2000s Archive

Cooking Up Cocktails

Originally Published October 2006
No one orders the usual at Cyrus, in Healdsburg, California. Unless they usually drink a Pom-Iranian, Plum Dandy, or Rhubarbarella.


here are bars where you order “the usual.” And then there's Cyrus, in Healdsburg, California, where you're more likely to hear a patron ask, “What's fresh today?” From New York to San Francisco, this is a great time to get a drink. And not because “the Martini is back” for the umpteenth time. Two things are making mixed drinks better than ever: a return to the classics of the pre-Prohibition golden age, and a new culinary approach to making drinks. What the two have in common is a strong focus on ingredients. Early cocktails were the model of simplicity: a marriage of just two or three complementary liquids. These drinks worked because the spirits and the mixers tasted good in their own right. But Prohibition sent that trend spinning down the bathtub drain. Alcohol consumption may not have fallen during the Noble Experiment, but alcohol quality certainly did.

The recent craft-distilling boom in this country has greatly broadened the flavor palette available to innovative bartenders. A few are even taking some of their cues from the kitchen, shopping for herbs, fruits, and vegetables at farmers markets (the bartenders usually show up a little later than the chefs); using exotic spices, extracts, and essential oils; and steeping everything from tea to tobacco in various spirits.

The most extreme practitioner of this cocktailian focus on fresh and local ingredients is Cyrus’s Scott Beattie. Though he used seasonal produce in previous bartending jobs in San Francisco and the wine country, it wasn’t until 2004, when Cyrus’s owners hired him away from Martini House, in St. Helena, that he was able to immerse himself completely in the region’s riches. In addition to using all the incredible citrus in winter, herbs and berries in spring, and fruits and vegetables in summer and fall, Beattie builds recipes around the bottlings of nearby artisanal distillers like Domaine Charbay (primarily vodka and rum), Germain-Robin (brandy), St. George Spirits (eaux-de-vie and Hangar One vodka), Anchor Brewing Company (Old Potrero whiskey and Junípero gin), Distillery No. 209 (gin), Roth (vodka), and Sarticious (gin).

Beattie’s biggest advantage, however, is that he lives in the middle of produce paradise. To pick his own mint, edible flowers, Thai basil, and cilantro, all he has to do is walk four blocks from the restaurant to Love Farms, a highly regarded supplier of organic produce to many area restaurants. And twice a week he can swing by the Healdsburg farmers market to buy berries, peaches, cucumbers, and pomegranates. What he can’t buy he either grows or gets from friends who have Kaffir lime trees or fields overflowing with heirloom melons.

The drinks Beattie makes with this bounty are uniformly gorgeous. They also share eye-opening acidity. This is by design; after a long day of wine tasting, the fatigued palate desperately needs a pick-me-up. The acidity also keeps the cocktails from overwhelming the restaurant's food. And Beattie’s virgin versions of several drinks are so good that you barely miss the booze.

The fall cocktail menu at Cyrus might include the Pom-Iranian: pomegranate juice flavored with cardamom, black pepper, and nutmeg; mixed with Hangar One Mandarin Orange Blossom Vodka; regular vodka; and lime juice, served up in a glass rimmed with cardamom sugar. Or the Huck Yu: vodka, limoncello, local verjus, yuzu juice, and homemade huckleberry syrup, all topped with a splash of sparkling wine. In winter, most of the featured cocktails have fresh-squeezed local citrus as their base. Two of the prettiest drinks I’ve seen are on the spring menu: Plum Dandy (Hangar One Mandarin Orange Blossom Vodka, regular vodka, a wine called Ume Blanc that’s made from a plumlike Japanese fruit, homemade five-spice honey, lemongrass syrup, lemon juice, peppermint leaves, preserved cherries, jasmine flowers, and a splash of Seltzer Sisters seltzer) and Rhubarbarella (Hangar One Buddha’s Hand Vodka, regular vodka, lemon juice, ginger-rhubarb syrup, shiso leaves, and candied rhubarb, topped with ginger beer), which gets its amazing color from rhubarb stained with beets. But my favorite Beattie creation is the Irian Jaya (Hangar One Kaffir Lime Vodka, regular vodka, Kaffir lime leaves, red chile, candied lemongrass, and lime juice, topped with ginger beer), a summer drink that is unlike anything I’ve experienced before. The bubbles in the ginger beer seem to deliver the heat of the chile and the tartness of the lime to new places on the tongue; layers of flavor come along for the ride.

One customer called Beattie “beautifully obsessed.” And she didn’t even know that for months he's been working on getting water from the distilleries whose whiskey he sells for customers who like their dram with a splash. Needless to say, the logistics of having water sent from Scotland have proved prohibitive. But if it’s a Van Winkle Bourbon and branch water you’re after, there’s only one place I know of that sources both ingredients from the point of origin. For the thinking drinker, this kind of thing is irresistible. Ordinary hedonists will find plenty to like, too.

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