uietly, without much of a splash, Orange County’s bar scene has grown up. The board-shorts-and-flip-flops crowd can still grab a stool at the beach bar, but these hangouts now share the spotlight with a variety of lively, casually elegant, music-filled spaces. And, thanks to a revival of the cocktail, these outlets are injecting upscale energy into coastal nightlife. The cocktail—an inventive and refreshing concoction of spirits, tonics and fresh ingredients—turns an evening into an event.
The cocktail’s resurgence marks a 21st-century social life that embraces a nostalgic nod to the past. Although Andrea at Pelican Hill® is known for excellent Italian cuisine, one of its most popular items is the Eastern Standard, a fresh, straightforward cocktail made with Belvedere Vodka, cucumber, mint and lime. During happy hour, however, Tommy’s Margarita, a bracing mix of El Jimador Blanco Tequila, fresh lime and agave, tops the charts.
“Our $5 cocktails and wine specials are on offer from 5 to 7 p.m. and from 9:30 p.m. until close every day,” says Andrea General Manager Derek Domeracki. “The promotion has been immensely popular, as it allows guests to come in before the restaurant opens at 5:30 and enjoy the sunset from our terrace.”
A guitarist serenades Lounge guests during happy hour, and after dinner Thursdays through Saturdays a live band ups the energy level. If whiskey is your pleasure, Andrea offers an exceptional variety, from the ever-popular Makers Mark and Johnnie Walker Black Label to the exotic Asian Kavalan and Nikka Yoichi. There’s also an extensive selection of rye whiskeys, blends and small-batch bourbons, and it all complements Andrea’s popular bar fare. “The pizzas are great because everything is made from scratch and with passion, just like the rest of our menu,” says Domeracki. “I always choose the pizza bianco with whipped stracciatella di bufala, San Daniele prosciutto, arugula, shaved parmesan and white truffle oil. Buon appetito!”
Eastern Standard Cucumber Martini
- 3 mint leaves
- 3 cucumber slices
- 2 oz Belvedere Vodka
- 1 oz lime juice
- 1 oz simple syrup
- Mint leaf and cucumber slice, for garnish
In a shaker, muddle mint and cucumbers. Add vodka, lime juice, simple syrup and ice. Shake well, and double strain into a chilled glass. Garnish with mint leaf and cucumber slice.
Imagine wandering in to Aqua Lounge at Island Hotel Newport Beach® and ordering the Strawberry Fields, an invigorating synthesis of Belvedere Vodka, lemon juice, fresh strawberries, basil and agave. To your surprise, it arrives in a frosty aluminum mug.
“Most bartenders use copper for their mules,” says Kevin Morales, general manager of Oak Grill and Aqua Lounge, “but we like to do things a bit differently. This drink is very popular with businesspeople. It’s refreshing and crisp, perfect after a long day at the office.”
Aqua uses all-fresh, all-local fruits and herbs—as well as premium liquors—in its handcrafted drinks. The staff recently introduced 12 cocktails, created behind the bar. “I’ve always loved mixing spirits,” says Morales. “I’ll ask our mixologists: What if, instead of using vodka like everyone else, I use bourbon for this drink? How will it affect the flavor? If it makes it sweet and different, I’ll test it with our bartenders, get their input and tweak the drinks. The whole team weighs in on our menu.”
The bestseller: the Aqua Old Fashioned, which substitutes Mount Gay Black Barrel Rum for the traditional bourbon and is finished with a splash of homemade simple syrup and a misting of orange blossom water. “People swear it’s a bourbon-based drink,” says Morales.
On Taco Tuesdays, those in the know show up for the build-your-own margarita special. Local DJs pick up the pace on Fridays and Saturdays, playing tunes specifically tailored to that evening’s crowd.
Across the Pond
- 3 cucumber slices
- 8 mint leaves
- 2 oz Hendrick’s Gin
- ½ oz St. Germain
- ½ oz fresh lime juice
- ¼ oz simple syrup
- Cucumber slice, for garnish
In a shaker, muddle mint and cucumbers. Add gin, lime juice, simple syrup and St. Germain. Shake and strain over ice into bucket glass. Garnish with cucumber slice.
Aqua Old Fashioned
- ½ oz simple syrup
- 2 dashes barrel-aged whiskey bitters
- 2 ½ oz Mount Gay Black Barrel Rum
- Luxardo cherry and orange peel, for garnish
Pour simple syrup and bitters into a rocks glass. Stir to combine, then add ice cubes. Pour rum over the ice, and garnish with cherry and orange peel.
Red Bar and Lounge
The right mixed drink can transport you straight to the 1920s. Such is the case at Hotel Irvine’s Red Bar and Lounge, which serves up authentic Prohibition-era cocktails.
“They’re making a comeback across the country,” says Director of Food and Beverage Gabor Pamer, “and we’re thrilled to jump on the bandwagon. All the drinks we serve are designed to keep our bar menu current, hip and engaging.”
In addition to the old standbys—the Manhattan, Old Fashioned and Negroni—one of Red Bar’s most popular Prohibition drinks is the French 75, named for the powerful French 75mm field gun. The concoction blends gin with sparkling wine and lemon.
“Guests love the spirits we use,” Pamer says. “Currently, we’re sourcing small-batch, local sensations like Sazerac Rye Whiskey from Buffalo Trace Distillery.
It’s American whiskey that’s very popular right now. We serve a lot of bourbon and rye. In fact, I believe bourbon is the new vodka. American whiskey started making a comeback several years ago, people are more knowledgeable than ever and they are requesting specific labels. We are happy to oblige.”
Because most aficionados want their whiskey served smooth, Red Bar offers huge ice spheres that chill drinks quickly, but melt slowly to avoid diluting the ingredients. It takes the pressure off, as guests can sip and enjoy themselves while they chat with friends or enjoy a sporting event on the bar’s 10-foot screen.
- 1 ½ oz of your favorite barrel-aged gin
- 5 oz lemon juice
- 5 oz simple syrup
- Splash of Prosecco
- Thick-cut lemon twist, for garnish
Pour gin, lemon juice and simple syrup in a shaker, and shake vigorously. Pour into a chilled champagne glass, and top it off with Prosecco. Garnish with lemon twist.