Farm and Forest to Cocktail
Like all kids, Katie Blandin Shea wanted summer to last forever.
On family camping trips in Big Sur, she’d inhale the mix of pine needles, bay leaves and salted ocean air, and wish she could preserve that moment in a glass so she could serve it back to herself later.
Now, as an adult, she can.
Blandin Shea owns and operates Bar Cart Cocktail Co., a Carmel Valley-based cocktail consulting and catering company that creates signature drinks for birthday parties, holiday celebrations and small, intimate weddings. Each drink she creates, like the party itself, is grounded in a specific place and time.
Katie Blandin Shea, owner and operator of Bar Cart Cocktail Co., brings her love for fresh and foraged cocktail components to a workshop called Flowers + Gin, which is a collaboration with florist Lolo Cumming. All photos by Evynn LeValley.
“I try to capture the essence of the season,” Blandin Shea said. “I like to use really fresh ingredients. Everything is wild foraged, grown in my garden or locally sourced.”
And yes, “wild foraged” means exactly what you think it does.
To create a taste of late fall in Northern California, Blandin Shea returned to the Los Padres National Forest near Big Sur and hiked through the woods, collecting small pinecones and needles from the Pinus Lambertiana, otherwise known as the Sugar Pine.
She returned home, washed the dirt from her collection, added lemon rind and submerged it all into a liter of gin. She sealed the creation and left it to infuse for a week.
“Pine liqueur is traditional in Europe,” Blandin Shea said. “In the U.S. though, it hasn’t really caught on.”
Neither have marigolds—not behind the bar anyway, but Blandin Shea is all over them.
“It’s my flower of the season,” she said. “It goes well with orange peel. I made a syrup with it and dried it to use in a tea.”
Known as “the poor man’s saffron,” marigolds add a strong yellow-gold hue to a drink and a sharp scent that can spur a flood of memories.
“It’s the traditional Day of the Dead flower,” Blandin Shea said, adding that she uses them to infuse tequila for her Dye of the Dead cocktail.
A graduate of California Polytechnic State University’s Agribusiness program, Blandin Shea started her career on a cattle ranch that also grew herbs and apples. There, she learned to cook and found herself both inspired by the farm-to-table movement and slightly impatient with preparing food.
“You can be cooking all day before you get to eat,” she said. “Make a drink and you get to enjoy it immediately.”
One night in a bar — where else? — Blandin Shea met a florist who was similarly committed to sustainably produced local and seasonal plants, flavors and scents.
“We met over a martini,” Lolo Cumming said, “a gin martini, and we started talking. And that very night, I think, we started planning workshops we could do together.”
Now, seven years later, Cumming owns Burst and Bloom in Carmel Valley and collaborates with Blandin Shea four times a year on cocktail-building workshops they call Flowers + Gin.
“I’m always a proponent of using all parts of the plant, even the rough parts and the sticky parts,” Cumming said as she arranged wild roses, amaranth flowers, marigolds, pine needles and pine cones on a long table in the guest house at Folktale Winery and Vineyards, where she and Blandin Shea held the Fall Flowers + Gin workshop.
The workshop was only the second they’ve hosted but it sold out quickly with a mix of repeat customers from the first class and new faces. Called for a 1 p.m. start on a Sunday, the first participant arrived 20 minutes early for the three-hour class.
“I’m just so excited,” the woman said. And quickly, another two eager students arrived.
Blandin Shea welcomed them all with sparkling pink champagne flutes. “It’s a local take on a Kir Royale. It’s made with Folktale’s Sparkling Brut and a syrup I made with huckleberries I foraged in Pebble Beach.”
Soon, a dozen women assembled, ready to learn, create and taste locally sourced cocktails.
After the Folktale Royale, Blandin Shea served the season’s Flower + Gin cocktail, made with pine liqueur, lemon juice and zest, apple juice, quince juice and sparkling water. She also gave each participant 8 oz of gin in a sealable container and talked them through using the ingredients on the table to make their own pine infusion.
The second course featured marigold-infused tequila and the huckleberry syrup, for the Dye of the Dead. And the workshop wrapped up with The Autumn Rouge, a whiskey drink made with the marigold and red berry herbal tea, honey and Blandin Shea’s summer bitters.
Bottled three months ago, the summer bitters included wild-foraged or estate-grown huckleberry, elderberry, wild strawberry, mint, marigolds, lemon peel, lemon verbena, pineapple sage, honey, potato spirits and water.
“Smells like summer in Northern California, doesn’t it?” Blandin Shea asked.
Yes, tastes like it too.