As Luke Fisher prepares to make cocktails, his bar top looks more like a garden than a typical bar.
He’s got marigold flowers, arugula, tiny whole tomatoes, lemon verbena, flowering sage, mandarin oranges and a whole lot of other herbs, fruit and vegetables. They’re all ingredients for cocktails served at his “pop-up” cocktail parties – this one at Five Restaurant – hosted by his business, Garden Cocktails.
If this sounds like something different, it is.
You probably know that craft cocktails are becoming more popular in Fresno as bartenders increasingly use fruit and fresh ingredients. Keep reading and you’ll see how even chain restaurants are getting in on this action. And readers who follow me on social media know I love to play with simple syrups made with herbs and fruit in my cocktails.
But Fisher is painting with a whole different palette. It’s probably safe to say no one in town is doing what he’s doing.
We’ve got to lose that term, ‘mixologist.’ That’s so pretentious.
Luke Fisher, Garden Cocktails
He doesn’t use flavored simple syrups made from fruit and sugar, for example. Instead, he puts herbs, fruit and vegetables into alcohol until it is infused with the flavor. Most of those ingredients come from the garden on his family’s 2 1/2 acre home in Madera Ranchos, or local farmers markets.
He makes kumquat-infused gin, Cuban-oregano vodka and thyme-lemon verbena vodka. For the tomato tequila, he actually puts the tomato plant – not the tomato itself, but the plant’s green stem and leaves – into the tequila until it takes on the flavor.
The tomato tequila goes into a cocktail with Cuban oregano vodka, celery juice, Sun Gold cherry tomatoes and ghost pepper salt (salt with a kick from a chili pepper). The final product tastes a bit like a V8 drink, but better and more grown-up.
Garden Cocktails can be hired for private parties, weddings or other events. Or if people just want to try one of his $14 cocktails, they can go to a pop-up cocktail party at a restaurant. Campagnia will host them from 6-10 p.m. on Thursdays in November. The Standard is also hosting during the same time on Fridays in November.
Fisher, 37, grew up in Madero Ranchos and graduated from Fresno Christian High School in 1998. He moved to Los Angeles to tend bar, and he ended up working and learning from the man he calls the Yoda of garden-forward cocktails, Matthew Biancaniello. Biancaniello runs a similar business called Eat Your Drink in Los Angeles.
It’s exactly what it sounds like, treating cocktails like meals in the way flavors are combined.
Last week at Five, Fisher made me a cocktail named Halo No. 2.
He chucks an unpeeled mandarin orange into his cocktail shaker, along with a pinch of dill, lime juice, tequila, agave nectar (not the syrupy kind people put in tea or smoothies, but the more liquid Monin agave nectar) and ice.
It doesn’t have to be sweet.
Luke Fisher, Garden Cocktails
He muddles it all, popping the orange rind into pieces.
“It’s going to throw some bitterness in because some people don’t want it overly sweet,” he says.
After it’s poured over a large square ice cube, Fisher garnishes it with a fistful – no tiny sprigs for this guy – of dill.
And it’s delicious, of course.
Big garnishes are important, he says.
“It’s an aromatic, so while you’re drinking the cocktail, you’re smelling the garnish and it lifts natural flavors out of the cocktails,” he says.
Gary Lord and his wife, who heard about the cocktails through word of mouth, decided to give them a try last week. Lord ordered a Kentucky bubble bath, a drink made with whiskey and lavender water.
“To me, it feels like something you’d find in Portland,” he says of the event while sipping his drink. “You can’t taste any of it independently. All the flavors play off each other.”
Fisher, by the way, doesn’t like being called a mixologist.
“That’s so pretentious,” he says.
When I ask what to call him at the end of our interview, he picks the term “bar chef” on the spot.
Opening such a business in Fresno County was a natural choice for Fisher. So many of the ingredients are grown here.
Plus, it’s home. He’s so fond of this place he had the seal of Fresno County tattooed over his heart.
“I love this place. This is my home. I’ll die here,” he says. “It’s always been my home.”
Details: Garden-cocktails.com, firstname.lastname@example.org or 559-999-4852.
While chain restaurants aren’t doing anything on par with Garden Cocktails, they are realizing people like craft cocktails.
Black Angus Steakhouse had a whole menu of cocktails, which mostly used mixers. They scrapped it all last summer and rejiggered the recipes.
Now they use fresh lemon and lime juices and have bumped up the alcohol in drinks so you can actually taste it in everything from the No. 1-selling Gold Strike margarita to the Front Porch Mule, says David Bolosan, the company’s director of product innovation.
Last week the restaurant released its fall cocktail menu, which includes an old-fashioned Jack (a heavy pour of Jack Daniels with orange cinnamon bitters) and Jack’s berry margarita, which is topped with whiskey-spiked cranberries.
This fall it’s hot buttered rum. Made with Sun Liquor rum and house-made hot buttered rum batter, it is topped with a pat of butter that melts into the drink. They recommend pairing it with their chocolate torte or apple crisp.