Destinations

Cocktailing Like a Celeb on California's Santa Catalina Island

The edge of the coast with sail boats.
Caption: Southern California's Santa Catalina Island has many ties to pop culture and the film industry — we took a look at how you can drink to them. Photos by Nilina Mason-Campbell.

Located off the coast of southern California, Santa Catalina Island sits as the crown jewel and main hub of the Channel Islands. Its picturesque bay is dotted with sailboats and the island itself offers a vibe of down-to-earth luxury. Departing from Long Beach, the Catalina Express escorts visitors to the island several times per day. The trip only takes an hour, but feels like a true escape. The island has a kitschy relationship with wine and spirits rooted in pop-culture thanks to the 2008 film "Step Brothers" starring Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly. The comedy features a fictional Catalina Wine Mixer event as a plot point and for the past two years the island has started throwing its own version of the event in ode to the movie. The 2nd annual Catalina Wine Mixer went down during September, but visitors can create their own off-beat, spirited weekend on the island year round.

Catalina has been home to a wide range of inhabitants, from indigenous populations centuries ago, to Spanish explorers, Hollywood stars and the Wrigley chewing gum dynasty. The Wrigley family’s name and influence is still present throughout the island from the East End adventure tour company that still operates today, to a botanical garden nestled in the mountains above the island’s main town of Avalon and on the cocktail menu of the fine dining Avalon Grille restaurant. Featuring over a dozen craft cocktails, the main attraction on the menu is the Wrigley martini. Combining Hendricks Gin with Noilly Prat Dry and topped off with an olive, the martini is a tribute to William Wrigley Jr. who transformed the island into the tourist mecca it is now.

A martini, garnished with an olive. The Wrigley martini combines Hendricks Gin with Noilly Prat Dry and is topped off with an olive as a tribute to William Wrigley Jr., who transformed the island into the tourist mecca it is now.

Another send up to Catalina’s history is the island’s signature Buffalo Milk cocktail that appears on bar menus throughout Avalon. Over one hundred bison roam the island’s arid ridges, descedants from the original pack that was brought over in 1924 for a western movie shoot and left to the wilds once it wrapped. While the recipe shifts from bar to bar, the ingredients remain mostly the same and include vodka, Kahlua, milk, crème de cacao and either fresh bananas or a banana liqueur. The vibrant, kitschy tiki bar Luau Larry’s features the drink prominently on its menu, as does Mexican restaurant Maggie's Blue Rose and the ocean-side Bluewater Avalon.

Similar to how the Buffalo Milk cocktail doesn’t actually contain buffalo milk, the grand Catalina Casino stands as the island’s most noticeable and iconic buildings, but doesn’t actually feature gambling. And tucked behind the circular structure is the Descanso Beach Club with rows of white beach chairs, over-sized white umbrellas and sandy beaches for visitors to enjoy by day. While drinking on the beach is illegal throughout Los Angeles County, by charging a small access fee, Descanso operates as a private club and therefore allows it. Access is a mere $2, while a Chaise Lounge Pair starts at $50 and and cabanas can be booked starting at $100. However, if you’re visiting Descanso’s bar or restaurant, access is included.

A frothy cocktail with whipped cream on top. The Buffalo Milk cocktail also nods to Catalina's film history. Over one hundred bison roam the island’s arid ridges, decedents from the original pack that was brought over in 1924 for a western movie shoot and left to the wilds once it wrapped. While the recipe shifts from bar to bar, the ingredients remain mostly the same and include vodka, Kahlua, milk, crème de cacao and either fresh bananas or a banana liqueur.

The Buffalo Milk cocktail isn’t the only cross-over concoction to appear across the island. Another is the Mexican Lolly which can be found as a shot on Luau Larry’s menu and in the form of boozy ice-cream served up at Descanso Fresh. The cafe offers adult versions of smoothies and ice cream that require ID. The menu changes seasonally and as Desiree Hernandez, an island native serves as manager of Descanso Fresh explains, the eatery collaborated on the frozen version with guidance directly from Luau Larry’s that blends raspberry vodka with pineapple, mango puree, peach and watermelon Schnapps along with Tapatio and Tajín seasoning for a spicy, sweet taste. Other current flavor offerings include Buffalo Tracks and Brandied Cherries and Chocolate, which features cherries soaked in brandy, covered in chocolate and spun into ice-cream. A bourbon strawberry lemonade sorbet was the seasonal highlight of the previous summer.

A cup of boozy ice cream. Boozy Mexican Lolly ice cream is just one of many imbibes to make you feel particularly fabulous while on Catalina Island.

For those wanting their wine fix in place of the Mixer, a stay at Pavillion Hotel can take care of that. Every afternoon, the boutique hotel serves an array of international wines to its guests as part of a complimentary happy hour. General manager Andrew Allen and Violet Alcala are responsible for a rotating selection culled from South Africa to Argentina that changes by the week. The Taste of Catalina company also offers a daily happy hour walking tour that visits a handful of the island’s most notorious establishments over the course of two hours to sample the Buffalo Milk cocktail and a variety of other island mainstays.

A person pouring wine into a glass. The 2nd annual Catalina Wine Mixer went down during September, but visitors can create their own off-beat, spirited weekend on the island year round. For those wanting their wine fix in place of the Mixer, a stay at Pavillion Hotel can take care of that. Every afternoon, the boutique hotel serves an array of international wines to its guests as part of a complimentary happy hour.

As a day trip or over-night experience, Catalina Island’s wine and spirit options live beyond the movie "Step Brothers," but still uphold a familial vibe due to the community spirit harbored by the island’s establishments.

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