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If you find yourself with a Jack and Coke in hand this summer, you're not doing it right. In the wonderful world of cocktails, weird is the way to go. Whether that means you stumble into the back-alley entrance of a speakeasy or you take your drink muddled, shaken, and flambéed into Flavor City, the humdrum of long summer days is sure to be broken by some alcoholic experimentation.
The beauty of the craft cocktail and mixology craze is variety. Whether you like the botanical flavors in St. Germain and Crème de Violette or you go for the bitter kick of vinegar, there are a few local spots that can satisfy even the oddest drink craving you have. Some of the best local trailblazers include Citizen R + D, Mabel's on Main, Last Drop Bar at the Hermosa Inn, and Bar Crudo.
A look at any local craft cocktail menu suggests that mixologists are taking drinks back to their roots, with many places dating the recipe to indicate its genesis. Micah Olson of Bar Crudo and AZ Mixology says the throwback trend is getting cocktails back to where they used to be.
"It's like how people are starting to grow their own gardens again. We're going back to a simpler life," he says. "There's more going on than just passing a drug off to somebody else."
Olson's ever-changing cocktail menu reflects a variety of flavor pairings suited to any palate. As a chef would prepare a fine meal, Olson researches and experiments with different combinations until he discovers the one he likes.
"The second you stop trying to do stuff different and [do it] over the top, life's going to get really boring," he says. "To me, if you're going to spend your whole life on it, you better enjoy it — even on your time off — and have a real opinion on it."
With the trend reverting to old-style preparation methods, you won't get a million different flavored vodkas, but you will get an artisanal drink created with handmade syrups, boutique bitters, fresh fruit, and classic techniques. All these ingredients can seem overwhelming for the home bartender, which might be part of the reason craft cocktail bars are so popular right now, according to Olson.
"The amount of money that goes into an old-school drink . . . all to try one cocktail, maybe, that you've never had before, and it sounds good, but you end up hating it and you spent $200," he says. He explains that his bar — and bars like it — give adventurous drinkers the "opportunity to come and experience without putting in the investment" at home.
However, if you decide to try your hand at home mixology, be careful when trying any recipe that involves fire. Olson recommends reading Imbibe to learn the basics before you go too far into mixology. The book pulls ideas from recipes dating to before Prohibition and translates them for modern-day application.
Another book Olson uses on a near-daily basis is The Flavor Bible. The matrix of flavor pairings comes from a chef database and shows how to combine ingredients such as cinnamon and lavender if you're not sure how to incorporate them. If you're interested in the scientific side of cocktailing, Drunken Botanist shows the wonderful, wild, and even dangerous world of mixing flora to create or enhance spirits.
Making great-tasting artisanal drinks doesn't have to be complicated, though. Olson recommends keeping one or two bottles of your favorite liquor on hand. He thinks the home bar should be a reflection of one's own tastes, but acknowledges that it's still best to buy higher-end liquor. For ideas on what to buy, stop by Tops Liquor (403 W. University Dr., #104 , Tempe, 480-967-5643, www.topsliquors.com), where the knowledgeable staff can point you in the right direction.
To liven up spirits, many bartenders agree that a dash of bitters does the trick. Local AZ Bitters Lab (www.azbitterslab.com) puts out some of the most mouthwatering and unique flavors for bitters in town, including the figgy pudding bitters ($18.95), made with cinnamon, clove, cardamom, and figs. The delectably spiced bitters is a delicious addition to any bourbon-based drink.
Even if you prefer common drinks with soda mixers, high-end ginger beers and locally made mixes make the average cocktail just that much more lux. One must-have item for the home bartender is John's Premium tonic syrup, made in Phoenix with cinchona bark and amber agave nectar and can be added to any cocktail with soda water, straight up like in the Geneviere at Tuck Shop, or even with Perrier.
John Cavanagh began researching how he could make his own tonic syrup, to be mixed with soda water from a soda siphon, out of necessity, due to a lack of space and a soda gun when Tuck Shop opened in 2008.