It might be time to re-examine the kinds of drinks you drink this summer. While you can't go wrong with a light, refreshing, icy cold local brew, when it comes to cocktails, you might just be ready for something new. Put away those heavy syrups and sugary juices and take the lead from Clever Koi's Joshua James, whose clean take on craft cocktails will leave you refreshed and ready for another.
Even when it isn't summer, Clever Koi's cocktail menu, which changes regularly, features drinks that taste more on the side of dry, bitter, or tart. The menu reflects Joshua James' personal tastes and complements the kitchen's Asian fusion dishes.
"That's the hardest part," James says. "There aren't really classic Asian cocktail templates to start with so I look to the kitchen for ideas."
Using shiso leaf, making a Sriracha-based cordial, and creating shrubs with produce used in other dishes, James successfully infuses Asian flavors into his cocktails. However, James' program has been known as a leader in spirit trends in the Valley since it opened in November last year.
Like the intensely hip yet unpretentious bar itself adorned with some of the most beautiful barware in Phoenix, his cocktails are cool. From Fernet on draft to the use of mezcal and Ancho Reyes Licor in the Deadbeat Summer cocktail, which shares its name with a Neon Indian song, James makes sure that his cocktail list reflects what's hot in the liquor world.
"Using those new spirits is how I can re-imagine classics," James says. "I try to bring in new things to give people a chance to try something different. I'm not just doing it to be weird."
Though he's serious about bringing those new products in his bar for customers to sample, he tries to keep the experience light and fun with unique names like the Menace II Sobriety, which was a draft martini, or the Raj Against the Machine, which uses Four Peaks' Raj IPA.
"We tend to spend more time thinking of drink names than the drinks themselves," he says. "I've noticed that the better the drink name is, the better the drink tends to sell."
James and his head bartender Chris Lingua (who recently left to work with Quail Distributing) typically named cocktails using puns off song names, movie titles, and the ingredients in the cocktails. Those tongue-in-cheek names compliment James' simplistic, liquor-forward approach to cocktails.
While you likely remember James' work at The Parlor, he also spent time managing the bars at Hanny's and AZ 88. However, his work at Clever Koi and pretty much complete control over the bar program has really let his style come through.
That style is a combination of bold flavors, balance, and creativity that "tends toward bitter flavors." The thought of a summer cocktail might evoke memories of sugary lemonade-based drinks, but James elevates the experience with a more contemporary, neat take on classics, while adding in inventions of his own.
The tart, smoky, and spicy Deadbeat Summer is one such example. Imagine liquefying a day in Phoenix in July and you might have an idea of what the Deadbeat Summer tastes like. One of our favorites on his current menu, though, is the lighter Rose Gold. Mixing bitter Suze gentian liqueur, Cappelletti, sake, St. Germain, and topped with a rose mist, the drink is grown-up, clean, and floral. It's also surprisingly bright orange, though the flavor is much more delicate.
James even stuck a vodka cocktail on the menu. Since he is the first to admit that it isn't his favorite liquor, he wanted to do something unexpected with the spirit. His Ego Drip uses a briny cucumber shrub for a much more savory experience.
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Overall, when James makes a summer cocktail, he looks for a balanced, liquor-forward experience. Using fresh juices, herbs, tinctures, bitter liqueurs, and handmade cordials and shrubs, James creates a bright, acidic flavor experience while still pushing the envelope and leading the way in the Phoenix cocktail scene.
While this means he's had to steer away from some of the more technical, time-intensive drinks he started with at Clever Koi, it has also challenged James to adapt to focus on making great cocktails with a focus on volume as well. On future menus, he plans to go even simpler, eliminating some of the more syrupy components and allowing the spirits to speak for themselves.