Spring Cocktail Guide: The 'Little Sheba' with Joshua James of The Clever Koi

The 'Little Sheba' is the right kind of spring cocktail: festive and refreshing.
The 'Little Sheba' is the right kind of spring cocktail: festive and refreshing.
Shelby Moore

Like many restaurant teams in town, the guys at The Clever Koi may not have slept much recently, with a weekend of Devoured under their belts and media types knocking on their doors to ask about Spring menus. All the same, Joshua James, co-owner and Beverage Director, was dressed for a successful interview -- and dinner service, likely, too -- about the upcoming changes to his bar's cocktail menu.

We'd asked him to pick one drink, and one drink only, to share with us before its release. We got the 'Little Sheba' in return. It's mostly Fortaleza's Reposado Tequila, for an earthy and oak-aged backbone, some St. George Raspberry Brandy, some Giffard-brand Orgeat, lime juice, and more than a few dashes of 50/50 bitters to "help dry it out." James mashes strawberry at the bottom of a collins glass and stacks tinted, zested ice above it. Then he shakes the rest and fills. The end result? A delectably festive, delightedly not-too-fruity, decidedly un-sweet and balanced cocktail. A straw is your pipeline to drink a bit too quickly from the bottom up -- so, bottoms up. There will be a couple more like it when the 'Little Sheba' hits the menu in a couple weeks.

James has stacked zested ice cubes atop muddled strawberry.
James has stacked zested ice cubes atop muddled strawberry.
Shelby Moore

See also: Clever Koi in Phoenix: Happy Hour Report Card

Which flavors and aromas come to mind when you think of Spring?

Spring, flavor wise, I automatically start thinking tiki cocktails and start thinking more floral.

What makes a good spring cocktail?

For me, personally, I want something light and very dry. I like spirit heavy cocktails during the spring, but I think the majority of peoples palettes start to gear towards more complex cocktails. Citrus-forward. Like I said, we'll do more emphasis on tiki cocktails. More cocktails that have bubbles in them...

As a restaurant you guys have Asian influence. Does that change anything?

No not really. We still stick primarily to American and European ingredients. We will use, like with a couple drinks, shiso. We use Thai basil. We might throw around some Calpico, which is a Japanese dehydrated milk syrup.

Were there any spring cocktail trends from last year that you'd rather not see come back? Any that you would?

No, I'm pretty cool with it all. I mean, I think with a lot of spring menus you'll see a lot of mezcal. You'll see a lot of sherry too, which will bridge the gap in the spring. We do a lot of sherry - not like a lot of sherry - but like we'll have two or three sherry cocktails on the menu.

What do you think most bartenders will be into this spring and upcoming summer -- which ingredients do you think might be new and exciting?

I don't think spirit wise anything will be very new, but I think the big changes will be in cordials and in modifiers and things like that. You'll start seeing a lot of the same brands across menus, you'll see a lot of Giffard. I think you'll see, along with mezcal, a lot of more robust styles of tequilas, more reposados. Or, at least, on our menu you will.

I think you'll see more simplicity, too. More three-ingredient, or three ingredients-tops drinks. Less focus on weird stuff and more focus on directing a concept to a menu rather than having ten or twelve completely different things. You'll have more continuity on a menu and it'll just make more sense.

 

In the film world many directors will work with the same editors or the same cinematographers over and over again. If you could pick one base spirit to work with, exclusively, which would it be?

Probably gin. Gin is so versatile. You can do so many different things with it. You can get dry gins, you can get botanical-forward gins, you can get rye-based gins and barrel-aged gins. There are so many ways you can go with it.

Do you think you have a signature style?

Yeah, I think primarily what I'm known for and what we're known for with our bar program is dry cocktails, like that's our staple thing. We don't gear towards sweet cocktails at all. But that's primarily what we're working towards. Creating dry cocktails. Creating balanced cocktails. We do focus on spirit-forward cocktails as well, and like, with our impromptu drink menu, with "Hey Bartender!" we like doing drinks off-the-cuff for people as well.

Finally, if you weren't too busy doing your thing here at Clever Koi, whose bar would you pull up a seat at, both in town and out?

In town, I'd go to Crudo. I'd go to Bitter & Twisted. Counter Intuitive. Those would be my top three right now. The Last Drop at the Hermosa Inn -- Travis Nass kills it over there.

Out of town -- actually, we're planning a trip to Portland in a couple months. I want to go see Jeffrey Morgenthaler. Go to Clyde Common. I want to check out his bar downstairs at the Ace Hotel.

Pepe Le Moko?

Yeah, and I want to go to Expatriate. So many great spots down there.

Disclosure: The author worked an event for a separate party, in conjunction with The Clever Koi, in 2014.

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Clever Koi

4236 N. Central Ave.
Phoenix, AZ 85012

602-222-3474

www.thecleverkoi.com


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