Steamers has been in Fullerton a long damn time. Like before obnoxiously drunk college kids realized there was no better place to get in fights, pee on walls, and just generally go buck wild-long time. But its seniority and location a ways down from the hobbling girls trying to cross the street has made it one of the few good places to hang out on the weekends in Downtown Fullerton.
It's one of the only legitimate jazz clubs in Orange County, but it's feels more like an upscale dive bar. The carpets are worn, the artwork on the walls is crooked, and the appliances and booths could have been updated five years ago, but there's a cozy ambience under only recessed lighting and candles in the evenings. And because it looks so dark from the outside, and there's a cover charge on weekends, it doesn't attract a whole lot of attention from the aforementioned parties.
There's live music every night of the week, which ranges from painfully awkward to fucking fantastic, but there is an up-to-date, online calendar that can keep you from stumbling in during one of the former nights. Yet, up until six months ago the bands were really the only reason to visit Steamers. The food sucked (they don't have a full kitchen, unfortunately), and the bar was weak. But the creative control has recently shifted and made it a destination, regardless if the band is maybe a little toooo serious about jazz.
The charming bartending duo, Sean Schickling and Lucie Wood, took over late last year and holy hell, have they turned the place around. Schickling and Wood overhauled the bar, now stocking it with a majority of craft spirits, fresh ingredients, better food, and a decent beer list. Their unabashed love of cocktails has not just improved the menu though; it's shifting the culture of the entire club.
“We're not just doing this for the cocktail geeks,” Wood says, “We want all our guests to experience cocktails at their best, and bring these new, exciting flavors to a broader audience.”
Their passion, a rather stoic one at that, has also seeped into the tight-knit and pretty sexy staff, making it so that no matter who serves you, you'll get the full experience of what Steamers is becoming.
Sometimes, the rundown and unassuming dives are the best. Except it's hard to find one with this drink selection. If you don't believe us, have a look at Steamers' summer cocktail menu and see for yourself.
The Great Awakening
This drink is an amazing experience all around. It looks absolutely beautiful just standing alone in a champagne coupe with its canary yellow color, topped by creamy egg white. As you lift it to your lips you'll smell a sweet, citrus creamsicle, and the first sip is reminiscent of an Orange Julius. The combination of lemon and Lillet Blanc reduction completely masks the bite of the Buffalo Trace bourbon, but the Nouvelle-Orléans absinthe that they first spritz the glass, and then the egg-white with, helps balance out the sweetness. If Marie Antoinette could get drunk these days, this is what she'd do it with.
An incredible amount of thought went into this cocktail. Schickling and Wood infuse Tito's gluten-free vodka with chai-tea to make the base of the drink, and mix it with Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur and organic carrot juice. It's then topped with a candied-ginger garnish. This combination makes the cocktail a velvety, pumpkin orange that smells like a dewy garden. The carrot juice is immediately refreshing, and the chai-vodka adds a bit of earthy spice. “I think it tastes healthy,” Wood says laughing, “so we must be doing something right.”
This is a ballsier cocktail, but if you're a fan of bitter tastes and black licorice, you'll enjoy it. It's a take on the classic New Orleans cocktail, the Sazerac. Rittenhouse bonded rye whiskey and Batavia Arrack van Oosten are mixed with demerara gomme syrup, orange bitters and absinthe, and it creates a fermented licorice flavor with hints of sweet citrus. It's not one of those drinks that masks the alcohol; instead it twists its gentlemanly mustache and cordially shakes your hand while promising to get you buzzed. “You can taste the spirit and enjoy the quality of the alcohol, but it's not overwhelming,” Schickling says.
Port of Amsterdam
This is Steamers' Tiki cocktail. It arrives in a highball glass with a Luxardo maraschino cherry and an orange slice atop its foamy, off-white body. Bols Genever house-made orgeat, fresh lemon, and pineapple juice make it a cocktail to sip by the pool. It's incredibly smooth and a little too easy to drink.
The Devil's Daughter
The Devil's Daughter makes that whole summer, watermelon cocktail idea actually work. It's essentially a peachy-pink margarita, but with no tequila. Instead, they use Hangar 1's chipotle vodka paired with a Martinique rum to enhance the flavors of the muddled watermelon. It isn't overly sweet or artificial tasting, and its smoked salt and cayenne-pepper rim make it taste like a Mexican candy Jolly Rancher.
The Black Dahlia
This is currently Steamers' most popular cocktail. Schickling and Wood begin by making their own, very time consuming, strawberry vodka that macerates for three days, and a balsamic-port reduction. Then they mix it with fresh lemon and black-peppercorn syrup. The strawberry and balsamic reduction make it a deep garnet in color, and it's accented by a single rose petal. The balsamic naturally brings out the flavors of the strawberry, but actually makes it taste like pomegranate juice.
Hummingbird to Peru
“This is definitely an afternoon drink,” Wood says. The bartending team got the name from a Prohibition era story where Senator Morris Sheppard, who helped to write the 18th Amendment, said that alcohol would be made legal when a hummingbird flies to Mars. It's essentially a Pisco punch with light herbal flavors, and a bright pink color that pops with its mint leaf garnish, but you get a nice spice from the hibiscus-ginger agua fresca. Wood recommends ending the night with this drink because it's incredibly mild and tastes a little like a spritzer – except less lame.
Man O' War
If the name doesn't illustrate it, this is definitely a man's man kind of drink. Schickling and Wood wanted to make a Mezcal cocktail, without it tasting like liquid barbeque sauce. They begin by infusing illegal Mezcal with jalapeno meat for three days and then adding the seeds at the last minute to create a solid kick. They then add agave nectar and celery bitters to balance out the spice, and a bit of Drambuie to bring out the smokiness of the Mezcal. It's a lovely, bright yellow that first hits the tip of your tongue with citrus and then heats up as it travels to the back of your throat. It's surprisingly light given the ingredients, and does a good job making a warm belly.
The Red Wedding
Don't let the name give you any ideas. The drink isn't red and it doesn't taste like bitter, medieval injustice. The Red Wedding is russet in color, topped with contrasting egg-white foam and bittersweet chocolate shavings. It's made with Broker's London Dry gin, Swedish Punsch and house-made grenadine. But the gin is clean and crisp, and the lemon accents make it taste like dessert.
The Dutch Courage is one of the most difficult cocktails to explain. Schickling and Wood describe it as a reimagined 18th century punch. “The British used to say drinking Dutch gin was getting Dutch courage,” Schickling explains, “basically they attributed their military power to it.” It's a combination of Banks 5 Island rum and champagne with Earl Grey syrup for a nod to the British. It's a little bitey at the beginning, but then soothing because of the Earl Grey.
Schickling and Wood have put a hefty amount of thought into their cocktails, and its apparent as they await reactions and feedback from their customers, but it's only a few months until they're on to creating a new menu and further evolving Steamers into the kind of place that will attract a wider crowd – just hopefully not the drunk chicks.