The Evolution of California Cocktails

Amy Cavanaugh

In the mid-2000s, during the early days of the cocktail revival, there were two schools of thought, one on each coast. New York-based East Coast bartenders focused on classic, spirit-forward recipes, while the San Francisco-driven West Coast scene was all about local fruits, vegetables and herbs for each drink. But now that bartenders across the country are using fresh produce and riffing on the classics, is there still a distinct West Coast style?

“I think there’s still some of that,” says Ian Scalzo, co-owner of Horsefeather in San Francisco. “In California, we’re always going to have the produce, but that’s not to say everyone utilizes it. People are doing good spirituous cocktails out here as well. It’s all kind of overlapping. I don’t think it’s as defining as it was, though I still think it plays into the difference between the two.”

Scalzo says the style has evolved from “taking fresh ingredients and muddling them and being like, ‘This is what California drinks are,’” to “taking that further. It’s not just muddling, but doing interesting things with syrups…and not just being about the ingredients but about making a well-balanced cocktail.”

At Duke’s Spirited Cocktails in Healdsburg, bartender Tara Heffernon sources from two gardens where they grow flowers, herbs and produce. They use the yield to make a roasted beet and raw ginger shrub, paired with mezcal, gin or rum; and an orange cream soda used for a riff on an Orange Julius.

This new California style means drinks like Duke’s Pomelo Paloma, tequila with grapefruit soda, lime, pomelo marmalade and salt, and Horsefeather’s California Cooler, a gin cocktail made with lime, celery juice and a Sauvignon Blanc, thyme and horseradish syrup.

“We’re localists and we’re doing everything ourselves,” Heffernon says of their philosophy. “It’s kind of seasonality leading to invention.”

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