The Wildcat is often considered one of Santa Barbara’s best places to hit the dance floor, but there’s another notable event to explore at the only LGBTQIA nightclub with a dedicated weekly queer party. This year marks the 11th anniversary of Farm to Bar, a weekly Tuesday cocktail party using both foraged and farmer’s market ingredients, featuring the imaginative creations of Shaun Belway.
Bartender at Wildcat and manager of the Bobcat Room (the neighboring sister property), Belway joined the team in 2011, shortly after Farm to Bar founder Patrick Reynolds created the event as part of the community fundraiser for Paralympian Andre Barbieri, who lost a limb in a snowboarding accident.
Reynolds and Belway worked together at Hungry Cat (now closed) in SB, and they were eager to find ways to innovate cool cocktails. Both had also spent a lot of time in restaurant kitchens, so the idea of bringing together hyper-local, seasonal ingredients from around Santa Barbara appealed to them both.
Belway, who grew up in the lower Eastside Milpas region, has since brought some of her childhood influences to the menu using produce from the community or ingredients found in nature. “I’m looking for a lot of what we use for cocktails at Bobcat,” he says, chatting during his weekly Tuesday afternoon walk to the farmer’s market.
“Some things, like fennel, grow everywhere. I’ve been digging into this since I was a kid. When I grew up on the Eastside of Santa Barbara, it was my job to tend the fennel that grew by the creek in our yard. Except we didn’t even call it fennel; we called it a licorice plant back then.
Today, Belway uses fennel for its seasonal Farm to Bar version of a whiskey sour. It’s mixed fresh with apples at Bobcat. “Most of the flavor in fennel comes from the bulb. And since it grows underground, it takes a lot of work to clean and prepare it. To save time, I come to the Farmers Market and grab whatever is in peak season for my Farm to Bar cocktails.”
He hands me a ripe, spongy berry that seems to be falling from the vine: the white mulberry. This drought-tolerant fruit is at its peak for harvest, and it is not bothered by pests or susceptible to disease. “It’s a very unique bay; looks pretty weird; they grow on trees; the fruit grows super fast, but the harvest season is very short! So you have to know when to get it back, otherwise it’s gone!
Walking with Belway is like walking in a Farmers Almanac. Topics such as moon cycles, harvest dates and the history of Santa Barbara are covered over a sweet taste of dates, fresh spearmint and fenugreek sprouts. For him, these weekly visits to farmers’ markets aren’t just for sourcing ingredients; they are also an opportunity to connect with the community and imagine its cocktails, which sometimes look more like healthy elixirs than alcoholic libations. That said, as the general clientele orders drinks containing alcohol, he has noticed a growing trend towards non-alcoholic mocktails. It makes perfect sense given the freshness of originality that exudes from his designs, many of which are almost entirely made from scratch.
“There are some things we make in-house, like ginger beer, for example. I love ginger; we juice 10-20 pounds a week for cocktails. At Bobcat, we’ve never used “bottled” ginger beer, it’s a lot more work, but I like the taste.
Tuesday happy hour is casual, usually a mix of locals and farmers’ post-market customers. Light bites are often included, and there is always a sense of community and sharing. Remember there is a tag for ordering Farm to Bar nights; forget about vodka tonics or Jack and Cokes – just name your liquor of choice and let the Farm to Bar team take care of the rest. Tuesdays are their day to be creative and experiment with all things fresh. My drink on a late spring day? Ginger infused gin, crunchy snow peas, chamomile flowers and the last green grapes of the season. Delicious!
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Tuesdays, 4-8 p.m., Farmer’s Market fresh cocktails made with sustainably sourced ingredients and layered with homemade shrubs, syrups and infusions. Wildcat Lounge, 15 W. Ortega Street, wildcatlounge.com.
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