Since she can remember, Darian Jones has disliked the taste of gin, so much so that she swore it off and never ordered it at a bar.
That all changed when she went to in Seal Beach. Inside the restaurant, one of the bartenders suggested a cocktail made with gin, and assured her she’d like it. She took the dare and was shocked, she said.
“It was actually really good,” she said.
At 320 Main, the approach to cocktails is different, said Jason Schiffer, a mixologist who co-owns the establishment with his wife. Cocktails are revered as a delicate balance between art, imagination and science, he said. The result is an eclectic menu of drinks made with ingredients many people have never heard of.
“Most of my liquor is unrecognizable,” he said.
To make the cut, each spirit must meet strict quality criteria and be sampled in advance, he said. And most of the juices and mixes are homemade, he said.
Garnishes, too, are carefully thought out. To prepare the bar's “Old Fashioned,” a whiskey cocktail, Schiffer uses lemon and orange zest and rubs it around the edge of the glass, letting the citrus notes blend with the rest of the drink’s flavors.
“Cocktails are America’s gift to the culinary world,” he said.
Recently, Schiffer’s passion and talent for bartending was recognized at the United States Bartender’s Guild, sponsored by DonQ Rum. He won an award for best cocktail against 16 bartenders from the Los Angeles area. As part of the contest, entrants had to submit a cocktail recipe made with DonQ Rum and, if chosen, make the drink at an event with other finalists. The winner advanced to the national competition in New York City.
For the regional competition, Schiffer made a concoction he calls “Foxy Brown,” a blend of DonQ Cristal Rum, coffee liqueur, homemade Orgeat and lime juice. The creation was garnished with a lime shell filled with Fernet Branca.
“When you compete, you’re looking to ‘wow’ the judges,” Schiffer said. “Your average drink is not going to impress them.”
At the national competition, Schiffer joined 44 other bartenders but was not chosen as a winner.
Although he said he enjoys making creations with many different spirits, his favorite is rye whiskey.
Schiffer particularly favors cocktails that embody the fresh and creative tradition of bartending that was popular before Prohibition, he said. During that era, bartenders used high quality spirits and only seasonal fresh ingredients, he said.
“When I learned that I thought, ‘Why don’t we do this now? This is amazing,' ” Schiffer said. “They paid attention to ingredients and cared about them.”
After Prohibition, he said, the quality of spirits went down, causing bartenders to “drown the bad taste in juice.”
“Now, we’ve developed a culture where people don’t want to taste the liquor,” Schiffer said. “My job is to bring the liquor up to the forefront.”
Schiffer said most of his knowledge of cocktails and bartending history is self-taught. He has also worked with bartenders such as Ken Hall, who has earned the title of world’s best flair bartender several times.
Schiffer studied under Hall at the Voodoo Lounge at the Rio in Las Vegas, where he found his passion for bartending. As a barback at the lounge, Schiffer worked hard to earn a spot tending the bar.
“I made sure that those bartenders never went without anything they needed,” he said. “I studied recipes, had the passion and eventually went from the bottom of the food chain and surpassed others.”
That gave him the confidence and drive to open his own establishment. When he moved to California, 320 Main was born, and has been open since September 2009.
At 320, he said, quality is maintained by sending his bartenders through extra training and occasionally testing them.
Schiffer said his approach to cocktails is the first of its kind in Orange County. At 320 Main, the average price for a cocktail is around $10. During happy hour, drinks start at $4.
Despite the recession, Schiffer said, the bar is doing well, and has plenty of repeat customers, such as Jones, who now isn’t afraid to try new spirits.
“I enjoy their mixology,” she said. “If I want a nice cocktail, I come here.”