Corbin Brown Explains how His Innovative Drinks Aren’t for the Birds.
Written By: Christine Williamson Peak Inside the Creative Drink Styling at One of OC’s Best New Restaurants
Photographed By: Damien Andrews
The Expert: Corbin Brown
Credentials: Bar Manager, Little Sparrow
Favorite Fall Cocktail: Eastern Apple
Little Sparrow is Santa Ana’s neighborhood bistro. Located in the burgeoning (and gentrifying) historic Downtown neighborhood, this small but substantial restaurant houses one of Orange County’s best cocktail bars. As participators in this year’s Negroni Week, (a worldwide celebration in effort to raise money for charitable causes) Little Sparrow’s Corbin Brown took the industry by storm with his Negroni Snow Cone. This tasty take on the classic cocktail won him the People’s Choice Award for the Best Negroni, and a trip to this summer’s Tales of the Cocktail, the world’s premier cocktail event.
Q: Hi Corbin! Tell us a little about yourself.
Corbin Brown: I’m 24 years old, and I’ve been bartending full time for three years. I used to bar-back before that. I started in dive bars; I fell in love with all of the different spirits and different flavors. After the dives, I started working at a really nice hotel in Dana Point where I learned a lot; from there I went to this really nice beer bar. I continued to teach myself and meet different people in the industry who could mentor me..
Q: Little Sparrow is as well known for their cocktail program as they are for their award winning food. What inspires the cocktail menu here?
CB: A lot of it has to do with what our chef’s doing. I see what he’s doing, and I want to keep up with him to keep everything on the same level with the drinks and the food — that is the most enjoyable experience. It’s very seasonal here, and we do drink specials daily. On the menu you’ll see a lot of modern classics.
Q: Let’s say it’s Friday night and a first-timer walks in, what do you recommend?
CB: First cocktail of the night? I’d probably do our Baby’s First Bourbon, or a Green Card – depending on if you like whiskey, tequila or agave spirits.
Q: Do you make your own mixers?
CB: Yes, everything we do is in-house. We make all of our juices fresh daily as well as our cordials.
Q: This year Little Sparrow was featured on Bravo’s “Best New Restaurant” — how were things in the restaurant after the premiere of the show?
CB: It was crazy. We got hit every night with people wanting to have every experience possible. They wanted to try all of our drinks, and all of our food. A lot of people came in and were looking to try something new. Even “that person” who only drinks vodka was thinking outside of the box and open to experiencing new things — it was awesome.
Q: Was this your first year participating in Negroni Week?
CB: It was.
Q: What exactly is a Negroni?
CB: It’s one of the easiest drinks – it’s three ingredients: equal parts gin, sweet vermouth, and Campari.
Q: This June you won the People’s Choice Award for Best Negroni because of your Negroni Snow Cone. What inspired this recipe?
CB: For the contest it starts out with two sponsored brands, we had to use Damrak Gin and Carpano Antica Formula Sweet Vermouth. Traditionally, you would just add Campari and that would be it, but for the contest we expanded the recipe and got creative. I wanted to make something fun, and what’s more fun than a tiki drink? It was hot, so the crushed ice was nice, and what I did was add a little bit of lemon, cinnamon, and some tiki bitters to bring out some extra flavors.
Q: How did it feel to win the award?
CB: The contest was crazy. There were about eight other bars in Orange County and Long Beach, and I was competing against a lot of people I’ve looked up to in the industry. At first, people were telling me I was in the lead, and I was just like, “Shut up, we’re just trying to have a good time!” There was a tie for second place, and then they announced that we won. It was kind of surreal. There were a lot of hugs; it was awesome and intense with everyone there supporting us.
Q: Congratulations! Along with your award, you’ve won a trip to Tales of The Cocktail, a world premier cocktail festival. Tell us about that.
CB: It’s a weeklong event all over New Orleans. They pretty much take over the French Quarter; they have seminars, classes, competitions, and guest bartending spots. I’ve never been to New Orleans, and I’ve always wanted to go to this event. Now I get to go, meet a bunch of new people and try new things — I’m super excited.
Q: What charity did Little Sparrow sponsor for Negroni Week?
CB: The Downtown Santa Ana Farmers’ Market, whom we are close with as they tie us into being local and sustainable.
Q: What are your plans for the future?
CB: I want to stay here for a while. Everyone is super rad, and I have a lot of creative control and freedom. Eventually, I’d like to move up in the industry and work for a specific brand as an ambassador. My ideal brand to work with would be Fernet-Branca.
Q: Are there any ingredients or concoctions that you’ve attempted but just didn’t work out? What would you consider your biggest fail?
CB: A Duck Fat Washed Gin. That’s when you heat up the fat and infuse it in the gin, but then you take all the fat back out so it just leaves the flavors. It turned out horrible. I over infused it, and it came out way too savory.
Q: What kind of cocktails can we see coming to Little Sparrow’s menu this fall?
CB: Stir drinks, a lot of whiskey and gin. You’ll always see a lot of fresh, seasonal herbs.
Q: What do you love the most about making cocktails?
CB: I love the balance it takes to make a great cocktail then handing it to somebody and seeing them appreciate it. I also love being able to give somebody a new experience. So many times people will say, “I’ve never tasted anything like this before!”
Q: In your opinion, what’s the most overrated craft cocktail?
CB: Anything with the word mule after it.
Native Knowledge: Little Sparrow is now open for weekday lunch. Just enter through the cocktail lounge, or stop by for their new happy hour that is 3–6:00 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday.
300 N Main St
Santa Ana, CA 92701
714.265.7640 | www.littlesparrowcafe.com