The Orange County Bartenders Cabinet Shake It Up

Behind a long bar, Jason Schiffer pours applejack, Cynar, lemon juice and simple syrup into a shaker, the labels on the bottle turned out for everyone to see. He claps a cap on the shaker, and the dining room at 320 Main in Seal Beach rings with the sound of ice on metal. Conversations pause, heads turn as 60 or so pairs of eyes swing to him.

He opens the shaker with an audible pop, deftly strains the drink into an old-fashioned glass—a short, squat tumbler that fits ice cubes nicely for drinks served on the rocks—and sets a twist of grapefruit zest precisely on top of the protruding ice.

“What is that?” asks a man nursing what looks like a Jack and Coke.

“A Michigander,” Schiffer replies. “Want me to make you one?”

To drink one of these is to have your idea of what alcohol can do be forever transformed. Despite the fact that applejack is basically a stiff version of the juice you pack in your kid's lunch every day and Cynar is artichoke-flavored liqueur that only the Italians could invent (yes, seriously, artichoke), there wasn't a hint of Mott's or artichoke in the drink—just a homey, whiskey-like warmth, with hint of grassy mellowness. Schiffer positioned the grapefruit zest perfectly to stimulate your nose before you taste the drink, priming your palate with a hint of sour perfume.

It's a straightforward drink, yet in its divine taste floats the spark of revolution. Two years ago, Schiffer got together with Gabrielle Dion (then the bartender at Charlie Palmer, now at Laguna Beach's Broadway By Amar Santana) and Forrest Cokely, liquor specialist at Hi-Time Wine Cellars in Costa Mesa, to bemoan the state of the Orange County cocktail: the excess of artificially flavored liqueurs and neon-green margaritas; the flavored dessert drinks served in cocktail glasses; the foamy, sticky Manhattans that were more sludge than bourbon. The trio decided to meet every month to discuss liquors and technique, inviting other bartenders, liquor distributors and cocktail aficionados along and branding the invite-only events the Orange County Bartenders Cabinet (OCBC).

“People care about where their food comes from,” says Schiffer. “They care about wine—it isn't just white Zinfandel anymore. When it comes to cocktails, people need to be just as aware of what they're drinking, and that means fresh juices, attention to technique and a diversity of spirits beyond high-end vodka that's been distilled too many times.”

Now, at every gathering of the OCBC, at least 50 people listen to an invited liquor distributor lecture on particular alcohols, such as whiskey, cachaça or absinthe, as well as taste samples of the product line. The hosting bar staff makes cocktails and punches to show off the featured liquor and serves food to soak up the effects of too much Islay Scotch or mezcal. The presentation is followed by a vigorous discussion on technique, such as how to properly “spank” herbs to release essential oils, or a deep technical conversation about muddling herbs with sugar. From here, attendees spread the gospel of a well-crafted cocktail across the county, taking the lessons learned to their home restaurants and bars in Brea and Mission Viejo, Newport Beach and Yorba Linda, each bartender at each place pushing one another in a friendly competition for the salvation of county drinkers.

“The best thing about the Bartenders Cabinet is that if you don't know about something, then just ask,” says board member Ricky Yarnall. At a recent meeting he hosted, he took small groups to the bar to demonstrate how to properly stir a drink, explaining it all depended on the vessel used, the kind of ice and the spoon. “We're always willing to help and educate; you just have to be willing to learn.”

You can't attend an OCBC meeting, alas, unless you're in the industry. But we're bringing you the next-best thing: a Happy Hour on March 13 at Memphis At the Santora that features KCRW-FM 89.9's Good Food With Evan Kleiman. Four OCBC board members and another bartending star will offer samples of one of their creations free of charge. Yes: FREE. In this issue, you'll find mini-profiles of the participants, along with the recipes for the signature drinks they'll offer for Happy Hour. It'll be the classiest tipple since the season finale of Downton Abbey.

We have great bartenders in OC who are only getting better with every OCBC meeting, people. Who knows? Maybe one day there'll be a bar in every town at which the vermouth is kept in the refrigerator and sticky, sweet bottles of lime-juice concentrate are nowhere to be found. And there's nothing elitist about the OCBC wanting you and me to drink well. “Nobody,” says Matt “Rumdood” Robold, a bartender at 320 Main, “should ever be more than 10 minutes from a great cocktail.”



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320 Main

320 Main St., Seal Beach, (562) 799-6246;

Jason Schiffer started out as a “flair” bartender at the Voodoo Room at the Rio in Las Vegas, making drinks with a lot of flourish, as much entertainment as liquor (think juggling cocktail shakers and lighting bars on fire). Nowadays, he stirs drinks with just enough noise to call your attention but without hamming it up.

When he moved to Orange County to work at Fullerton's Continental Room, Schiffer started hanging out at craft cocktail bars in Los Angeles such as the Varnish, hoping to soak up whatever he could because the local scene suffered so. Eventually, he decided to reinvent 320 Main as a craft cocktail bar. Today, it stands as the mecca of cocktails in Orange County, a place so hallowed that even Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic Jonathan Gold made a rare OC appearance to pay a pilgrimage, including one of Schiffer's concoctions among his list of great LA cocktails.

Schiffer is a very technical bartender—despite the muted theatrics, you can see him counting revolutions as he stirs drinks (a nearly lost art, he says; transparent or translucent cocktails should always be stirred). Sour mix is banished in favor of homemade simple syrup (“There is a reason it's called 'simple' syrup!” he says with a laugh), and juices are squeezed fresh every day. Yet the man who started the Bartenders Cabinet doesn't drink due to a kidney transplant a few years ago. “I'll have a few sips now and then,” he says. He prefers bitter drinks to sweet ones, he says, since they're more interesting and substantial. For the non-professional bartender, Jason recommends Home Bar Basics (And Not-So-Basics) by Dave Stolte.


1 oz. Laird's Applejack
1 oz. Cynar
0.75 oz. freshly squeezed lemon juice
0.75 oz. clover honey syrup
Twist of grapefruit

To make clover honey syrup, mix two parts clover honey with one part water, bring to a boil, then allow to cool.

Shake ingredients in cocktail shaker with cube ice, then strain with cocktail strainer into an old-fashioned glass and serve on the rocks with a twist of grapefruit.

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Broadway By Amar Santana

328 Glenneyre St., Laguna Beach, (949) 715-8234;

P.F. Chang's doesn't top any cocktail-lover's list when it comes to craft cocktails, but it'll always occupy a space in Gabrielle Dion's heart. “I wouldn't trade that start for anything,” she says. “Without that high-volume beginning, I would never have developed the speed I have now.”

Given that people line up three and four deep, crowding the tables at Laguna Beach's Broadway By Amar Santana, in order to get one of her custom drinks, that speed is of paramount importance. Covering every alcohol you've ever heard of—and some you haven't—the list of her creations is so good that her clientele followed her when she left Charlie Palmer at South Coast Plaza last year.

Just the other night, Dion created what she dubbed Widow's Kiss, a cocktail involving Calvados, yellow Chartreuse, Benedictine and bitters—an intensely flavored but perfectly balanced cocktail.

“Calvados? I didn't know you could use Calvados in cocktails,” said a man who'd lived in France. The intensely flavored apple brandy from Normandy is drunk neat after a meal, leaving the drinker feeling as though he were smacked in the mouth with an apple-flavored 2-by-4. Yellow Chartreuse is a floral, herbal liquor that has the cloying taste of Japanese plum wine; Benedictine tastes as though one mixed medicine with cognac. There's no way these three flavors should ever go together, but Dion gave him a straw taste and deftly moved the bottles in front of him. The cue worked; he ordered a Widow's Kiss.

When Gabrielle is not behind the bar, she's learning about wine and beer, trying new spirits, and looking for the next great cocktail. “I love aquavit,” she says. “The caraway and anise are kind of an acquired taste, but the savoriness of it in cocktails is just awesome.”


1.25 oz. Krogstad Aquavit
0.75 oz. Meletti Amaro
0.5 oz. beet juice
0.75 oz. freshly squeezed Meyer lemon juice
1 barspoon Meyer lemon oleo-saccharum
Caraway essence sprayed on top

To make Meyer lemon oleo-saccharum, peel a few Meyer lemons and muddle with 2 oz. by weight of sugar per lemon; let sit overnight. The syrup that exudes is oleo-saccharum—easy as pie!

Shake the first five ingredients with cube ice, then double-strain into a cocktail glass and serve with a spray of caraway essence.

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320 Main

320 Main St., Seal Beach, (562) 799-6246;

Matt Robold isn't a craft bartender by trade. His day job is as a geek, writing software for police and fire departments; in his down time, he plays video games and hangs out at Disneyland. But to the Southern California cocktail scene, he's Rumdood, the master of the spirit, someone who posts his concoctions and has almost singlehandedly rescued the lost art of tiki drinks from VFW Halls.


“I sort of came at spirits and cocktails backward, compared to most people, by getting really into a spirit category first, and then coming around to the idea that, yes, you can mix awesome spirits and create something even better,” says Robold, who started making drinks Sunday nights—traditionally a slow night, but not anymore—at 320 Main in Seal Beach under Schiffer's tutelage.

But Robold isn't wedded solely to rum. One night, the Bartenders Cabinet hosted Pernod-Ricard, whose representatives brought bottles of absinthe. Absinthe has its own service traditions involving dripping water from a glass fountain over a sugar cube, causing the liquor to turn cloudy, but hosting bartender Dion made a cloudy, pink cocktail involving absinthe, beet juice, lime juice, simple syrup and wheels of cucumber.

Robold was blown away. “You can make a drink with absinthe and beet juice, and it can be delicious,” he says. While he's annoyed at slavish devotion to technique, Robold geeks out at discoveries such as shaking egg white-laced Ramos gin fizzes with one single Kold Draft ice cube instead of a shakerful.

His advice to home cocktailers: have fun. “If you can't have fun with cocktails, you're doing something wrong,” Robold says. “Oh, and plant some mint; it will save you a lot of money in the long run if you just grow your own.”


2 oz. Matusalem white rum
0.75 oz. freshly squeezed lime juice
0.5 oz. orgeat syrup
2 tsp. absinthe
1 tsp. maraschino liqueur

Shake with half-cube, half-crushed ice, then strain into a glass over crushed ice. Garnish with an orange twist and a maraschino cherry.

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Memphis At the Santora

201 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 564-1064;

Broadway By Amar Santana
328 Glenneyre St., Laguna Beach, (949) 715-8234;

Bar and Kitchen
819 S. Flower St., Los Angeles, (213) 784-3048;

Ricky Yarnall is a busy man, with three separate bartending gigs in two counties. (Yes, LA, you get some Ricky time, too.) He started as a server at the defunct Market City Caffe in Brea; when the bar came up shorthanded, he started slinging drinks there. His talent moved him to Rockin' Taco Cantina in Fullerton and its successor, Matador Cantina. From there, he moved on to Memphis At the Santora, where Yarnall apprenticed under legendary bartender Johnny Sampson. His renown is now such that Memphis advertises every other Wednesday as “Wednesdays With Ricky,” during which Yarnall will pick a liquor and make three cocktails from it.

Still, Yarnell dreams big. “I'd like to bring back the gin martini,” he says. “I hope it's stirred, and I pray there's more than a few drops of vermouth. I prefer mine with orange bitters, but I know sometimes that's asking a lot.”

According to Yarnall, the serious home cocktailer needs to read The Savoy Cocktail Book and The Joy of Mixology. “Find recipes that sound good to you and make them exactly as they are written,” he says. “After that, tweak them a little bit to suit your taste.”


1.5 oz. Angel's Envy bourbon
0.5 oz. Overproof Jamaican rum
1 oz. freshly squeezed lime juice
0.75 oz. turbinado syrup
Candied ginger for garnish

To make turbinado syrup, mix two parts turbinado sugar with one part water, bring just to a boil, then allow to cool.

Shake ingredients with cube ice, then strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with candied ginger.

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Two 40 South

240 S. Brea Blvd., Brea, (714) 912-1053;

Like many of OC's best bartenders, Felicia Chavez started out low on the totem pole: as a server at Dave and Buster's in Orange in 2000. She got promoted to the bar, where she learned to dole out the liquor quicker. “I cranked out sugary, brightly colored cocktails and various 'bombs' for seven years,” she says. “I had a total blast.”

It was Bruce Rabanit at the old-money Balboa Bay Club, though, who urged her to set her sights higher. “He really pushed me to get creative with cocktails,” she recalls. “He and the chef let me do whatever I wanted.”

The average bar has problems with stirring drinks, though, Chavez says. “I still see bartenders shake the hell out of Manhattans.” She'd banish those neon bottles of grenadine and lime juice—everyone knows exactly which ones she's talking about.

One night at Two 40 South in Brea, Chavez was experimenting on willing patrons; one of the successes was a mezcal drink flavored with coffee, coffee liqueur and Mexican chocolate. Tasting as though it were a smoky, alcoholic hot cocoa, she christened it El El Bean; the concoction soon attracted the attention of every woman sitting at the bar. That's a good thing, right?


Orange County may be a little bit behind on the craft cocktail movement compared to the rest of the country (um, two years late), Chavez says, but that's no excuse for bad drinks, given that Orange Countians have started to demand better wine and better, more locally sourced food. “I've been told to dumb down my cocktail lists before, that this is Orange County,” she says. “We don't dumb down our menus or our wine lists—why should we do that with our cocktails?”


2 oz. Hendrick's gin
0.5 oz. damask rose elixir
1 oz. freshly squeezed lime juice
2 oz. club soda
6 rose petals for garnish

Shake the gin, rose elixir and lime juice with cube ice, then strain into a rocks-filled white wine glass. Top with club soda, and garnish with rose petals.


This article appeared in print as “Shake It Up: The Orange County Bartenders Cabinet is teaching you to drink like you've never drunk before.”

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