Welcome to our annual Top 5 countdown, where most of our our SAFII writers tell you what impressed them over the past year! Here, head wino Gustavo Arellano tells you what he loved—enjoy, and drink up!
2016 further solidified Orange County as a serious drinking town, but it was a year in transition. Familiar names receded into Hall of Fame status, while new names popped up, ready to take on 2017 with vigor. OC's first distillery opened up, while local investors waded into the tequila and mezcal games.
But with the exception of 320 Main Street, Mr. Hi-Time and Joel Caruso over at Pizzeria Ortica, OC's liquor masters still ain't getting the national or even regional love that their craft-beer cousins have achieved—so may next year be our time.
In a particular order…
5. Barton 1792 Chocolate Bourbon Ball Cream Liqueur
I know OC's top bourbon collector, a guy who just dropped tens of thousands of dollars on a dream tour of one of Kentucky's finest distilleries without even looking up from the cell phone he's always constantly on. Even he didn't have this Bailey's-esque liqueur, which he deemed “amazing” after I gave him a bottle and then asked for another one. Sorry, captain of industry: you can only get it at the Barton's Distillery gift shop in Bardstown, Kentucky—and only six bottles a visit. Want to taste it, OC? There's one restaurant I gave a bottle to this year—and I told them to charge for a shot what a bottle costs: $22. Get at it!
4. Oaxaca-Groni at Gabbi's Mexican Kitchen
This is a relatively late addition, being that I only had earlier this month—but it was a great, complex drink that combined two OC obsessions—mezcal and Negronis—into one sharp, sweet, and generous cocktail. While I get that Gabbi's needs to focus on margaritas to make the bills, here's to hoping that their upcoming Tustin restaurant will let its bartenders continue to explore Mexican spirits in new platforms. 141 S. Glassell St., Orange, (714) 633-3038; gabbipatrick.com
3. Aquavit from Blinking Owl
This ain't North Dakota, yet Blinking Owl owners Robin and Brian Christenson, along with head alcohol magician Ryan Friesen, were ballsy enough to tackle aquavit along vodka, gin, and an upcoming bourbon. It's a bold digestif that just got distribution, a cocktail at Lola Gaspar, and a permanent place on my bar cart gracias to its earthy, carraway seed-y assertiveness. Great chilled, neat, as a mixer—it doesn't really matter, because it doesn't just borracho you up but also cures your innards of whatever ails it. Swing by their SanTana distillery for a taste test and for the tour—and be prepared for more news from them this year… 802 E. Washington Ave., Santa Ana, (714) 852-3947; blinkingowldistillery.com
I wrote about the Fernet Branca-sponsored cocktail contest at Pie Society earlier this year that drew in OC's bartending elite to participate, judge, or enjoy. And finalists Daniel Zarate and Emily Delicce were appropriate: not only were their cocktails magnificent and just a point apart in the last results, but they're now the newbies helping to organize the OC Bartender's Cabinet and encourage each other and their peers rather than engage in douchebag rivalries ala the LA scene. Catch Zarate at Casa in Costa Mesa, and Delicce at the soon-to-open Vacation in downtown SanTana.
1. Anything by Cesar Cerrudo at Mercado
I didn't name Cesar Cerrudo the Best Bartender in Orange County this year, but I was delighted when I read the blurb for the first time because I feel that way, too. This is actually the second time Cesar has placed first on my year-end list—he got the nod back in 2014, when he was at Anepalco—but don't take it from me: earlier this year, before Mercado opened, Pizzeria Ortica's Joel Caruso (last year's winner) swung by to pay his respects to Cesar. He wasn't around, and Joel didn't know that, which didn't stop him from praising not only Cesar's drinks but also for running a shop that maintains its excellence even when el jefe ain't around. Even better: Cerrudo is training a new generation of bartenders over at Mercado in his way: unapologetically Latino, technically perfect, master of all booze—yet humble AF. Peru, presente! 301 N. Spurgeon St., SanTana, (714) 338-2446 www.mercadomodern.com