Handcrafted drinks Central Valley style
Miriam Widenham has been mixing drinks at the Landmark for 13 years. Her specialty is finding fresh Valley ingredients to use in her craft cocktails.
We’ve been dating for almost seven months now and, despite all the typical ups and downs that can come with “Dating at Age 50,” things between us are progressing very well, thank you. All the formalities are being checked off. Meet the kids? Check. Meet the friends? Check. Are the dogs compatible? Check. Introduce each other to our favorite Fresno eating and drinking establishments? Check and double check.
There is a bit of a territorial preference that is emerging between us of late, though, especially when it comes to where to dine or have a drink to celebrate another week coming to a close. Donna is a bit more partial to Old Fig Garden — Patio Caf., Elbow Room, Max’s Bistro. Richard leans more to the north of Herndon — Yosemite Grill, Pismo’s, Slates.
Realizing that compromise can be a good thing, especially at the seven-month mark in the relationship, we decide to do something different. Plans are made and text messages exchanged, and we find ourselves walking hand-in-hand down Olive Avenue in the Tower District. We stroll past small cafes, nightclubs, art galleries and a coffee shop where a few hipsters hang out smoking clove cigarettes discussing the death of Blockbuster Video. We continue to walk east on Olive past a bakery, a deli and few thrift stores until we arrive at our destination: The Landmark.
The Landmark has been in operation since 1985. This is the place where the “grown ups” in the Tower go to get their drink on and order their traditional Basque dinners. But of late, with the weekly Wednesday night PubQuiz games and the restaurant’s Friday Night Live Music venue, the Landmark, like the Tower itself, is becoming a mix of Old School meets New School. Hipsters sit at the bar next to old money farmers coming in for their traditional pour and to order their traditional beef tongue appetizer plate.
The result is beautiful. Its dark, luscious currant color lends itself to a cocktail drink enjoyed in an era long since passed that can fit right at home now.
As we sit down at the bar, we feel like we’ve stepped into another era. The room still retains a lot of that old-fashioned “dark wood and dimly lit” charm it had decades ago. While some undoubtedly won’t appreciate it, it is refreshing to see an old Fresno establishment that is well-preserved and unwilling to conform to the newer trends. The long wooden bar has hundreds of bottles behind it. The dark green upholstered booths and carpet match nicely with the old fashioned ceiling fans. It reminds Donna of the 1940s.
We decide to try a unique cocktail Donna has heard about: The Kearney Boulevard. The bartender serving us is Miriam Widenham. After spending only a few minutes bantering with her about specialty drinks, you get the impression that she is a mixologist who not only has a passion for her craft — she also has a desire to bring the art of mixing specialty drinks to Fresno.
“We are definitely behind the times when it comes to handcrafted signature drinks,” she tells us, adding that there is a group of local bartenders that meets at the Downtown Club to share ideas as to promote professionalism and creativity behind the bar counter.
Miriam is friendly and engaging — the perfect person to have behind the bar. All the bar stools are full with regulars and a few newbies and she is in command. We explain our mission to her: We are here to try the Kearney Boulevard and whatever specialty drink she has concocted for the Thursday night crowd.
We ask Miriam how long she has been mixing drinks at the Landmark.
“Thirteen years,” she tells us. “Barbara Johnson taught me how to mix and Jason Franklin taught me how to banter with the customers.”
Miriam’s specialty is finding fresh Valley ingredients — fruit, vegetables and herbs — to use in her craft cocktails. She explains that the Kearney Boulevard is only made when blood oranges are in season. The drink blends Templeton Rye — or, if you want to keep it local, Corbin Cash Rye from Atwater — sweet vermouth, Campari, a dash of rosemary and simple sugar. It is a tasty drink. The blood orange juice leaves a slight raspberry citrus overtone to the profile of each sip.
Miriam creates a new drink every Thursday night and, on this night, she mixes Donna a Boysenberry Thyme Smash. She first crushes ice cubes by hand, then she mashes Valley-fresh boysenberries and adds a healthy dose of Makers Mark. She finishes off the drink with simple syrup and infused thyme. A few additional berries and a sprig of thyme are added as garnishment and there you have it — a perfect Fresno summer cocktail.
The result is beautiful. Its dark, luscious currant color lends itself to a cocktail drink enjoyed in an era long since passed that can fit right at home now. It’s a drink that Marilyn Monroe or P!nk would enjoy, a cocktail that a Tower hipster or local farmer could sit at the bar and raise a toast to. But on this night, it was truly a drink that Donna and Richard enjoyed.
Written by Richard Melella and Donna Howard. Ms. Howard is involved in a number of nonprofits throughout Fresno. She is expected to graduate in December with a master’s degree in peacemaking and conflict studies from Fresno Pacific University. Richard Melella is a member of the Central California Life advisory board. He has worked in higher education for more than 25 years and is currently the chief academic officer for Institute of Technology Inc., which has campuses in California and Oregon.
Photos by Dan Minkler.