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A Drink From the Garden: Delicious Local Farm-to-Table Cocktails

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Locally-sourced, seasonal, organically grown, farm to table—we’ve grown used to these adjectives gracing food menus across the city, but more often these modifiers are also referring to a delicious approach to cocktails.

Ingredients that come from local farms or home gardens have become an important reference point for consumers who want to participate in eating—and now drinking—seasonally, organically, and locally. And while this idea is a throwback to the days of eating what you grow, the creations are nothing short of transformative. These are drinks that could be made at home, in theory, but the ways in which a mixologist trained in the arts of spirit and herb can elevate these ingredients is something else entirely.

The Water of Life at 1886in Pasadena is one such example. Made with aquavit (a caraway-based liquor), house-made chamomile-infused syrup, Fever Tree tonic, and a float of gin, this drink from Garrett McKechnie deconstructs the concept of a typical gin & tonic. It’s not molecular whizzbanging, but the opposite—a slow, savory concoction that references the past while tasting utterly new, much like the bar itself. Chamomile from a nearby market, and caraway notes infuse the drink with bright, unexpected notes. It’s refreshing and revitalizing at the same time.

But the Water of Life won’t be on the menu forever. As summer approaches, the staff at 1886 is already planning a new list of cocktails to take advantage of the fresh produce and herbs available to them. This is the beauty and excitement of seasonal libations - they reflect the tone and character of the produce, of the weather, and of the whims of the creators. And when they’re gone, they’re really gone. (Until next year.)

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The interest in farmers market-inspired drinks piqued with the opening of Copa D’Oro in Santa Monica in 2009.

“I wanted to continue the ideas we’d been using at Providence, featuring ingredients from the kitchen in the bar,” explains of Vincenzo Marianella, head barman. “We started Copa d’Oro with a Market Menu. Patrons chose the spirit and the fresh ingredients and we’d make them something delicious from those choices.”

The idea was such a success that it eventually became nearly impossible for bartenders to keep up with demand, an issue that other establishments, like Hemingway’s in Hollywood, have encountered.

The seasonal menu at Hemingway's and the volume of customers precludes serving farm-to-table drinks to each patron, since these are drinks that require both long-term and short-term prep work. The same clientele who wants to go out a have a craft-cocktail at a busy nightclub may not be in the mood to wait the 20 or so minutes for a drink that often accompanies an evening at The Roosevelt’s Library Bar. There’s a necessary balance between meeting the needs of the clientele and sticking to a concept and places like Hemingway’s and Copa d’Oro must find individual ways to answer these challenges with subtle changes in the drink menu, or special options for guests during the week—like the potential return of the market menu at Copa d’Oro during certain days of the week this summer.

But for those of us willing to wait, taking our own turn in the slow food cocktail movement, we know that “Farm-to-table” has also long been the purview of a few of the most well-known names in L.A. libations, including Matt Biancaniello of the Roosevelt’s Library Bar. The array of herbs, vegetation, fruits and vegetables, sweet and savory is inspiring, and offers a visual reference point as Matt works his magic with everything from arugula, to strawberries, to fennel and nettle. There isn’t a menu at the Library Bar, only Matt and his farmer’s market-fresh syrups, infusions and produce, enticing people to enjoy flavors-and spirits that they’d normally shun. Like gin.

“Gin is my spirit of choice because of its juniper, coriander and other herbs and spices, which tend to marry well with herbs. Gin’s flavor profile also goes well with citrus and you can play with how much it marries versus enhances the farm fresh flavors,” explains Matt.

And while gin is often used as the foundation of a farm to table drink for just that reason, whiskey, bourbon, rum, and ever-increasingly, tequila and mezcals are appearing, lush with infusions and complementary flavors, like the sage-infused Mezcal or kumquat-infused cachaça that barman Dick Swan has experimented with at breezy hideaway Cliff’s Edge in Los Feliz.

Interpretations of the concept reflect the the ethos of each establishment as the seasonal cocktails reflect their surroundings. Downtown hipster enclave Villains shares an owner, Dana Hollister, with Cliff’s Edge, and her garden provides fresh herbs for a number of drinks at both establishments. Villains has built a whole section of their menu around this garden, including a showcase of shrubs—fruit infused into liquor and vinegar, which is then mixed with other ingredients. This portion of Villains' spring/summer menu reflects vintage ideas about drinks and flavors, but with modern results. These drinks are darker, stickier, heavier and more lush. Try the Venus Flytrap, made with an apricot muscat shrub, tequila, sea salt and orange with some of the delicious bourbon bacon popcorn or the Angel's Trumpet which features a spicy ginger pomegranate shrub.

Ray's and Stark Bar at LACMA has built a menu around the fresh herbs from the garden behind the restaurant. Curl up in the outdoor area after a visit to the museum with a pizza and a Paul Sanguinetti's super light Rose Wishes and Lavender dream made with gin, rose, St. Germain, fresh lavender syrup and lemon or a Peaches N’ Herb, with Mezcal, local peach honey, lime juice, and sage from the garden.

Not surprisingly, some of the most exciting cocktails are also happening in conjunction with the food. Restaurants like the Eveleigh, Sadie, Wood and Vine, and Ammo are well-known for their seasonal drinks and their fresh produce approach to that menu. The Hungry Cat in Hollywood, and now Santa Monica Canyon, has long demonstrated an interested in making sure that fresh produce and herbs never go to waste, including using the same ingredients at the bar and in the kitchen. With berry season coming up, the Hungry Cat staff will create syrups and infusions from this produce. Stone fruit means both a delicious bite of peach in a drink, as well as house-made amaretto, and don’t even get started on the bitters…hop bitters, grapefruit bitters, you name it. “Preserving berries in liquor is a long standing way to keep the flavors of the season going,” explains the Hungry Cat's Tim Staehling.

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The Tasting Kitchen takes a similar approach to their preparations. Justin Pike explains, “When they are in season, we use meyer lemons to make an amazing bourbon drink called the "Freelove cocktail", where I make a meyer syrup infused with fennel seed and vanilla beans. We then use Buffalo Trace bourbon and fresh lemon to balance it out, shaken over a large rock. The other way we use seasonal fruits would be in bitters, right now i have a plum bitters that is almost ready that i started last winter, when the kitchen was using them in braised pork dishes.” This creation of infusions, bitters, and syrups is a way for each bar and bartender to put his or her distinct stamp on both a drink and a legacy of drinks.

Garrett McKechnie of 1886 found a plethora of chamomile at a local market and decided to make a syrup. Matt Biancaniello used memories of childhood strolls through farmer’s markets as inspirations for his savory "Walk in the Garden." Naomi Schmiek, beverage director at The Spare Room, makes her own locally-sourced liqueurs. “All of them are made with fruits and herbs that we have grown ourselves or foraged from the Hollywood Hills. I like to give myself little challenges, like making an Italian-style amaro using only ingredients found growing within 3 miles of the hotel,” explains Naomi.

All of this means that the farm to table cocktail is more than a handmade drink. It is a transformative experience, a personal communication between farmer, gardener, bartender and patron. The best of these drinks rival a master chef's creation, and the simplest reflect the beauty of the seasons. And best of all, these simpler examples can be made at home. “I start with the ingredients for a traditional daiquiri,” explains Matt. “Spirit, sugar, citrus and ice. Change out the spirits, the herbs, the type of citrus. Find something at the farmer’s market that inspires you. Be bold, be brave, and enjoy.”

With farmer's markets, CSAs, gardens and the gorgeous bounty of a Southern California summer harvest coming up, take Matt's advice and elevate your beverage of choice or visit one of the many options around the city and consider that cocktail an inspiration in a glass.