No one could ever accuse Justin Dicken of taking the easy way out. The bar manager at Santa Monica’s Rustic Canyon has developed an innovative, sustainable cocktail program in harmony with chef Jeremy Fox’s regional farm-forward menu, but there’s nary a centrifuge or rotovap in the 80-seat house. Save for the occasional use of a dehydrator borrowed from the kitchen or an immersion circulator to keep koji at optimal temperatures, Dicken relies not on gadgets but on fermentation and thoughtfully repurposed ingredients to create cocktails that capture the fleeting flavors of each season.
Take Nobody’s Fool, for instance. A layered combination of fermented strawberry-infused Aperol (“Strawperol”), strawberry milk punch, strawberry syrup, guava scrap–infused rum and koji rice orgeat, all garnished with dehydrated Strawperol powder, the drink “tastes like Strawberry Quik on acid,” according to Dicken.
The bar program at Rustic Canyon is augmented by labor-intensive, low-tech techniques informed by Dicken’s own culinary background. Before moving to New York in 2005 for college, he worked his way up to sous chef at Five Spice Cafe, a restaurant in his hometown of Burlington, Vermont. The expense of city life eventually led him to switch to a front-of-house position, where he stepped into a bartending role; over the next eight years, Dicken continued to work various front-of-house roles at restaurants in New York and Massachusetts, but his love of bartending remained intact.
When Dicken joined Rustic Canyon in 2015, he had to learn modern bartending the “hard way, without any gadgets, because there isn’t room for them,” he explains. “It was a lot of trial and error; it turns out a coffee filter isn’t an effective sub for a centrifuge.”
"Strawperol," or fermented strawberry Aperol, stars in the Nobody's Fool cocktail.
The inspiration for Nobody’s Fool came from Rustic Canyon’s former pastry chef, Erika Chan. “In the fall of 2022, she made this incredible dessert with guava, quince, macadamia nuts and goat cheese,” says Dicken, who had the foresight to repurpose the leftover guava skins and seeds in a white rum infusion. This became the base for Nobody’s Fool, which was conceived as a way to celebrate the first strawberries of spring and exemplifies Dicken’s driving philosophy of “thoughtful usage,” a term that reflects his approach to sustainability. “‘Zero-waste’ is misleading,” he says, “because you’re still throwing stuff away.”
For his build, Dicken supplements the guava scrap–infused rum base with a half-ounce of Strawperol. “I’m a huge fan of Aperol, because it goes with everything; it’s like ketchup for bartenders,” he says. “I created this version by accident when I forgot about a quick infusion and let it sit for a week. When I opened the jar it fizzed over, and I realized the fruit had created a secondary fermentation.”
Justin Dicken relies not on gadgets but on fermentation and thoughtfully repurposed ingredients to create cocktails that capture the fleeting flavors of each season.
The combination of the Strawperol and guava rum is bolstered by a strawberry syrup, made with equal parts fruit and sugar that have been left to ferment for several days before being puréed. The addition builds upon the layers of fruit in the liqueur, adding depth to the bitter and acidic components. (Dicken notes that it’s important to use unwashed organic fruit so that the natural yeasts remain on the skin.) In keeping with his thoughtful usage approach, the leftovers from this process are then used as the sweetener in a clarified strawberry milk punch, which ties the drink together while imparting silky texture. Also adding body to the drink is the buttery “orgeat” made by creating a macadamia-flavored amazake: a combination of koji rice, macadamia nuts, water and sugar.
Dicken then adds a few dashes of shio koji, a fast-fermenting liquid form of koji, the grain-based paste used to make miso and other condiments, for a layer of umami and a “long, slightly savory finish,” he says. The finishing touch is a dusting of Strawperol flavor made by dehydrating the leftover fruit from the infusion, then grinding it into a fine powder, which is sprinkled atop a lemon slice on the surface of the drink for a balancing layer of bitterness.
“Nobody’s Fool really represents what we do here, because it’s slightly insane, with unexpected ingredients, some of which came about by accident,” says Dicken. “It’s tough to replicate, so the best thing you can do is come enjoy it here.”