You’ve probably attended more than one wedding over the years at Hillside Gardens, the lush, 4-acre, historic dairy-farm-turned-nursery-turned-event-venue. And if you’re in the know, you’ve attended the popular multistage summer concert series that has taken place for nearly the past two decades. In late 2021, Hillside creator/owner Larry Ash sold the business to one of his liquor reps, who he’d known for five years: Donavan Kennedy, a Springs native who co-founded Yobel Market in 2008 and became a level 3 WSET sommelier.
Donavan’s sister Ashlee, who’s also been in the wholesale alcohol distribution industry, is also part of the crew, which, on concert nights also includes guest wine somm expert Michael Buckelew (familiar to many from his Broadmoor years), who reps finer vinos from distributor Stelvio Selections. The concerts run 5:30-8:30 p.m. Wednesday, with this season wrapping Sept. 28, but starting back up next May. Entry is $15, which includes a house drink at one of four full-service bars. (Otherwise: 16-and-up, no pets, local food vendors on-site.)
The bar I’m focusing on here isn’t one of the venue’s cute converted automobiles, but Cactus Jacks, located at the top of the property in a dome greenhouse and specializing in agave spirits. Primarily that means a wide list of top-shelf tequilas, with ample blanco, reposado and añejo choices plus higher-end options. But there are also mezcals and the more rare, less familiar (to most gringos) boozes of bacanora (Sonoran mezcal), raicilla (Jalisco-specific agave spirit) and Sotol (the only non-agave-derived spirit, made instead with a spiky shrub commonly called desert spoon). All of which means I’m in heaven, as I love the whole portfolio of Mexican spirits, with their talkative terroir. But instead of sipping neat this night, I go for the watermelon serrano margarita, with fresh-puréed juice in a blanco base with orange liqueur, agave, lime, a wedge of watermelon for garnish and a tangy-tart chile rim for a spice kick. In two words: just fabulous. Then there’s the typically reposado-based Aztec margarita, made again with orange liqueur and agave, this time mixed with pineapple soda and jalapeño. But I sub in mezcal (400 Conejos brand joven, a blanco equivalent), for a smokier finish riding on the hot pepper essence and sour salinity. In two words: also fabulous. If you want one of these as your complimentary house drink, it’s $2 extra beyond the already fair $8.75 price. Catch the concert series before it concludes, and mark your 2023 calendars.