From his perch behind the bar at Redd, Jason Withrow knows that not everyone who comes into the Yountville restaurant is looking for wine.
“A lot of people are like, ‘I just want a cocktail,’” said Withrow, the restaurant’s bar manager. After a day of tasting in wine country, he noted, many customers appreciate that they can drink something different.
“It kind of rounds out their experience,” he said.
Cocktail culture continues to see a renaissance across the country, and if local bartenders have anything to say about it, the Napa Valley is not being left behind. With its wealth of local ingredients and access to high-quality spirits, not to mention an epicurean clientele, the region has become fertile ground for creative bartenders who want to push the limits.
It was unmistakable earlier this week at a holiday cocktail competition and party hosted by Mutineer Magazine at the Napa Valley Opera House, where several local bartenders showcased their skills. The event was sponsored in part by Anchor Distilling Company of San Francisco, whose President David King said the company wanted to be involved in an event outside the city, and liked the up-and-coming nature of Napa’s cocktail scene.
King was on hand to judge the competition, which featured eight bartenders incorporating a ginger-based liqueur called The King’s Ginger, as well as a little holiday cheer, into their signature drinks. The winner, a drink called “The King’s Waes Hail” by Michael Jack Pazdon of Solbar at Solage Calistoga, drew on ingredients such as Calvados, sweet vermouth, egg white and a homemade gingersnap spice tincture. Withrow, who came in second, created a drink called “Rosey Cheeks,” featuring gin, spiced orange syrup and fresh cranberries.
Mutineer Magazine, a chronicle of beverage culture, regularly relocates its headquarters to connect with different communities. Editor Alan Kropf said Napa had “always been on our radar” and, following stints in Los Angeles and Seattle, the magazine recently moved here.
“The restaurant scene in Napa can hang with any restaurant scene in the world,” Kropf said, adding that the cocktail competition was meant as a “different way to celebrate the Napa experience.”
Steve Middler, lead bartender at Morimoto, agreed that Napa, with its burgeoning waterfront scene, is drawing more customers who are looking for a late-night bar experience that includes interesting drinks.
“It’s the place to be right now,” said Middler, who created a drink for the competition called “Orenge Yaki” (meaning “burnt orange”) that featured Cognac, white chocolate liqueur and Szechuan peppercorn. He noted that the region also benefits from having access to its own locally grown ingredients, a luxury that cities don’t always have.
“Napa is able to take advantage of that more than anyone else,” Middler said.
The event also marked a departure for the Napa Valley Opera House, which was transformed into a mood-lit cocktail lounge, featuring a white leather bar, a disco ball and DJ booth. Photographers circulated the room and searchlights outside welcomed guests, who came from nearby and around the country.
“It’s exciting,” said Julie Dalrymple, the opera house’s marketing director. “It’s nice to see the space used this way.”
Even though the Napa Valley will likely always be known more for wine than cocktails, many believe there is ample room for both. Judd Finkelstein, the winemaker at Judd’s Hill Winery, is also founder of a cocktail appreciation group called Friends of Ardent Mixology or F.O.A.M. On hand as a judge at the competition, Finkelstein noted that while a barrel of wine takes several years to make, cocktails offer more instant gratification.
“They offer a way to experiment with flavors and layers and textures with immediate results,” he said. Before the competition began, he added that he was simply looking forward to seeing the talents of these top local bartenders on display.
“I want to see how creative people express their art,” Finkelstein said. “These people are artists.”
The King’s Waes Hail
Michael Jack Pazdon
1 oz. Christian Drouin
3/4 oz. The King’s Ginger Liqueur
3/4 oz. lemon juice
1/2 oz. Carpano Antica Formula
1/2 oz. egg white
Dash house-made grenadine*
5 drops gingersnap spice tincture**
5 drops Genevieve
Combine all ingredients, aside from the genever, in a mixing glass, dry shake for 10 seconds, add ice, shake hard and double strain into a chilled coupe. Float dehydrated apple chips, fresh grated nutmeg, rosemary flowers, 5 drops gingerbread spice tincture and 5 drops Genevieve on top of foam.
* Bring 1 part fresh pomegranate juice to just below a simmer, then add 1.2 parts granulated sugar and stir until dissolved. Let cool, then add rose water to taste. Bottle and refrigerate.
** Grind 2 tsp. cloves, 2 cinnamon sticks and 9 black peppercorns. Grate 2 whole nutmegs. Toast gently in a pan, remove and combine with 1 oz. grated ginger and 1 cup over-proof rum in an airtight container. Steep for 2 weeks, shaking daily. Strain and bottle in a medicine dropper.
1 oz. No. 3 London Dry Gin
1 1/2 oz. The King’s Ginger Liqueur
1/2 oz. lemon juice
1/2 oz. spiced orange simple syrup*
5 fresh cranberries
Muddle ingredients and double strain into a glass. Float The King’s Ginger Liqueur on top. Garnish with spiced orange zests.
*Boil equal parts sugar and water. Add 3 whole allspice, a cardamom pod, a 1-inch piece of vanilla, a 1-inch cinnamon stick and orange zest pieces. Continue boiling until zest is transparent.
1/2 oz. The King’s Ginger Liqueur
1/8 oz. St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram
1/4 oz. cinnamon maple syrup
1/4 oz. apple cider syrup
Combine ingredients in a pint glass filled with ice and stir. Strain into a rocks glass filled with ice and top with soda.