As cocktail culture becomes exceedingly elaborate, it’s comforting to fall back on the ol’ standbys: margaritas, Manhattans, and martinis. You don’t need an advanced degree in mixology to recognize these drinks. That’s part of their charm. They stand the test of time because they’re straightforward and dependably delicious. But that doesn’t mean bartenders can’t take a little creative license with their recipes. In fact, in the Coachella Valley, many local ingredients perfectly play with what we already know and love.
Roly China Fusion, Palm Springs
The traditional gimlet is a preparation of gin, lime, and soda with nearly 100 years of history. Simple and effective, if not entirely boring. Palm Springs’ eclectic new dim sum spot in the Uptown Design District is the perfect setting for the Eastern-inspired cocktail.
Here, lime is subbed out for the eponymous Asian citrus — noted for its strong aroma and grapefruit-like bitterness. “Yuzu fruit is a hybrid between a mandarin orange and an Ichang papeda,” general manager Al Barnes explains. “Usually, you’d only use vodka or gin and fresh juice. But we’ve added basil, mint, and club soda.”
The extra ingredients are gently muddled into the mixer, imparting a pleasing herbaceous undertone into this food-friendly preparation. It also minimizes the tartness of the juice. It’s all rendered upon a foundation of vodka, as opposed to gin, making each sip go down easier than the last.
Workshop Kitchen + Bar, Palm Springs
Tall, cool, and refreshing, the Vodka Collins is a perennial favorite for beating back the desert heat. But to many palates, the heavy-handed presence of sweet and sour mix can be too cloying.
Dave Castillo offers a remedy with his hand-crafted variation, incorporating the herbal edge of poppy flower along with a touch of bitterness from fresh grapefruit.
“If you’re accustomed to requesting something with vodka — but not too sweet — this is the drink for you,” says the bar manager at this stylish James Beard Award-winning venue.
Sofia's Chavela at The Place in Indian Wells.
The Place, Indian Wells
Despite its vague name, The Place in the lower lobby of Renaissance Esmeralda actually focuses on some truly specific alcoholic arrangements. Its current cocktail list devotes an entire section to drinks inspired by the valley — built with “hyper-local” ingredients.
Taking its cues from the traditional cerveza preparada that has long kept Mexicans cool on warm desert afternoons, this drink centers around a light lager from Coachella Valley Brewing. Into the mix enters comforting umami notes of Clamato, along with the sturdy spice of Chohula hot sauce.
The “beertail” was named after Sofia Garcia, who works on the property’s food and beverage team. She lent the bar a recipe passed down from her abuelo. “Still to this day, when we have family gatherings, we make batches of this and it connects us to our past,” she says. Here, the drink arrives in a glass rimmed with tajin for added heat. Or sip it with a tamarind candy straw for something sweet.
Citrus & Palm Restaurant, Indian Wells
Miramonte Resort & Spa’s key eatery bills itself as an elevated “farm-to-fork experience.” It turns out that its bar program is equally as devoted to locally sourced ingredients.
The signature sipper here is a riff on an Old Fashioned incorporating maple syrup, chocolate bitters, and oranges grown on-site. The eponymous ice sphere at its core is frozen, in part, out of fat derived from the storied Mangalica pig. The unexpected ingredient imbues the arrangement with depth of flavor and a slightly silky mouthfeel.
“This animal has 92 percent monounsaturated fat. We call it the walking avocado,” says executive chef Paul Hancock, who helped conceive the cocktail. “When you pour whiskey over it, it mellows it out. Plus, it’s heart healthy.”
Morgan’s in the desert, La Quinta
For almost a decade, La Quinta Resort & Club’s signature restaurant has been a reliable outpost for contemporary fare in an elegant hacienda setting. Come for the culinary experience, but don’t sleep on the cocktails. Behind the bar, Brian Dewberry assembles high-minded tipples that’ll take taste buds on holiday.
In his African Flower, he employs a house-made honey syrup along with orange bitters and Italian liqueur to form a modern spin on the Manhattan. “I got the inspiration because I like the smell of amaro and orange,” he explains, “but I had to find the right combination of flavors to blend together.”
If popular demand is any indicator, he’s landed on a successful result. “I’ve had people come from Los Angeles,” he says, “just for this drink.”
PÍvat Smoked Old Fashioned
Pívat Cigar Lounge, Rancho Mirage
To mine even deeper flavors from American whiskey, bartender Haley Pruitt developed a smoke-infused sendup of the Old Fashioned. It’s right at home in the cigar lounge inside Agua Caliente Resort Casino Spa, where connoisseurs puff on Cohibas while lounging in leather armchairs. “Cigars take up to an hour to smoke so it’s a time to sit there and talk to one another,” Pruitt says. “And with a bourbon cocktail, it’s not a shot. You’re also taking time to enjoy the spice, the nuttiness.”
The partnership between stogie and spirit is noted. But Pruitt positions them closer still by smoking the classic cocktail with apple wood chips. In an Instagrammable presentation, the drink is placed under glass while the bartender pipes in a cloud of potpourri-like flavor with the help of a special smoke gun. Then, its topped with a drop of orange bitters and a garnish of Luxardo cherries.
“It’s quickly become one of our most requested cocktails,” she notes. “It reminds me of autumn and smells like a campfire.” On the tongue, it’s every bit as comforting as those aromas suggest.
Pívat Smoked Old Fashioned at the Pívat Cigar Lounge inside the Agua Caliente Casino in Rancho Mirage.
The Prickly Pear
Eight4Nine Restaurant & Lounge, Palm Springs
Prickly Pear margaritas are such a ubiquitous modification of the traditional tequila mixer that they’ve almost become a classic in their own right. Tart, tangy, and tinted magenta, the fruit of the opuntia cactus is as noticeable for what it adds to a cocktail’s color as for what it does its flavor.
But be wary of the shine. Just because a drink looks delightful doesn’t mean it will taste the same — unless you’re at Eight4Nine, of course. This buzzy lounge that feels more like a modern art gallery excels at melding style with substance. The Prickly Pear stands above its countless counterparts thanks to a house-made syrup, imbuing brightness and structure in every sip.
Rather than drowning out the hearty silver tequila at its core, the fresh fruit elongates the earthiness of the agave. “Bright citrusy tones are complemented by the prickly pears slightly earthy flavor,” beverage director Noah Stroup says. “It’s eye catching but also quite delicious.” Despite sipping on something shaded like Barney the Dinosaur you know you are, in fact, indulging in an adult beverage. And a fine one at that.