Escape the winter doldrums with these winter cocktails
By Aric Sleeper
Santa Cruz may not get a white winter, but it still gets chilly. When the frigid air and never-ending rain have kept you inside for an interminable stretch, and cabin fever has reached its peak, stop scrolling through pictures of sunny days and brave the journey to one of these Santa Cruz watering holes to both stave off that winter chill and brighten your spirit.
Tortilla Flats: Smoky Tuna
For that cozy, home-away-from-home feel, make your way to Tortilla Flats on Soquel Avenue. Once inside the nearly 40-year-old authentic Mexican restaurant, it’s hard not to feel like part of a family gathering. The cordial vibe beams from the long-time staff members, who could be considered de facto relatives at this point. “Like me, many of the staff have been here for more than 20 years,” says bar manager Zolina Zeravica. “Were like a family.”
Tortilla Flats’ drink to try this winter season is the Smoky Tuna—a mescal margarita complemented by the juice of locally sourced nopales, or cactus (also known by its alias, “tuna”). The smoky taste of the mescal and the fresh feel and tartness of the nopales juice are contrasted by a rim of sea salt mixed with authentic, dried Mexican grasshoppers. So don’t forget to take a break from the straw and sip from the side of the glass. “They’re salty,” Zeravica says of the grasshoppers. “They’re kind of nutty. Our cook’s wife gets them right from Mexico.”
The blood-orange colored concoction pairs well with any spicy dish on the menu, but teams up especially well with Tortilla Flats’ signature appetizer, the poblano relleno—a poblano chile filled with goat cheese, chorizo, scallions, and green onions.
Zeravica believes that a good winter drink should be strong, and the Spicy Tuna is certainly that. One might be enough, but they’re tasty enough to tempt a second round, so be sure to have a lift home or an umbrella before you venture out.
Assembly: A Touch of Grey
It’s been less than a year since Assembly gained the ability to serve hard alcohol, and they’re already trying to separate themselves from the pack with seasonal cocktail menus that offer a range of concoctions appropriate for before, during, and after a meal. The highlight of their winter menu, A Touch of Grey, tastes a little bit like a dessert drink, but easily stands on its own.
“It’s a loose play on a gin fizz,” says Assembly bar manager Zane Griffin. “I infuse London Dry Gin with Earl Grey tea, which really comes through. The gin is floral, bright, and botanical, and the tannins in the Earl Grey tea and the Bergamot orange notes really complement that.”
The unique drink’s other constituents (like orgeat, orange blossom water, and egg white) give it a velvety texture and a lightness that contrasts the herbaceous flavor and bite from the tea. And although the drink is creamy and smooth, the inspiration for its name is bittersweet. “It’s named for the Earl Grey tea, but also because I just turned 30,” says Griffin.
Front & Cooper: It’s Cornplicated
Just because it’s cold outside doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the atmosphere of the buzzy Abbott Square Market in downtown Santa Cruz. The square’s centerpiece, Front & Cooper, has already gained a following with its array of unique cocktails, which are as nuanced and abnormal as Santa Cruzans themselves. According to the establishment’s creative director, Kate Gerwin, a solid winter cocktail should be booze-forward, use seasonal ingredients, and warm you from the inside.
“I think of light, refreshing, citrus driven drinks in the summer, but when I’m thinking about a winter cocktail, I want a little more sustenance,” says Gerwin.
This winter, check out Front & Cooper’s hot buttered rum cocktail, It’s Cornplicated. The recipe was handed down to Gerwin her from her mother, who would make and freeze hot-buttered rum batter during the holiday season and give it away as gifts to family and friends.
“It’s just so damn good,” says Gerwin. “I love this stuff, and I thought I was really slick as a kid. I’d break into all the containers and scrape off the top layer, but my mom always knew. I’d get into a lot of trouble every time she made [it].”
Gerwin uses her mom’s beloved recipe, but takes it a step further by pairing the batter with butter popcorn-infused rum. “It’s butter, powdered sugar, cream, popcorn and rum. It’s rich, umami-flavored heavenly goodness,” she says. “It’s definitely not the kind of drink where you sit down and have seven of them.”