Another year, another eighth of my liver gone in the name of good journalism. Uh-oh…my delirium tremens are setting in, so let's make this one quick!
5. Cocktel de la Louisiane at Juliette Kitchen+Bar
I don't spend too much time in Newport Beach because I'm afraid of their PD, but Juliette is close enough to the 73 that methinks I can pull a quick one on the po-po if need be. Besides, this cocktail makes any high-speed chase worth it: Rittenhouse rye, Contratto Rosso, Benedictine, Peychaud's bitters, and Vieux Pontarlier absinthe. But there is nothing hackneyed about it: think of it as a particularly fragrant Manhattan, with the Benedictine wrestling down the rye, only to get a chair to the back by the Vieux Pontarlier. And then, out of nowhere, the Contratto vermouth makes an appearance and steals the show with a flash of zing.
4. Wasmund's Single Malt Spirit
Of all the specialty booze I brought back from my old Kentucky home, this one remains the one I've drunk only in sips: a bolo punch of a booze at 124 proof, it almost functions like a Scotch with its arresting smokiness borne of an applewood and cherrywood mixture used in the malting process. But instead of peatiness, you get the prairie: all barley, all earthy and strong yet delicate from start to finish–you get the same satisfaction you find after smoking a Cohiba.
3. Sangrita at Lola Gaspar
I regret nothing I've ever written (unless I made a mistake, of course), so my early criticism of Lola Gaspar remains. That said, I'm more than happy to report that Lola Gaspar is now a wonderful place to eat and drink, with the hermanos running the place upping the ante every month. And nowhere is this more evident than in their cocktail program, nowadays featuring the magnificent Jefferson Van Billiard behind the bar. But the brothers (forgetting your last name right now, guys!) were the brains behind their stunning sangrita: They take heirloom tomatoes and Thai peppers, put them in a blender, and serve it as such. It's like the best V8 of your life–shockingly vegetal, quickly filling, absolutely magnificent, with hints of salt and spice lurking in there. Best of all? It's just a shooter–and the rest of the cocktails build from this.
2. Adriatic Coast at Pizzeria Ortica
I've loved Pizzeria Ortica for years, but this is the year I began going for their cocktails, a stunning reversal of past years when the most potent mixture was limoncello served in a glass so caked with sugar that it looked like permafrost. But under the stewardship of Joel Caruso and his right-hand man, the awesomely named Aristotle Alstaetter, they've made this place into one of OC's must-drink bars for 2015.
Go now, and ask for the Adriatic Coast. This drink has two things I don't usually like: gin (which gets me in a stabby mood) and ginger flavor courtesy of Domaine de Canton, a ginger liqueur from China. But add in lemon, lime, Angostura and a dash of St. Germain, and the result is a gorgeous, tart sea of swell befitting its name. Order this one to introduce yourself anew to Pizzeria Ortica–then follow the cues of Caruso and his team in bringing joy to your South Coast Metro night.
1. Vida at Anepalco's at the Ayres Hotel
Got married this year, and my boyos and I celebrated the night before the big day at Anepalco's at the Ayres. I won't reveal the culinary luminaries that were involved, that got on tabletops to serenade me with "My Way," that raised general DESMADRE, but I'll tell you what we drank (besides the habanero-infused tequila given as a wedding gift by one of the luminaries): a bunch of Vidas. If you think Vida is just a slapdash cocktail because of its straightforward nature–Casa Noble blanco, Del Maguey mezcal, Dickel rye, and Peychaud's–then you're obviously not familiar with Godínez's sorcery, which takes the tried-and-true like chilaquiles and boosts them to extraordinary heights. And that's what happens with the Vida. The tricolor of tequila, mezcal, and rye unite to form something that looks like an innocuous rosé but smashes like jungle juice; the bitters unite the squabbling liquors into a calming peace.
And best of all? The bar's only getting better.