Painting with Flavors. The Real Farm to Bar Adventure
Last week, I was invited to attend the 6th year anniversary of “Farm to Bar”, held at Wildcat in Santa Barbara. The “Farm to Bar” is a weekly 4-hour-ish event hosted by some of Santa Barbara’s finest cocktailers, with a straightforward concept – bartenders exploring farmers markets for a few hours and concocting a variety of delicious cocktails with the freshest ingredients the market had to offer. Needless to say, this was one invitation I wasn’t going to pass up.
So here I was, on a Tuesday afternoon, excited to finally have a place where I can get a decently crafted cocktail during happy hour! I was facing the front door at the local dance club, Wildcat – and memories of late nights with my favorite bartender Nicole, promoter and good friend Robert, and the whole Wildcat crew flashed before my eyes. While the “Kitty” is, to this day, the best spot to dance and have one of those memorable nights (some of which I have a hard time remembering :), the club is one of the last places I picture when I think farmers market craft cocktails.
That was, until I walked through the door that Tuesday afternoon to see the place transformed into a bonanza of fresh produce, herbs, flowers, and a bouquet of ingredients I haven’t even heard of.
And on top of that, I look to my left and see Patrick Reynolds – the farm to bar creator and, in my opinion, the first real mixologist in Santa Barbara. I needed nothing more – I was eager to start tasting some cocktails!
Of course, as per usual, I was in early as I was too excited to get my camera ready and get some behind the scene shots! Now, I’ve worked at many bars, and I’ve had my fair share of laborious stints, but I haven’t seen a pre-shift like this. Bartenders were working it! Vegetables and fruit were being sliced ever so deliberately, in all kinds of shapes and forms, herbs and flowers were neatly ornamented, organized and chilled. Shaun (the main bartender) was making wondrous tequila infusions on the fly, while the rest of the crew were sorting just straight out bizarre cocktail ingredients, all in anticipation of the spree that was about to happen.
These guys were already working with so much enthusiasm, and the place wasn’t even open yet. I stole a moment of Patrick’s busy day to ask him about how it all started…
The idea came to me when I was waiting at OKR with my Chefs from Hungry Cat. We were waiting for the Tuesday Farmers market to open. I saw six bad ass chefs all doing the same thing, having a scrimshaw, going over order lists and talking story. I thought it would be awesome if we had a place for Chefs, Farmers, Artists and enthusiasts of the unknown to come together, talk story and create the next chapter in Santa Barbara F&B.
At 4:30, when the prep craze had somewhat calmed, the doors opened, and slowly but steadily the place started to fill in with people ready to dive into the world of fresh produce, creativity, and lots of booze. As I sat back with my camera, Partick, Shaun, and Forrest carefully measured each ingredient and shook every drink with speed and finesse.
There is no menu at Farm to Bar! You would simply say a few words to describe what you like, and a few seconds later, a delightful concoction with would appear in front of you! I was so impressed with the bartenders’ creativity and consistency. Believe me, tailoring customized cocktails upon request with no menu and set recipes is challenging, especially when you have to do it for a few hours. Watching Shaun pouring cocktails was truly inspirational.
For the four hours that I was able to experience this show of creativity, I don’t think he repeated a single cocktail! WOW! So I had to ask him to make me something, and before I can finish the word “tequila,” he already had a bottle of infused tequila and a jigger ready. With a few swift maneuvers, an intense muddle of spicy carrot cubes, and that big smile of his, Shaun served me a bright yellow cocktail with a bunch of fresh stuff floating inside – a mystery of flavors. This gem was colorful, sharp and aromatic; it was like a carnival party for all my senses. I was too excited to ask what was in it, and to be honest, not knowing was half the fun.
Of course, I tried everyone’s cocktails that day, and each time the bartenders delivered a superb libation that did not leave my taste buds disappointed.
Around six o’clock, in the midst of sipping another delightful concoction, loud cheering interrupted my gusto. I turned around to see what was going on – Kyle Peete, one of farm to bar OG’s walked into a standing ovation.
I have been having so much fun already I forgot that this event was “half anniversary and half a big send off”, as Kyle was heading to Chicago the very next morning to start mixing it up at Aviary – one of the best bars in the world. While this was a rather bitter sweet moment for everyone, as Kyle shook his last farm to bar cocktails, it was also a true testimony of the progress that the cocktail scene of Santa Barbara has been experiencing over the last few years.
As I was roaming around with my camera, trying to capture the perfect shot, I watched each bartender make drink after a drink and not miss a beat. As a cocktail creator myself, I have to say, I was dazzled by the ease with which these barmen made gorgeous cocktails with very limited resources. While there was plenty of fresh produce, each bartender had pretty much only rocks glasses and basic bar tools at their disposal.
Just a few drinks ended up in a snifter, and there was no fancy whipped cream dispensers, swizzle sticks, brulee torches or extravagant garnish gadgets.
These lads were approachable, funny, and they made mixology so much fun.
After a few cocktails, we found ourselves doing what bartenders do best – discussing mixology, work, relationships and just life in general, and then Patrick said something that truly stuck with me.
Farm to Bar’s motto is Honor, Awareness and above all Respect. No one that comes through our doors will ever be judged for their taste in drinks. If you want a vodka soda instead of one of our weird fresh drinks, then we’ll make the best damn vodka soda we can. Because in the end, people are paying our rent for painting with flavors, it is an honor.
My whole belief in a sentence!
This was an authentic “Farm-to-Bar” adventure and over all a genuinely enjoyable experience, and I personally can’t wait to get back there for some delicious libations and a little inspiration!
So if you’re in Santa Barbara, put the “Farm to Bar” on your “must” list!
Farm to Bar
Hours of Operation:
430pm to when Wu-Tang comes on. It’s usually about 8 pm, you’ll notice because we usually have an amazing Record Master Valdas spinning 50’s Vinyl.
Patrick’s favorite Farm to Bar Combos
Hickory Smoked Pistachios with Peaches, Thyme, Lemon, and Whiskey make a sense memory of BBQ in Georgia. Heirloom Tomato, Opal Basil, Meyer Lemon and Gin make you think you are having a lactose intolerant Caprese. Guavas, Burnt Sage, Cochi Americano Aperitif Lime and 4yr Rum give you the feeling of being in Cuba. Escapism doesn’t have to start and end with TIKI joints, sense memory goes beyond Disneyland themed décor in my personal opinion.
Just ask him to make you a rum or a cognac drink… or both!