions, with notes on technique, ingredients and equipment.
As we bartenders in Orange County continue to introduce our guests to unfamiliar spirits, classic cocktails rich with history, and innovative new concoctions, it's important we take our cue from Meehan and be open and inviting. The more we share with our guests, and with each other, the more we'll benefit.
Wood: I completely agree, but I have to add Audrey Saunders to the list. She revived and perfected all these magnificent classic cocktails, and mentored a bunch of famous New York bartenders (including Jim Meehan). She made a name for herself in a very male-dominated profession, and helped start the cocktail revolution. I wish she'd publish a book!
What is your most popular item? Wood: The Black Dahlia. It's one of our original creations, made with our own strawberry-infused vodka, black peppercorn syrup, fresh lemon juice and a balsamic-port reduction. Balsamic vinegar really brings out the flavor of fresh strawberries, and it turns the cocktail a beautiful deep burgundy color, almost black. We garnish it with a rose petal. As soon as one goes out, everybody wants one.
Schickling: For our summer menu, we wanted to create some truly stunning cocktails using vodka as the base spirit. Many craft bartenders shy away from mixing with it, but we feel that vodka's worst quality is also its best: vodka is a blank canvas. It's not very interesting or flavorful on its own, but it can easily be infused with fresh, natural ingredients to create a new, unique spirit all your own.
What should people order when they visit your bar? Wood: I'd love to see more people drinking straight spirits. There's so much craftsmanship, so much care involved in distilling, blending and aging spirits. Don't get me wrong, I love mixing, but some spirits are best enjoyed neat. It warms my heart to see a young lady enjoying a single malt Islay Scotch or a cask-strength bourbon.
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Schickling: I take great pride in our original cocktails, but I love making classics, too. I'd like guests to feel comfortable ordering drinks that aren't on the menu-- whether it's something specific, like a Negroni or a Last Word, or something more impromptu, like "gin and cucumber". We can make it, and we aim to please.
What is your beverage of choice, and where do you get it? Wood: It changes all the time. Right now, I'm really into our house recipe Pimm's Cup. We make our own "Pimm's" using Booker's bourbon as the base spirit, muddle fresh mint and cucumber, then add spicy ginger beer. Actually, it's way better than a Pimm's Cup.
Schickling: I love a proper Mai Tai. It's a delicious, relatively simple cocktail, that's been corrupted by decades of lazy bartending. It's not red, and it's certainly not blue. It does not contain pineapple juice, nor is it made with "dark rum" or "light rum". A classic Mai Tai should be made with aged Jamaican rum, Martinique rhum, orange curacao, fresh lime juice and orgeat (not Torani almond syrup). I only know of a few places in Orange County that serve a proper Mai Tai, which is a shame, because it's a damn fine drink.