by Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer
nancy@vcreporter.com

Azu Restaurant
and Tapas Bar 
457 E. Ojai Ave.
640-7987 
www.azuojai.com   

Fresh juice, house infusions and locally distilled spirits abound in bars throughout the area — and thus Azu’s “farm fresh tapas, craft cocktails, local wine and beer” are hardly revolutionary. What the Ojai restaurant lacks in originality, however, it more than makes up for in style and execution.

We stole peeks at the mason jars sitting behind the bar, filled with fresh fruit, herbs, spices and a variety of liquors, which provided visual inspiration while we perused the intriguing cocktail menu. Persimmon-infused bourbon? Honey grapefruit vodka? Ginger liqueur? Oh, yes, please!

The Persimmon Old Fashioned, with that fruit-infused bourbon, was sold out, so I settled for the Barrel Aged Manhattan instead. The ingredients in this classic cocktail — rye, sweet vermouth and bitters — are premixed and aged together for a week. Shaken and served on the rocks, the result is a concoction with tremendous depth and an almost velvety texture, a hint of smoke contrasting against the sweet. Extra points for the presence of Carpano Antica, a premium vermouth that’s not found in your average bar; it elevates everything it touches.

The gin and juice is as simple as it sounds: top-shelf gin with citrus juice. But that mix of fresh-squeezed grapefruit and blood orange was so refreshing and such the perfect complement to the heavily aromatic, orange peel-haunted Wilder Gin that it seemed the essence of early spring in the Ojai Valley.

Azu takes its wines seriously, too, and the list of far-flung options is a study in wine growing geography. Some of the best offerings, however, are close to home. Azu is the exclusive distributor of the boutique winery Ojai Alisal, and that label alone is worth a trip to this downtown Ojai establishment. I had a flight (Viognier, Grenache and Malbec) and was impressed by the balance, structure and elegant flavors all three wines presented.

To stand out in the large playing field of modern mixology is no small feat, but it’s one Azu handily accomplishes. Whether it’s wine, beer or a cocktail, there’s a touch of terroir in every glass. Taste the best of the Ojai Valley, and savor every sip.

Nancy Lackey Shaffer has strong opinions on vermouth. Email her at nancy@vcreporter.com.