O.C.’s Best: Whiskey Cocktails

Can’t handle the burn of straight whiskey? Try it in a cocktail.

Whiskey is complex, sometimes medicinal, and often an acquired taste. That’s the very reason it does well in cocktail form: It can stand up to any sweetness. Here are five bars in Orange County where you can find your gateway whiskey drink. 

1 Hammer Workshop & Bar
Select from a trio of cocktails, including, above, from left to right, the Kentucky Buck, Cocktail de la Louisiane, and Lion’s Tail. The Kentucky Buck is for ginger lovers, with ginger beer, citrus, and bourbon. The more advanced whiskey drinker might enjoy the Cocktail de la Louisiane, with rye whiskey, vermouth, Benedictine, Peychaud’s bitters, and absinthe; it definitely packs more of that medicinal punch. Find some tiki-meets-Christmas in the Lion’s Tail, thanks to the addition of allspice flavoring. Other ingredients in this prohibition-era cocktail are Buffalo Trace bourbon, fresh lime, simple syrup, St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram, and Angostura bitters for a crisp, balanced drink. $10 to $12. 440 S. Anaheim Blvd., Anaheim, 714-635-8665, anaheimpackingdistrict.com

2 Social
You wouldn’t think whiskey could be good for summer, much less brunch, but the Little Red Riding Hood fits the bill at Costa Mesa’s latest hotspot. Bar director Mike West’s elegant concoction is made with white whiskey, apple brandy, hibiscus liqueur, lemon, simple syrup, bitters, a float of Champagne, and a thick and luscious meringue topper—it’s a perfect alternative to the mimosa. For a bit of interactive theater with your whiskey, try the Gunslinger. You’ll be presented a small bottle with vapors swirling atop a mixture of rye, bourbon, and house-made black tea syrup. Pour the liquid into the glass provided and then choose between lemon or orange oils to finish off a bracing but balanced drink. $12 to $14. 512 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa, 949-642-2425, socialcostamesa.com

3 Little Sparrow
If you’re trepidatious about trying whiskey, take small steps with the appropriately named Baby’s First Bourbon: bourbon, lemon, house-made orgeat, and bitters are shaken, then served in a coupe glass. It’s bright and invigorating but still gentle enough on the nose and palate. The Valentino Driver is another easy-on-the-gullet pick, with bourbon, Gran Classico, fresh blood-orange juice, and bitters, all topped with French sparkling wine. It’s another effervescent, brunch-worthy drink. Expect it to be made with a fresh berry shrub for summer. $12. 300 Main St., Santa Ana, 714-265-7640, littlesparrowcafe.com

4 Arc
An homage to the classic Brown Derby cocktail, the Pink Derby is its refreshing cousin, made with bourbon, gin, lemon, and cava. It’s served in a sleek white-wine glass, the perfect thirst-quencher for warm days and evenings sitting at the bar in front of Arc’s blazing, wood-fired oven. Another cooling pick is the Fiya Water, with whiskey, house-made vanilla-pineapple syrup, fresh Meyer lemon juice, and black Onyx bitters. It smells like a sweet tropical vacation but isn’t too saccharine. If you’re ready to graduate to a more intense-but-smooth whiskey cocktail, try the Threes Company—a Spanish take on a Manhattan, with bourbon, sherry, Gran Classico, and house-made Onyx bitters. $12 to $14. 3321 Hyland Ave., Costa Mesa, 949-500-5561, arcrestaurant.com

5 Haven Gastropub
Since opening six years ago, Haven has been known for its extensive whiskey selection—way before whiskey became the “it” spirit. Women favor the Peaches O’Houlahan, made with Buffalo Trace bourbon, crème de peche, honey, lemon juice, and egg white, with a dusting of grated nutmeg. It’s a floral, fruity number that’s easy on the palate. For something Old World, try the Blood & Sand. Made with Famous Grouse scotch, Cherry Heering, sweet vermouth, and orange juice, it sounds like it’s going to taste awful, but it works, with a pleasing, smoky-sweet finish. $12. 190 S. Glassell St., Orange, 714-221-0680, havengastropub.com

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