It was not “Mad Men” protagonist Don Draper’s name or profession that viewers learned first.
It was his drink of choice: “Do this again — old-fashioned, please.”
Whether meeting clients or dining with his wife, Megan, that’s what the advertising executive was seen reaching for.
Guests with a similar preference can visit Mesa, which counts the Mesa Old Fashioned among its bestsellers, between March 2 and 8. The Costa Mesa bar is one of 45 participating in the first-ever OC Cocktail Week, organized by the OC Restaurant Assn. — the same group that hosts OC Restaurant Week.
Eliott Montero, Mesa’s bar director and assistant general manager, concedes that he is on somewhat of a “cocktail week” kick: He’s on the advisory board for Los Angeles’ The Golden State of Cocktails, recently visited Scottsdale for Arizona Cocktail Week and is already gearing up for New Orleans-based Tales of Cocktail in July.
He finds that the upcoming festivities are a great opportunity for spots in Southern California to show off their drinks.
“Orange County has kind of been in the dark in terms of cocktail culture ... a little slow coming out of the Cosmopolitan and RedBull-Vodka era,” Montero remarked.
Socializing has long revolved around alcohol, but about five years ago Montero noticed an increase in the importance of cocktails. He recalled accompanying Mesa’s bar captain, Devon Encheff, to downtown Los Angeles just for a drink.
“I think this is happening because people are starting to care about what they eat and drink again,” he said. “Fresh ingredients are alive and well again, people are much more health-conscious, and this reflects on what they choose to eat, and now it’s finally making its way into cocktails. We are in the era of the celebrity chef. I guarantee we’ll see the bartender hit that level soon.”
For $20.14, participants can pair food with drinks at restaurants including Charlie Palmer at Bloomingdale’s, CUCINA enoteca, McCormick & Schmick’s, RA Sushi, Tamarind of London and Zimzala.
Pam Waitt, president of the OC Restaurant Assn., has been toying with the idea of such an event for almost three years. Guests often wish that Restaurant Week, running from Feb. 23 to March 1, lasted two weeks instead of one, she said. So this year the group’s members voted to offer Orange County a fortnight of two different kinds of culinary fun.
“We are basically showcasing the craft cocktail movement that is evolving in Orange County,” Waitt noted. “Cocktails are deserving of the same respect that a great meal is, and hopefully Cocktail Week will show that to people. It is about the contribution of bartenders, who have evolved to a bar chef, if you will.”
Jason Schiffer, a United States Bartenders Guild board member and founder of the Orange County Bartender’s Cabinet, has noticed that guests not only prefer fresh and house-made ingredients but are also moving away from neutral spirits like vodka to more flavorful ones like rye whiskey and mezcal.
With 16 years of bartending experience under his belt, he decided to work closely with Waitt on Cocktail Week, armed with the belief that restaurants must be well-rounded. Along with providing drinks called Male Order Bride and Cheshire Grin, the co-owner of 320 Main in Seal Beach plans to offer classes — the first on martinis and the second on cocktail families.
“You can’t be going into a restaurant where the food, wine and beer are good but cocktails are mediocre,” said Schiffer, a fan of “having everything come together as an experience.”
Guests who consume a tad too much alcohol can count on most restaurants calling a taxi or driver service such as Uber to make sure they get home safely.
Sarah Dacey, corporate mixologist for Casa Resorts, which operates Laguna Beach-based House of Big Fish and Ice Cold Beer, recalls beginning her career behind the bar before the recession hit. Money — and alcohol — flowed more freely then, she recalled. Now patrons lean toward high-quality options at a more affordable price.
A fan of the creativity inherent in Cocktail Week, Dacey believes that cocktails can fly solo but when paired correctly have the power to enhance the overall dining experience.
“It’s important for all of us to remember that people have many dining and cocktail options, but they have chosen to spend their hard-earned money with us,” she said. “It’s part of our job as bartenders to remember that, making sure they have a memorable experience so they keep coming back for more.”
For more information about Cocktail Week, visit https://www.occocktailweek.com.
[For the record, 10:37 a.m. Feb. 27: An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed one of Jason Schiffer’s quotes to Pam Waitt.]