Searching for the Quintessential "Laguna Beach Cocktail”

​Laguna Beach definitely has a vibe. It’s always shifting, always evolving, always transforming -- but it’s a vibe nonetheless.

In fact, the ineffable spirit of the city is what keeps this beach community from ever feeling generic. There’s just something in the air here. 

The town’s bartenders understand the Laguna Beach vibe better than perhaps anyone. They’re our modern-day greeters and unofficial tour guides -- pouring cocktails for longtime locals, transplants who fell in love with the town and never left, and guests eager to experience what the city has to offer. Over the years, most of Laguna’s bartenders have tried their hand at distilling what’s so special about this place into a glass. One perfect cocktail that says “this is us.” 

The six drinks below offer a range of interpretations on the “Laguna Beach cocktail.” Some are timeworn classics, others are new additions. Each says something about the city and its residents. If you’re looking to understand Laguna while enjoying a night on the town, these picks offer a natural starting point. 


THE HIBISCUS MARTINI - HARLEY

“This was the first drink that I put on the menu,” says Anese St. John, lead bartender at Harley. “It just clicked, instantly. This is a martini town. They want flavor, but no one wants anything too sweet. It’s almost like a Cosmo but more floral -- with hibiscus tea infused into vodka, passion fruit Giffard [a liqueur], a little bit of limoncello, and some citrus.” 

The result is a bright, light cocktail that looks stunning. Though it’s not currently on Harley’s menu, St. John and her team are always ready to mix one up for locals or visitors in the know. 

“It’s bright pink without any fake coloring,” St. John continues. “Just naturally beautiful… like Laguna Beach.” 


THE OLD FASHIONED - MARINE ROOM TAVERN

“This drink is quintessential Laguna Beach because it’s quintessential Marine Room,” says Brooke Amber, bartender at this local institution. “It’s warm, it’s sexy, it’s fun, it’s comfortable -- everything that we stand for in this town and this bar.”

It’s no surprise that a bar with such a rich history would put forward a classic cocktail to embody the town’s ethos. The differentiating factor here is the care that Amber and her fellow bartenders put into their Old Fashioned's. Made with Bulleit Rye, angostura bitters, water, a touch of simple syrup, and a twist of orange peel, this is a classic done right. 

“Come in, sit by the fire with an Old Fashioned, play a game of pool, and listen to live music,” Amber says. “You’ll be living your best Laguna life in no time.”


THE “POPO SHOT” - THE SALOON

Popo Galsini was a famous tiki master, who opened this bar forty plus years ago,” says Colby Brown, bartender at The Saloon. “This was the drink he liked to drink and make for his friends and we’ve been making it here ever since.” 

Though the Popo Shot isn’t on The Saloon’s menu, it sits along this classic watering hole’s famous Pino (pineapple infused vodka) as the drink that Laguna locals love to introduce newcomers to. The recipe is held tight, but the Popo is based on coffee liqueur and typically either taken as a shot or served in a glass with cream. While the drink is well-known throughout town, Brown says it’s most commonly recommended by local bartenders, waiters, and chefs who come in after their shifts. 

“We never really have to tell anyone about it,” he says. “They hear about it from someone who loves the drink and knows the story behind it and it gets passed down from person to person in true Laguna fashion.” 


THE NANDO - THE SANDPIPER

Sandpiper Lounge Laguna Beach

“This was named by a customer who asked for ‘that pink drink’ and then insisted I name it after myself,” says Fernando Chavez, bartender at The Sandpiper -- Laguna Beach’s locally-beloved dive bar. “It’s a drink that our patrons know to ask for and order repeatedly because it’s not too sweet.”

Pineapple and grenadine give the cocktail its distinctive color, adding a certain brightness and balance that can be hard to find a volume bar like The Sandpiper. 

“The goal was to taste like a Laguna Sunset,” Chavez says. “But it’s pretty strong, so I’d describe it more like a very buzzed Laguna sunset.”


THE LOUCETTE - BROADWAY BY AMAR SANTANA

“This is a light, citrus-forward, refreshing vodka cocktail,” says Mark Austria, drinks manager at Broadway by Amar Santana. “I can’t tell you how often people are looking for something that feels like it fits the spirit of the town -- and they would never let us take this off the menu.” 

The Loucette is made with vodka, Carpano Bianco vermouth, grapefruit, lime, honey, and a spritz of rosemary. The result is a drink that encapsulates lauded chef-owner Amar Santana’s mentality in the kitchen -- refined, yet approachable. Like Santana’s dishes, Austria and his team don’t want one flavor note to overpower the delicate alchemy of the whole. 

“We’re about balance here,” he notes. “When someone comes in looking to match that classic, breezy, light Laguna beach atmosphere, this drink does the trick in a way that feels direct and fun but always balanced -- allowing them to continue that spirit into the evening.” 


PALERMO MARTINI - RISTORANTE RUMARI

“This is where Laguna Beach meets Sicily,” says Lucian Stefanic, general manager of Rumari, one of the city’s most storied Italian restaurants. “It’s that Mediterranean feel you get here from the weather and the spirit of the people. Lagunans, like Sicilians, know how to slow down and savor life.” 

The Palermo Martini is made with espresso, frangelico, Baileys Irish Cream, and Tuaca -- an Italian brandy that makes this drink an easy sipper, yet still packs a punch. Like many of the other cocktails on this list, balance is the key for the Rumari bar team. The bitter espresso and frangelico notes keep the Baileys and brandy combination from getting too saccharine.  

“This is a drink that highlights the Laguna Beach-Italy connection,” Stefanic says. “It’s a place where you can loosen up, laugh loudly, and enjoy a long evening without always worrying about what’s next.” 


Of course, these six entries are only the tip of the iceberg for anyone exploring Laguna’s nightlife. Bartenders through town pride themselves on knowing the local clientele. Ask any of them for their riff on a “Laguna Beach cocktail” and you’re sure to get a wide range of drinks, each with something unique to say about the town, the people who live and work here, and those who come to visit. Cheers! 

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About the Author
Steve Bramucci

Steve Bramucci

A Laguna Beach ambassador, Steve Bramucci's writing has appeared in the pages of USA Today, Afar, Outside, Huffington Post, COAST, OC Register Magazine, MadeMan.com and other online and print outlets. His novel, Ronald Zupan and the Pirates of Borneo!, publishes with Bloomsbury in 2016. Follow him on Twitter @stevebram.

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