When I was young, a drink was just a drink — and the cheaper it was, the better.
In those days, the dude who made your drink was a bartender. If you were really desperate (and sometimes I was), you might opt for a frat boy with an empty garbage can, random bottles of liquor, and a bunch of aging fruit. That's about as high concept as things got back in 1999.
What a difference a decade makes. Today, we don't have drinks — we have cocktails. And forget mere bartenders: In the best gin joints today, you'll be served by mixologists.
These guys aren't here to hairy your buffalo or, heaven forbid, flame your Dr. Pepper. They're not even necessarily here to shake your martini, as classic as that drink will always be.
No, today's best mixologists craft their concoctions as if they were top chefs. They use the freshest ingredients in novel ways, chopping up herbs and peppers, muddling fruit, creating homemade mixers, adding liqueurs you've never heard of, and, perhaps, even whipping up some foam. Think tall food, only in an icy glass.
The result doesn't just look pretty. The craft cocktails I've sipped in the Valley in recent months have been lovely, interesting, and sometimes even eye-opening. The amazing part: Even to this notorious lush, these babies are so precious that the alcohol is almost incidental.
Honestly, I never thought I'd feel that way about a drink. But give one of these craft cocktails a try, and I know you'll see just what I mean. If nothing else, you'll never be tempted by a boring old Cosmopolitan again.
Pretty Ugli at Digestif
As the younger sibling of Peter Kasperski's Old Town mainstay Cowboy Ciao, Digestif enjoys access to that restaurant's famed wine cellar. But just because you can order from a list of 3,000 vintages doesn't necessarily mean you should: Sassy little sis Digestif rocks a seriously great list all her own.
Indeed, it was at Digestif that I fell in love all over again with the Sazerac, the classic New Orleans cocktail. With rye, bitters, and a rinse of Herbsaint for that slightly medicinal anise flavor, the Sazerac is the perfect drink for a chilly desert night.
But now it's summer, and in the dry heat there's no better quaff than the Pretty Ugli. Fizzy without being gassy, citrusy without being sweet, this on-the-rocks drink brings to mind a perfectly carbonated grapefruit. The actual ingredients: fresh lemon, muddled basil, seltzer water, and uglifruit liqueur. On top floats a hint of Green Chartreuse VEP, an herbal liqueur made by French monks that takes its color from chlorophyll. Yes, that's the stuff that allows plants to get energy from light. No, I've never had a botany lesson at a bar, either. Educational and tasty. Who knew?
7114 E. Stetson Drive, Scottsdale
White Rabbit at SideBar
I'll admit it: The boyf and I ordered the White Rabbit for a laugh. We'd already settled in at the handsome bar at this downtown hotspot and ordered what proved to be one of the best cocktails I'd had in ages: the Cucumint Martini, a gorgeously chilled mix of smashed-up mint and cucumber and vodka, topped with the gentlest splash of housemade sweet-and-sour. I'll be dreaming about that one.
But then we noticed the cocktail confidently topping SideBar's list: the White Rabbit. It sounded vaguely like a sex toy and, what with the inclusion of Frangelico and White Godiva Liqueur, suggested one of those Kahlúa-choked monstrosities that Aunt Lori used to drink poolside in 1984.
Then we tried it. Never mind Aunt Lori . . . This was Heaven!
Forget about the Frangelico. Forget the White Godiva. Forget, even, the vanilla sugar that perches on the edge of the glass like rock candy. The flavor that shines through in this cocktail is horchata, or Mexican rice milk. I've never spotted horchata in a high-end cocktail before, but after knocking back one of these, I had to question why. Frothy, light, and sweet without a hint of stickiness, the White Rabbit tasted like the final sip left in the cereal bowl after the Cinnamon Toast Crunch is gone.
You won't find a cocktail like this anywhere else in town — but you'll definitely wish you could.
1514 N. Seventh Ave.
Hendricks and tonic at Tuck Shop
I will admit to making my way through more than one gin-and-tonic in my day. But I was still unprepared for the natural goodness of the version over at Tuck Shop. At this stylish new restaurant, they don't just offer an array of gins; they also offer house-made tonic water.
Indeed, when your gin-and-tonic arrives, you might think they're bringing you the wrong drink. (I certainly did.) The homemade version is almost the color of a wheat beer, with a soft, peach-colored glow.
But the taste is an awakening. It's less sweet and smoother than the factory-made version, with that familiar quinine taste undiluted by the usual excess of carbonation. It's a kinder, gentler tonic — and served with a slice of cucumber, as Tuck Shop does it, it's the perfect coolant for a nasty monsoon day.
2245 N. 12th St.
The Maple Leaf at Caffe Boa
When I think maple, I think of my childhood in northeast Ohio, where sap flowed from leafless trees on the coldest, gloomiest days of winter. My elementary school class would trudge through the snowy woods for a demonstration on tapping the sap, then finish up at the nature center for a hot cocoa and maple candy.
I'm sure that even if you missed out on that experience, you still associate maple with warm, sugary goodness: as a topper for hotcakes, perhaps, or a complement to your oatmeal. It's definitely a cold weather taste.
So I was pleasantly surprised — make that shocked — by the Maple Leaf at Caffe Boa. Despite my preconceived notions, it proved to be the perfect cocktail for happy hour on the leafy patio, even on a 95-degree day.
The body of this drink is Jim Beam bourbon, with Blood Orange Bitters adding complexity and a light citrus taste. But the real secret to the Maple Leaf is the "maple foam" on top. It's a cold, creamy delight, something you'd expect on a dairy dessert than on a manly shot of bourbon. Topped with a little orange zest, it took the taste from so-so straight to sublime.
398 S. Mill Ave., Tempe
The Screaming Monkey
The Screaming Monkey appears nowhere on the menu at RadioMILANO, but you shouldn't hesitate to ask the bartenders at this sleek Arcadia restaurant to whip one up for you. It's kind of like ordering your burger "animal style" at In-N-Out Burger; it shows you know what you're talking about.
And when you drink this hot little number, you'll see why it's a favorite among regulars and bar staff alike. The Screaming Monkey ($8) starts with a base of muddled Serrano peppers — yikes! But rather than stop there, the mixologists toss in Grey Goose L'Orange vodka, orange juice, cranberry juice, and house-made simple syrup.
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With all that flavor, the chili pepper ends up as serving as a sort of leitmotif to the drink, always hovering just below the surface but never overwhelming the main melody. If you're lucky, they'll toss a little sliver of Serrano pepper on top. It's not too hot, and certainly not too mild — it's really, perfectly, just right.
3950 E. Campbell Ave.