I first heard of Luke Atherton from other local bartenders:
“Hey, you hear about this guy at Ricardo’s? His list is crazy”
“Hey, you should go check out this guy at Ricardo’s he’s got the first Okanagan barrel aged cocktails”
“You hear about this Luke guy from Ricardo’s? His list reads too good to be true, you should go check it out”…
… So I did. My curiosity was peaked. Not only did I recognize Luke from serving him and his lovely wife Mel at RauDZ in the past, but the rumours were indeed true.
In the middle of nowhere in Lake Country B.C. there was a self-taught Master of his craft, producing some of the most impressive cocktails I had ever experienced. This guy was riffing off of some of the Okanagan Cocktail Movement techniques that our local barkeeps had pioneered (“Outside the Bottle” locally sourced ingredients, Local beer reductions etc.) but taking them to the next level, creating his own house brands of Vermouths and Amaros and even his own “Broken-Jaw” spiced rum complete with painted bottle designs.
I was immediately blown away by his list, thinking to myself as I read each description “there’s no way that this is going to work - these ingredients will clash” and then eating (or in this case “drinking”) crow, as the cocktails presented were impeccably balanced at remarkable temperature. Case in point: The “Kentucky Bee Flat” a mix of Bourbon, Averna, Killer Bee Dark Honey Ale Reduction, Fernet Branca and lemon. Tinwhistle’s Killer Bee is dark and bitter, evoking a spoonful of molasses, Fernet is in my books the equivalent of Buckley’s, and Averna is also bitter-sweet…but somehow, this mysterious Luke character made these ingredients sing together, and I was instantly a fan. After repeat visits to taste more of his list, I realized this was not a chance experience, that there was something quite remarkable happening in Lake Country, and that this guy had no idea that his list and techniques could wipe the mat in any competition world-wide.
This isn’t hyperbole. Luke’s deft attention to measurement and technique is on par or beyond the best I’ve witnessed and his talent level is extraordinary. There is something about creating in a bubble devoid of influence, learning your own way, creating your own style, and measuring yourself against your own worst critic (yourself) that seeds a sense of fearlessness in exploration. I witnessed this over the Holiday season as I sat at Luke’s bar and saw him reducing his “Christmas Tree Reduction” behind the bar in two gigantic simmering pots, with wafts of every childhood Christmas memory filling the restaurant’s guests with wide-eyed curiosity. This barkeep is truly walking his own path, to his own beat, and to top it off, he is gracious and humble and not at all wrapped up in the bar-geek pitfalls of snootiness or pompous self-gratification.
Luke’s new list, just released, is a departure from his dark, brown-spirit and amaro driven comfort zone, and it is just as impressive. While all of these new offerings are home-runs, here are some of the standouts from the list:
“Royal Margarita”- combining Repasado Tequila, truffle salted blackberry/Prosecco reduction, house orange vanilla liqueur and Peach/Grand Marnier Foam. Luxurious and refreshing, not overly sweet, and wonderfully aromatic, this cocktail comes in a chalice worthy of its Royal Moniker.
“Broken Dock” -an ode to Luke’s secret swimming hole in lake country, this playful cocktail was seeded in Luke wanting to work with roast almond and marmalade. Originally considered with gin and calvados, he tweaked the cocktail to the Tiki side of the map, utilizing Amber Rum, Roast Almond and Marmalade reduction, finished with OK Spirits Cherry, lime and grapefruit zest. A very Mai-Tai vibe to this drink, I could drink these all day…all summer…
“Monsoon”- Rum, Acai Mango tea with Apple and Raspberry reduction, house blueberry liqueur, Ginger beer, lemon and mint. This cocktail brought forth a new note with every sip, and the ingredients played extremely well together.
“Bella Negroni” – an introductory experience for first time Negroni drinkers, Luke’s goal was to produce a cocktail that would guide the novice drinker into the flavours of this classic. Think of it as training-wheels to the original, but a worthy cocktail by its own merit. Combining Gin, Oak aged Campari, House strawberry Vermouth, and Basil Lemonade, this drink has a velvety viscosity, and a bitter-sweet flavour that is a great ode to the spirit of the Negroni.
(sorry, not pictured here )
“My First Thyme”- This cocktail is crack. Everyone will flock to it, talk about it, be back for it. It’s crack. Gin, Elderflower, Aperol, Ginger/Thyme/Chamomile Flower/lemon and Honey. A pitch-perfect Okanagan style cocktail.
“An Occasional Gentleman”- This is the Belle of the Ball. This cocktail is the perfect combination of Luke’s spirit-forward style mixed with a lighter, refreshing approach. El Jimador Tequila, House made Apricot Amaro, Laphroaig quarter cask scotch, Peppercorn/Orange Essence honey and lemon, this is a summertime cocktail designed for serious aficionados.
These are just a small sample of Luke’s new offerings. He also has kept favorites from his past list on the menu, so regulars, there is no need for alarm.
Luke is a songwriter as well, performing his originals at Woody’s pub, and he describes his creative process in creating cocktails to be akin to how he approaches writing music: “ingredients are notes and riffs, I just start with the melody and build from there” Which explains his twitter and Instagram moniker @slingingsongs
The Okanagan Cocktail Movement is lucky to have such a great addition within our ranks, and if Luke so decides to enter some larger competitions in the future, he’s going to knock it out of the park.
There is something really special happening out at Ricardo’s. Along with amazing food and service, there is a self-taught Alchemist behind the bar, who has been toiling away quietly for years now, creating a new kind of magic. I suggest you make the drive to experience it.
By Gerry Jobe
A few more pictures at Ricardo's by Tarynn Liv Parker
Gerry Jobe shoots the Royal Margarita
Luke pours the Broken Dock
Excellent house made charcuterie and a selection of cheeses and house made tapenades and olives