The 2016 edition of New Times' Best of Phoenix is out now. Here's our list of the best things, people, and places for cocktails, beer, wine and more in metro Phoenix.
Best Phoenix Cocktail Origin Story: Tequila Sunrise
The origins of cocktail culture don't exactly trace back to our fair and young state — but we can lay claim to one classic: the Tequila Sunrise. Just orange juice and tequila, layered with bright red grenadine, it's essentially, you know, only slightly better than sitting down to the bar and ordering a Shirley Temple. Luckily for us, California is the real culprit behind that interpretation — ours, invented at the Arizona Biltmore in the 1930s, was a much more respectable mixture of tequila, lime, and soda water layered with a deep purple blackcurrant liqueur.
Best Arizona Terroir Spirit: Hamilton Distillers
Though it hails from down south in Tucson, Hamilton Distillers has done a phenomenal job of getting their Whiskey Del Bac spirit placed onto shelves in Phoenix — after all, who wouldn't want to stock and pour one of the state's most intriguing alcoholic products? If you ask us, it's a game-changer; the distillery is taking organic local barley grown in the Tucson area and malting it with mesquite smoke made from wood collected in the surrounding desert — a process not unlike Scotch-making, which requires grain be malted by burning peat.
Best Arizona Terroir Cocktail: The Smokey Thompson
Served at the cozy bar inside of downtown Phoenix's Nobuo at Teeter House, every component of the Smokey Thompson — a textbook whiskey sour by build, something profound when you examine its pieces — says Arizona.
Best Bartender: Keifer Gilbert, UnderTow and Counter Intuitive
You've seen the other side of the coin too many times: some of the most charismatic bartenders found guilty of building too much momentum in a night, struggling to find the line between sparking the party and becoming the party themselves. Keifer Gilbert, however, nails it. He's appropriately attentive, earnest, and upbeat — it's obvious he's having fun, no doubt about it, but so are you.
Best Old-School Cocktails: Okra Cookhouse & Cocktails
As far as cocktail movements are concerned, "old school" is thought to refer to a time from the turn of the century through the Prohibition era that followed, when the foundation for most classic cocktails was laid. But there is an older school still — America's first cocktail movement, which birthed the 18th-century mint julep. It was medicine then and still is; just brandy, ice, sugar, and mint in an unadorned tin cup — and in uptown Phoenix, Okra makes it better than anyone else.
Best New-School Cocktails: Counter Intuitive
While most cocktail menus straddle a bias between classics on one page and a handful of their own creations on the other, Old Town Scottsdale's Counter Intuitive went ahead and dreamed up a few dozen new, original drinks for their Mexican-inspired episode, Agua Caliente Racetrack. Just as the team created their Chinatown-inspired menu before it, the drink creation is entirely flavor-driven, starting with a list of ingredients that represent a region or a theme.
Best Hot Weather Cocktails: Rum Bar
Like bourbon and whiskey, rum has the power to warm the mind, body, and soul through a long and hard winter — but we don't have those in Phoenix. It's a good thing, then, that we have Rum Bar, guided by Jamaican-born owner Dwayne Allen, for the long and hard summers, where the bartenders know exactly how to beat the heat with concoctions that are refreshingly cool — and refreshingly creative, too.
Best Happy Hour: Citizen Public House
After all these years, Citizen Public House still remains a valid threat to pretty much any other happy hour in town. Not-your-average bar snacks — still-warm roasted rosemary nuts, beer cheese fondue, popcorn slicked with bacon fat — hold down a menu next to a well-known rotation of barrel-aged cocktails, poured generously, especially considering the $6 price tag from 3 to 6 p.m. every day the doors are open.
Best Place for After-Dinner Drinks: Bitter & Twisted Cocktail Parlour
Plenty of sensible people like to begin a night out when the sun goes down — which means dinner at 7, 8, or even 9 p.m. But at that juncture, when the next sensible thing to do is get a great cocktail and keep the night going, Phoenix leaves one wanting should you desire to stay out past 10 or 11 p.m. We must be grateful, then, for establishments like downtown Phoenix's Bitter & Twisted Cocktail Parlour, which aim for quality — and do so till 2 a.m., when the law says they no longer may.
Best Place for a Twilight Drink: The Clever Koi
When it gets to be prime time in Phoenix, when dinner plates go whizzing by, when seats are saturated and the bubbly diner talk boils to a gentle rumble, you'd count yourself lucky to have scored a seat at Clever Koi's bar — or better yet, the patio, which, east-facing as it is, gets itself a pastel backdrop each and every evening. A good view makes anything taste terrific — terrific-er in the case of the consistently great drinks under co-owner Joshua James' careful guide.
Best Margarita: Crudo
Crudo, being an Italian joint, is thematically about as far as things get from Mexico and its native margarita. But Crudo's proximity to the border and the bar's commitment to quality in all things spirits and cocktails means co-owner Micah Olson feels the pressure to not only get it right, but to make it delicious and uniquely high-quality.
Best $1.99 Margarita: Las Glorias Grill Mexican Food
On Wednesdays, Las Glorias Grill has $1.99 margaritas that are out of this world, and provide more bang for the buck than they probably should for the price as the house tequila, Zarco, is pretty much the bomb diggity. Salt or not, on the rocks or blended, you can't go wrong with this sweet and tangy margarita.
Best Paloma: The Brickyard Downtown
The predominantly pedestrian paloma clocks in at a whopping two ingredients: grapefruit soda and tequila — so it's no wonder that cocktail drinkers tend not to over-think it, if they think of it at all. The drink gets a beautiful makeover from The Brickyard, where they infuse a tart, house-made grapefruit shrub with Fresno chilies, throw in some fizzy soda, and rim the glass with a hot and sweet chili flake, sugar, and salt rim that renders this final drink with a profile reminiscent of Mexican candy — that is, with a kick.
Best Bloody Mary: The Parlor
Loaded up with celery sticks and skewered veggies, a Bloody Mary can often knock out a round of drinks and your salad course all at once. But now, salads and vegetables are getting star treatment — and the Bloody Mary can just as easily steal the show when uncommon ingredients and better booze are in the mix. Cue the Bloody Mary at The Parlor — it's prosciutto fat-washed (that means they let prosciutto fat sit and infuse with alcohol, giving it a rich taste), with a house-made mix, and green chile-flavored vodka.
Best Shot: Pickle Shot
For many, the Palo Verde Lounge is a beloved oasis known for its jukebox, strong drinks, and some Tekken Tag faceoffs. But this neon-lit, band-sticker-laden, cash-only Tempe establishment at Beck Avenue and Broadway Road is known for yet another neighborhood treasure: the Pickle Shot. Acting as a night starter, eye opener, and for some, a holiday tradition, the Pickle Shot comprises a shot of well tequila or whiskey with a pickle juice chaser.
Best Whiskey Bar: The Gladly
Take one look at the Gladly's towering whiskey collection, stocked from the ceiling down to the bar, and you'll have little doubts they've got it all — or, you know, at least a lot of it. To be accurate, this collection clocks in at around 200 types of rye whiskey, bourbon, and scotch — bottled in bond, pot stilled, blended, or peated. Pick your poison.
Best Agave Spirit Bar: Barrio Urbano
Over in uptown Phoenix at The Yard, Barrio Urbano seemingly has more agave spirits than are possible to move off the shelves, but it's a challenge they accept on a daily basis. Variety is king, from classic aged and un-aged tequilas, to smokier Oaxaca mezcals — and further down the rabbit hole they go, too, with lesser-known regional spirits, like earthy and herbaceous sotol from Chihuahua and the robust Sonoran spirit, bacanora.
Best Cocktail Using Sotol: Sotol Tale
The Sotol Tale calls for what Bitter & Twisted proprietor Ross Simon describes as a "cheeky amount of sotol," Chihuahua's state spirit. Dusty-tasting and a bit herbal, it pairs nicely with Bitter & Twisted's house blend of sweet vermouth, Maraschino liqueur, and bitters. The end result? A dusty Martinez, if you will, as opposed to the classic Dirty Martinez cocktail, somewhere in between the negroni and the manhattan.
Best Cocktail Using Bacanora: Gallant Sir
The guys over at the ever-changing Counter Intuitive got crazy with their Agua Caliente Racetrack menu, blending all sorts of chili peppers and spices into drinks anchored by a plethora of agave spirits and fresh juices — which leads to a lot of flavor. Case in point: the Gallant Sir, which is rooted with earthy and rustic bacanora, the state spirit of Sonora, and thrown for a loop with a supporting cast of amaro, scotch, cantaloupe, and muddled Fresno chilies.
Best Cocktail Using Mescal: Oaxaqueño Margarita
There were so many cocktails across the Valley to choose from — mezcal, Jalisco's state spirit, being the hottest thing show up since tequila — but the obvious pick may be the simplest, the one that shows off the spirit in bare-bones fashion, the Oaxaqueño margarita at Barrio Urbano. Nothing too flashy here — just a rim of sal de gusano (a classic Mexican ingredient; that's salt ground down with dried worm, for the record) which adds a great savory quality to the drink that's already so smoky.
Best New Distillery: CaskWerks Distilling Co.
Owner Rick Burch and head distiller John Miller were hoping they had a recipe for success when they debuted the spirit they're now so well known for: their delicious, signature Apple Pie Liqueur. What they didn't have, yet, was a liaison to tap into the Valley's bartender community. Enter bartender extraordinaire and one the community's best-known ambassadors, Travis Nass, who joined the team to man the customer-facing side of the equation. Cheers to a bright future.
Best Distillery: Arizona Distilling Co.
Arizona Distilling Co. has come a long way in just a couple of short years of producing spirits that not only Arizonans could be proud of, but which can compete with most anyone on a national stage. Originally, the company was best know for its gin, which blends a handful of Arizona botanicals into an aromatic and flexible gin — recently, though, it's their Desert Durum Wheat Whiskey, made from locally grown durum wheat.
Best Brewery: Arizona Wilderness Brewing Co.
There's nothing wrong with good, reliable beer that you can get just about anywhere in town — but there's something about that jog out to the distant, previously brewery-less town of Gilbert all just to wet your whistle with one of what, after a few years, has grown into a solid collection of Arizona Wilderness' very hyped small-batch brews.
Best New Brewery: Wren House Brewing Co.
Wren House could have been just like any other neighborhood bar in Phoenix — but it's special. Not only do they brew their own beer, they do it in a stylishly designed, repurposed house that dates back to 1922. That means some cool Phoenix history, and even cooler: cold craft beer. Finally, we've got a brewery and bar that reflects a new, tasteful, and modern vision for Phoenix.
Best Wine Bar: Central Wine
In a tight-knit space, Central Wine seemingly does it all — they have wine by the glass, in half-glass flights, and by the half-bottle (always a good variety, whether you want to, say, start with a skin-fermented chardonnay or end the evening with a nice Californian syrah); great local beers (i.e., Historic Brewing Company's Piehole Porter from Flagstaff — and beer flights, too, if you can't decide on just one at a time); and plenty of snacks.
Best Wine For Hot Weather: Dos Cabezas Sparkling Pink Rosé In A Can
The French know their rosé. And though they swirl it in their glasses, sloshing with ice, they have never taken the drink to its logical American conclusion: Throw it in a can and add fizz. In terms of refreshment, nothing beats Dos Cabezas' canned Sparkling Pink Rosé.
Best Liquor Store: Tops Liquors
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The offerings in this Tempe liquor store are piled together and overflowing — in a manner that's arguably charming — in an attempt to stock as much as humanly possible onto their shelves and into their fridges. Go ahead, dust off that bottle, and create your own six-pack of everything you needed to cross off your to-drink list.
Best Hangover Cure: Clamatos La Cruda
How to cure your Sunday morning hangover, La Cruda-style: Take a glass of tomato juice, add a healthy splash of clamato, a squirt of Tabasco, a squiggle of chamoy sauce, a sprinkling of Tajin chili seasoning, and some lime. Garnish with shrimp, a couple of celery sticks, and a hunk of chewy carne seca, a.k.a. beef jerky. At least, that's how the folks at Clamatos La Cruda ("cruda" is Mexican slang for hangover) recommend you come back to life, and it's pretty hard not to feel fully replenished after one of their post-hangover, alcohol-free mariscos-style cocktails on the menu at this east side hangout spot.