Magic in a Glass

Shake up some summer refreshment with these handcrafted cocktails.

By Sara Beckton-Leon

Photo by T Christian Gapen w/ Gina Cowden

Ventura bartender Sara Beckton-Leon concocts the perfect pour in her Bell Arts studio


ara Beckton-Leon knows her booze. As a bartender for 10 years, the last four in Ventura County, she has spent a long time contemplating the blend, balance, complexity and preparation that synthesize a great cocktail. The Oxnard native also takes her tools of the trade seriously: When she’s not tending to customers at Fluid State, she’s in her Bell Arts Factory studio designing her own line of barware, available at her Etsy shop, ParlorRoomGoods. Beckton-Leon put her sorcery with a shaker to work for Ventana Monthly, mixing up magic in a glass using locally sourced ingredients that celebrate this warmest and sunniest of seasons . . . and providing sensational sipping options for every hour of the day. Let the party begin!

If you have never heard of a Negroni, get with it. It is Italy’s most famous cocktail: herbaceous, bitter, sweet. This version, however, is a little lighter and more palatable with the addition of lemon, and made nice and frosty in the blender. Perfect as an aperitivo.

TIP: Pre-mix your liquid ingredients and chill so the ice doesn’t turn soupy. Blending ice dilutes more than the average cocktail, so amplify your sweet and tart to retain flavor in the finished drink.

3 oz. gin (such as Plymouth Navy Strength)
2 oz. Campari (can substitute Bruto Americano or Gran Classico)
2 oz. sweet vermouth (such as Dolin or Carpano Antica)
3 oz. fresh lemon juice
1 oz. simple syrup
1-2 fresh strawberries

Add gin, Campari and sweet vermouth to a jar or bottle and put in the freezer for at least an hour. (It won’t freeze due to the high alcohol content.) Add gin mixture, lemon juice, simple syrup and strawberries to a blender. Add enough crushed ice to just cover the liquid. Blend until smooth but not soupy. Pour into wine goblets and garnish with lemon twist. Makes 2 servings.


This everything-but-the-kitchen-sink drink takes its inspiration from the summer garden. You can find all of these ingredients at your local farmers market. Ask for “second” tomatoes, which are more ripe, less expensive, and do not need to be pretty since they are going in the blender. Nearly any spirit works here. For a bright, neutral option, try a citrus vodka. Gin, such as Ventura Spirits Wilder, will make for a more herbaceous libation. My favorite: 0.5 oz. Del Maguey Vida mezcal combined with 1 oz. silver tequila.

1.5 oz. spirit of choice
4 oz. Tomato-Watermelon Agua Fresca (recipe below)
3 basil leaves
2-3 slices serrano pepper

Muddle basil and serrano in mixing tin. Add spirits and agua fresca. Top with ice, shake and pour into a mason jar rimmed with salt. (Hawaiian black lava salt makes a dramatic presentation.) Garnish with a speared serrano, watermelon cube and basil leaf.

Second-quality heirloom tomatoes
Lime juice
Simple syrup (1:1 sugar:water blend)

Add roughly equal amounts of tomato and watermelon to a blender. Blend until smooth. Strain mixture into a clean pitcher and discard the solids. For every 8 oz. of tomato-watermelon juice, add 3 oz. of lime juice, 2 oz. of simple syrup and 1 oz. of water.


For the beauty-loving imbiber. This brunch-ready cocktail is intense, yet crisp and refreshing, as well as absolutely beautiful. Using crushed ice allows the drink to stay frosty and dilute slowly. Don’t be put off by the vinegar! Shrubs, or drinking vinegars, were used as the first soda bases and provide an amazing way to preserve fruit in a sweet and tart fashion.

1 oz. rye whiskey (Bulleit Rye or Rittenhouse Rye are good choices)
0.5 oz. mango balsamic vinegar (available at Vom Fass)
0.25 oz. mint simple syrup
1.5 oz. dry sparkling wine
6 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters

Pour rye, vinegar and simple syrup into mixing tin. Add ice, shake and strain into tall Collins glass. Pour sparkling wine over whiskey mixture. Pack glass with crushed ice and top with generous amount of bitters. Garnish with a bouquet of fresh mint. Serve with a straw and a swizzle stick — this cocktail was designed to be consumed from the bottom up.


An afternoon drink to bring out your inner scientist. Milk punch (not to be confused with New Orleans milk and brandy punch) is popping up on bar menus across the country. A culinary cousin to consommé, this milk-clarified concoction dates back to the 1600s and offers infinite possibilities. It’s great for making large batch cocktails that keep for a very long time — up to a year in some cases. The milk clarification actually preserves the punch and leaves behind a silky, delicious, crystal-clear liquid. Preparation is easy but requires a few days for the flavors to mature and meld.

This is a riff on the painkiller, a classic tiki cocktail that takes the flavors of tropical summer and makes them deliciously transparent.
1 pineapple, cubed
6 oz. coconut water
4 oz. fresh orange juice
2 oz. fresh lime juice
Zest of 1 orange
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon fresh grated nutmeg
2 broken cinnamon sticks
8 oz. spiced rum
8 oz. aged rum
4 oz. velvet falernum
10 oz. scalded milk

Place pineapple, orange zest, sugar, nutmeg and cinnamon sticks in a large container with a tight-fitting lid. Muddle ingredients together. Top with coconut milk, orange juice, rums and falernum. Cover and let sit overnight. Next day strain out the solids, add the lime juice and scalded milk. The milk will curdle and separate. Cover again and let sit overnight in refrigerator. Next day, strain mixture through a sieve lined with cheesecloth. DO NOT press milk solids to extract more liquid. You can pass the punch through the milk solids a second time to filter it again. To serve, pour over a large ice cube and garnish with fresh grated nutmeg. Makes 1.25 liters.

Store in a clean jar and keep in the refrigerator. Enjoy and see how it changes and develops over the months.

London Fog meets the tropics. Another variation of milk punch made with Earl Grey tea, lemon, orange, spices and rum.

Zest of 3 lemons
Zest of 1 orange
15 cardamom pods, broken with a heavy spoon
2 star anise, broken with a heavy spoon
2/3 cup granulated sugar
14 oz. spiced rum (such as Humboldt Organic Spiced Rum)
2 oz. Benedictine
2 oz. velvet falernum
24 oz. strong brewed Earl Grey tea
6 oz. fresh lemon juice
12 oz. scalded milk

Place zest, cardamom, star anise and sugar in a large container with a tight-fitting lid. Muddle ingredients together. Add rum, Benedictine, falernum, tea and lemon juice. Cover and allow to marinate overnight. Next day, strain out solids. Then add the scalded milk to rum and tea mixture. Milk will curdle and separate. Cover and allow to sit in refrigerator overnight. Strain mixture through a sieve lined with cheesecloth. DO NOT press solids to extract liquid. Re-strain to clarify more. Discard solids and store clarified punch in a clean bottle in the refrigerator. Gets better over time. To serve, pour over a large ice cube with an orange twist and star anise. Makes 1.5 liters.


Fernet is kind of a service-industry thing. More bitter and herbaceous than the average amaro, fernet may be difficult for the layperson to “get.” It is, however, a spirit beloved and admired by chefs, bartenders, San Franciscans, Italians and, most of all, Argentines. Bitter but beautiful, the Fernet Fizz makes an excellent after-dinner drink.

1 oz. Fernet Branca
1 oz. Cynar 70
0.5 oz. fresh lemon juice
0.5 oz. honey syrup (1:1 honey:hot water)
1 egg white
Fresh sage, for garnish

In a mixing tin, add all ingredients and shake without ice for a minute or two to fully incorporate the egg white. Add ice and shake for another 16 seconds. Strain into a rocks or old fashioned glass over an ice sphere, or straight up in a coupe or martini glass. Garnish with a bouquet of smacked sage.


Start with good ingredients
Good cocktails are made from good ingredients. Quality spirits does not mean top of the line (in fact, I usually discourage using top-of-the-line ingredients for mixing drinks) but cheap, poor-quality options are best avoided.

Please use fresh juices, fruit, herbs and spices! In Southern California we have a bounty of wonderful fruit and citrus available year round, so do your taste buds a service. Bottled juice has no soul. Also, go organic if you are using peels.

Trust your palate
Feel free to adjust measurements and ingredients. To mix drinks is to be quasi-scientific and curious. Ask yourself what you like about it or what you wish it had more of. Is it too strong or too sweet? Cocktail making is about balance; don’t be a stickler. If it tastes good, you are doing something right.

Ice is an important ingredient
Freshness counts for ice, too. I always use filtered water and I don’t let it sit in my freezer forever. I use standard ice trays, as well as big and small ice trays and sphere molds. Store ice in a container with a lid so it does not absorb the rest of the flavors of the freezer. Market-purchased bag ice is OK for blended drinks, but to avoid watering your drinks down, use cube ice.

For perfect crushed ice, do it by hand. Place ice in a canvas bag (such as a Lewis bag, which is designed for the purpose) and smash with a mallet. If you don’t have a bag, use a dish towel and give it some good whacks. Those of you who are lucky enough to have a crushed-ice maker built into your freezer . . . congratulations.

Make your own syrups
Simple syrup is so easy to make, there’s no reason to buy it off the shelf. Equal parts sugar and water, put it in a pot, heat it up — boom. Flavor with herbs or spices, if desired, by throwing ingredients in after sugar is dissolved — turn off the heat and steep for 20 minutes or so. To make honey syrup, simply dissolve the honey in hot water. Homemade syrups will last about one month in the refrigerator.

Have the right tools
You do not necessarily need an arsenal of bar tools to make drinks. If you have a sturdy wooden spoon, you also have a muddler. We muddle to press ingredients to extract oils and flavors. DO NOT PULVERIZE!

A mixing tin is essential. You can use an ordinary pint glass as the top. They are technically called Boston shakers, but I have used the bottom part of a cobbler shaker (the three-part shaker you find in every store but never behind a bar) with a pint glass to mix drinks in as well.

Other necessities:
Hawthorne strainer (with the coil)
Hand juice press
Vegetable peeler
Sharp knife
Micro plane
Jigger or measuring device
Bar spoon

Ventura County Certified Farmers Market
Locations all around the county
Fresh herbs (Sara likes Baltazar Herb Farm), fruit, citrus, honey and more. Second-quality produce is cheaper and ideal for smashing and blending.

576 E. Main St., Ventura
805.628.3267 or
Great for salts, sugars and teas.

Vom Fass
451 E. Main St., Ventura
805.641.1900 or
Flavored vinegars, oils and liqueurs

Ojai Beverage Company
655 E. Ojai Ave., Ojai
805.646.1700 or

Santa Cruz Market
1947 E. Main St., Ventura

Total Wine and More
394 N. Moorpark Road, Thousand Oaks

Sara Beckton-Leon


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