The Spirits are Calling: Behind The Scenes of Ojai’s Burgeoning Bartending Club
My favorite anecdote about bartending came courtesy of a mustachioed Englishman who lived in New York City in the 1970s, where his regular stop was the old Oak Bar at the Plaza Hotel.
According to this gentleman, a now-deceased raconteur and beloved friend, if you ordered a dry martini at the Oak, the bartender would fill a glass with gin and finish it with a mere wave of the cap from a bottle of vermouth. If, however, you ordered an extra dry martini, the bartender would fi ll your glass with gin then call the bartender at the Waldorf Astoria and have him whisper “vermouth” as he held the receiver of the phone over the top of your glass.
On a chilly Tuesday evening in downtown Ojai I got a behind-the-scenes look at how the world of bartending has evolved since the days of the old Oak Bar. I was a guest of the Ojai Spirit Cabinet, a self-described “think tank” of local bartenders who meet in their off-hours to innovate and tweak their liquid designs. They also want to promote the beverage scene in and around the Ojai Valley—from distillers and brewers to wineries and ag.
While the rest of East Ojai Avenue was closing down, Rubén Salinas was reopening the cozy tequila bar of Los Caporales Restaurant to host that evening’s meeting. As Salinas and Sam Gay, head bartender at Jimmy’s Pub at the Ojai Valley Inn and Spa, set up for the night—hoisting chairs off tables and arranging the bar with an assortment of bitters, herbs, syrups, fruit, liquors and chrome implements that looked alarmingly like torture devices from a dollhouse-sized dungeon—I was offered a glass of water.
The gesture set the tone for the evening: Tonight was not to be a flimsy excuse for getting drunk but rather a serious endeavor into the craft of making better drinks.
Much has been written about the rise of cocktail culture in recent years. Craft cocktails adorn even the most mundane menus, “mixology” has entered the popular lexicon and superstar bartenders have written shelves of cocktail cookbooks. Mixologists have aligned themselves with the artisan food movement.
There is, in other words, vast potential for pretension, and I had braced myself for the possibility of cringing.
As the rest of the bartenders arrived, many fresh from their evening shifts, my concerns were allayed. Jon Long, who works at both Ojai Beverage Company and The Ojai Vineyard, greeted me with a bear hug. Richie Smith, sporting flowing locks and leather pants, chatted about the best spots to sit at Azu Restaurant, the tapas restaurant where he tends the bar.
Steve Jaffe, a food and beverage industry veteran of establishments including the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel and currently wine captain and supervisor at the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa, talked about his collection of bar literature, including a charming sounding volume of early 20th century bar etiquette for ladies. Bartenders from Deer Lodge and The Hub, including Megg Sicotte-Kelly, a core member of the Ojai Spirt Cabinet, had also arrived.
It was time to get to work.
Gay kicked things off by introducing two locally produced liquors, the Ventura Spirits Company’s Wilder Gin and Opuntia, a prickly pear spirit, which would be the base for the evening’s experiments. Local was a recurring theme of the night, and the bounty of Ojai and Ventura County agriculture is a clear source of inspiration for the group.
Gay paired the gin with homemade rosemary simple syrup, some fresh lime juice and a dash of tonic water, at which point an enthusiastic debate broke out about brands of tonic water. Deer Lodge bartender and private chef Sandra Jones summarized, “Fever Tree is the [ultimate].”
The evening was marked by such spirited debates—on the merits of muddling (it works, up to a point), the benefits of infused syrups (more flavors to play with), cilantro in cocktails (surprisingly mild), whether The Bitter Truth bitters are worth the price (yes) and talk of occupational hazards, elbow strain being the primary affliction.
After testing two more cocktails on his fellow bartenders, Gay handed the bar over to Salinas, who started with a hibiscus tea and Opuntia concoction, topped with a dash of St-Germain, an elderflower liqueur. Gay explained that St-Germain is considered “bartender bacon,” “because you put it on top of anything and it makes it taste better.”
As Salinas moved on to his signature cocktail—a combination of mezcal, orange zest, agave nectar, chocolate spice bitter and bourbon that he has christened the Mezcal Antigua—he explained what he gets out of these meetings of the Ojai Spirit Cabinet.
“Most of the guys in this town have palates I really trust. It’s always nice to have the feedback to tweak it before it goes on the menu.”
Shortly after midnight, and many discarded tasting straws later, the evening’s formal agenda was over. Gay took to the bar again and offered to make each member of the group a serving of his signature cocktail, The Dettlinger, a bourbon-based riff on the classic English Bishop. It was an invitation that nobody could refuse.
For more info, visit Facebook.com/OjaiSpiritCabinet.
Taste a barrel-aged version of Sam Gay’s The Dettlinger while it lasts at Jimmy’s Pub at the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa.