The history of cocktails is often divided into three distinct eras: the Golden Age, the Dark Ages and the Renaissance. But, as with any historical period, dig a little deeper and you’ll uncover the complexities, nuances and subplots of a given age. The cocktail renaissance, for instance, is often defined by the revival of pre-Prohibition classics and their attendant techniques, but the period between the late 1990s and early aughts also saw the birth of a less heralded, but no less influential, style of drink: the culinary cocktail.
Inspired by the Bay Area food movement, which was championing fresh and local ingredients, the rise of the culinary cocktail brought a similar farm-to-glass ethos to bartending, as novel then as when Don the Beachcomber first introduced fresh Southern California citrus into his tiki creations back in the 1930s. This band of bartenders clustered in and around Sonoma County unlocked a more vibrant side to serious cocktails, taking muddling to new heights as they integrated everything from kumquats to bell peppers directly into the glass. Drawing from the bounty of California produce at their doorstep, these bartenders represented what came to be known as West Coast cocktails. Here are four drinks that define the style.
Created in the early 1990s by Julio Bermejo of Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant in San Francisco, the Tommy’s Margarita omits orange liqueur altogether. The drink finds sweetness instead in the natural honeyed flavor of agave nectar, then an item that “was only used by California health food producers,” according to Bermejo. Freshly squeezing the lime juice, though standard practice today, was a novelty and set this version apart from the sour mix–laden alternatives.
This buck-like cooler was created by Duggan McDonnell for San Francisco’s Cantina. Made with San Francisco–born citron vodka, five spice–infused agave nectar, ginger, serrano chile peppers and lime, the preparation of the Laughing Buddha emphasized the freshness of the ingredients by juicing the citrus to order. McDonnell even made an effort to rely on citrus foraged from friends and neighbors to keep the radius of ingredients’ origins as small as possible.
This Californian buck-like cooler has long been the most popular cocktail at San Francisco’s Cantina.
A sangria-inspired punch from California’s Scott Beattie, labeled by writer Jordan Mackay as the “apotheosis of the West Coast bartender.” Beattie was the opening bar manager for the famed Sonoma County restaurant Cyrus, and was known to frequent farmers markets for herbs, spices and produce to include in his recipes; he even went so far as to contract farmers to plant crops specifically for use in his culinary cocktails.
Though it was created all the way down in Los Angeles in 2009, Julian Cox’s Barbacoa belongs firmly to the West Coast style thanks to its inclusion of bell pepper and Fresno chile alongside two types of citrus, ginger, agave nectar and mezcal. Savory, spicy and smoky, it helped pave the way for the recent wave of modern cocktails that seek to translate food into drinks.
Muddled bell peppers and Fresno chiles embody the farm-to-glass ethos of early culinary cocktails.