The Wildcat is often referred to as one of Santa Barbara’s best spots to find yourself on the dance floor, but there is another notable happening to explore at the only LGBTQIA-friendly nightclub with a dedicated weekly queer night. This year marks the 11th anniversary of Farm to Bar, a weekly Tuesday cocktail hour using both foraged and farmers’-market-sourced ingredients, showcasing the imaginative creations of Shaun Belway.
A bartender at Wildcat and manager at the Bobcat Room (the sister property next door), Belway joined the team back in 2011, soon after Farm to Bar founder Patrick Reynolds created the event as part of the communitywide fundraiser in support of Paralympian Andre Barbieri, who had lost a limb during a snowboarding accident.
Reynolds and Belway worked together at the (now closed) Hungry Cat in S.B., and they were eager to find ways to innovate fresh cocktails. Both had also spent a good amount of time in restaurant kitchens, so the idea of bringing together hyper-local seasonal ingredients from around Santa Barbara appealed to both of them.
Belway, who grew up in the lower Eastside Milpas area, has since brought some of his childhood influences to the menu by using community-sourced produce or ingredients found foraging in nature. “I forage for a lot of what we use for the cocktails at Bobcat,” he says, chatting while on his weekly Tuesday-afternoon stroll at the farmers’ market.
“Some things, like fennel, grow all over the place. I’ve been foraging this since I was a kid. When I grew up on the Eastside of Santa Barbara, it was my job to take care of the fennel that would grow near the creek in our backyard. Except we didn’t even call it fennel; we called it a licorice plant back then.”
Today, Belway uses fennel for his seasonal Farm to Bar version of a whiskey sour. It’s blended fresh with apples at Bobcat. “Most of the flavor of fennel comes from the bulb. And since it grows underground, it takes a lot of work to clean and prep. To save time, I come to the farmers’ market and pick up whatever is at peak season for my Farm to Bar cocktails.”
He hands me a ripe, squishy berry that looks like it just fell off of the vine: white mulberry. This drought-tolerant fruit is at its peak for harvesting, and it is not bothered by pests or susceptible to disease. “It’s a very unique berry; looks pretty weird; they grow on trees; the fruit grows super quick, but the harvest season is very short! So you need to know when to pick it up — otherwise it’s gone!”
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Walking with Belway feels like a stroll through a Farmers’ Almanac. Topics like moon cycles, harvest dates, and Santa Barbara history are discussed over a little taste of date, fresh spearmint, and fenugreek sprouts. For him, these weekly farmers’ market visits are not just for ingredient sourcing; they are also an opportunity to connect with the community and dream up his cocktails, which sometimes sound more like healthy elixirs than alcoholic libations. That said, while the general clientele order drinks containing alcohol, he has noticed an increasing trend toward alcohol-free mocktails. It makes perfect sense considering the fresh originality that comes in his creations, many of which are made almost entirely from scratch.
“There are certain things we just make in-house, like ginger beer, for example. I love ginger; we juice 10 to 20 pounds per week for the cocktails. We’ve never used ‘bottled’ ginger beer at Bobcat — it’s a lot more work — but I prefer the taste.”
Tuesday’s happy hour is casual, usually a mix of locals and post-farmers’-market patrons. Light bites are often included, and there’s always a feeling of community and sharing. Just keep in mind that there is an etiquette to ordering on Farm to Bar nights; forget about the vodka tonics or Jack and Cokes — just name your spirit of choice and let the Farm to Bar team take care of the rest. Tuesdays are their day to be creative and experiment with whatever is fresh. My drink on a late spring day? Ginger-infused gin, crunchy sugar snap pea, chamomile flowers, and the last green grapes of the season. Delicious!
Tuesdays, 4-8 p.m., farmers’ market fresh cocktails featuring sustainably sourced ingredients layered with homemade shrubs, syrups, and infusions. Wildcat Lounge, 15 W. Ortega Street, wildcatlounge.com.