Event - Winter Cocktail Menu Tasting at Scott's Restaurant

Elegance. It reverberates in the private room from the moment we step inside and catch a glimpse of the inviting fireplace, dim lighting, lounge set-up, and isolated bar. There is a touch of "Orange County" to it all where though we feel that the night is to be elegant, we also do not feel a pressure to be on our very up and up. Call it the southern Californian charm to be nicer than saying we're just a bit more laid back. Scott's Restaurant seems to always have had an air of greater sophistication than your typical restaurant as a neighbor to South Coast Plaza and like kin. Attracting corporate lunchers and meeting holders, the restaurant finds itself business central during the day and subject to pre-theatre guests during the nighttime. We came in for a wintry preview of what new weapon they had added to their arsenal to lure in additional guests, and that weapon was mixologist James Wood.

We are no strangers to James, having imbibed of his concoctions when he was at Hopscotch (the work of which notably earned him a Golden Foodie Award for his mixology) on several occasions, but what we were new to was the idea of him leading the charge at a place like Scott's. That is no offense to him at all - I am just referring to the flavors of the crowds between the two restaurants and how strikingly different they are. Did this mean that James was going to change the type of menu driven here?

If you don't know anything about James, you should know that he was born in England but raised in Scotland (mark that off the list of questions you'll ponder when being served by him - you'll most certainly wonder about the accent). As one of the forerunners for the mixologists' cocktail scene in Orange County, he is always playing with flavors and striving to make the best drinks around for whatever occasion. He expressed to all in attendance his philosophy of having a "clean" style and never stopping creative activity. We prompted him also to share with us some insight on his favorite spirits -whiskey is his favorite to imbibe whereas tequila is the fun mixing spirit of choice due to its complexity.

The cocktail list was by then in front of us to survey and await pouring from. They certainly held the familiarity of James' recipes but in a style suited to the frequenters of Scott's. Considering the volume of cocktails we would be trying, we were glad to see our tastings come out in sample sizes. In other words, rejoice for yourselves in knowing that the pictured glasses are not the full sizes. We started with the Blossom (Templeton rye, St. Germain, Noilly Prat vermouth, whiskey barrel bitters, orange zest) which was paired with the house Slider (home made pizza dough bun, havarti cheese, french fries). There was no beating around the bush in this situation or any light palate opener to begin the slew of alcohol - a whiskey base to start it was and what a nice one to use. I found each sip enjoyable as the orange zest mellowed out any bitter innate notes from the other ingredients in the entire drink. Then James had some fun sharing with us his Shake (rye whiskey, Cherry Heering, mild vanilla, Aztec chocolate bitters, rosewater, 2% milk), an intentionally messy drink designed to "meet and beat the chocolate martini." It both looked and felt like a milkshake, and we had a good time learning about the history of Rock & Rye whiskey that was used (during the Prohibition, rye whiskey was so terrible that places added rock candy to help it along). Apparently, the style is slowly making a comeback. The rosewater helped make it easy to drink and though I enjoyed it, I did not finish because I unfortunately am milk intolerant (darn).

Several menu items floated along throughout the night but it was obvious that the cocktails reigned supreme over everyone's attention. The next cocktail we tried contained my own favorite spirit (gin) and was just about my favorite for the evening - his Rosemary (junipero, St. Germain, bruised rosemary) paired with Calamari (Spicy Provençal Style Viognier). The herbal and distinct notes of juniper came through at a distance on the nose, and the bruised rosemary garnish seeped its flavors in easily on the palate. I enjoyed the brevity with which this sat on the tongue and the brightness of a more natural approach (herbs and flowers and berries, oh my!). Soon after, we met James' Jalisco (agave underground tequila, Cointreau Noir, Kubler absinthe, lime twist, rhubarb bitters), one of his own favorites to make and have that also was in Duc's top two that night. It takes a particular person to enjoy this one because of its inclusion of absinthe, a licorice-heavy flavor that stays and stays and stays. Once banned in the US, it is a spirit that is slowly learning how to come back into the hearts of drinkers and one that always threatens on overpowering other tastes. Luckily for Scott's, James has wrangled the spirit down with others to make it a palatable one for those of us who don't prefer it and a delight for those that do (I'm in the former group...and I easily took more than one sip - let's not talk about how many exactly).

The last three cocktails of the evening continued the line of winter-appropriate cocktails. All of the ones we had had, save for the milkshake, begged a scene of "warm and cozy" alongside friends and family, especially the Rosemary. When he brought out the Rouge (Hardy V.S. Cognac, port, lemon, cranberry, cinnamon), the holiday spirit was in the air. Simply elegant, this dark red cocktail pulled together fall and winter elements and suggested to the drinker nostalgia - who doesn't get whisked away upon the smell of cinnamon and cranberry together to a past holiday time? He did apologize for this was missing its Luxardo cherry garnish but we were fine without it for the time being. This was served with Brussel Sprouts that were simply roasted but flavorful. Next up was the Hops (Hophead Hop Vodka, Aperol, orange, lemon, honey), a drink not for everybody for its inherent bitterness. We had never heard of the vodka before but it was developed by Anchor Distilling Company in San Francisco (though we've had their beers!) and captured the hops essence. If you are an IPA lover, you should give this one a shot. The last cocktail of the night was James' favorite (and became Duc's) - the Barbadian (Mount Gay Black Barrel Rum, Amaro Nonino, hibiscus elixir, lime mint), a complex drink easily taken in a more refreshing direction by the inclusion of lime and mint. This came with Crab Cakes (serrano aioli, organic carrots, microgreens) but really needed no more dressing except the good company of close friends and family. It was a fair balance of sweet and sour, deep and light.

Overall the cocktail menu came together cohesively with its wintry theme, and it shall be fun for anyone wanting to give it a try. There is certainly a distinct flavor profile per cocktail which makes it easier to appease everyone in your group. Our thanks to James for the tasting, Kitchen Table for the invitation, and all at Scott's for the evening!

Photography by Duc Duong. More photos available on Facebook here.

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