The 10 Best Things I Drank in Metro Phoenix in 2016
The Jefferson Milk Punch changes from batch to batch on proprietor Ross Simon's whim.
Jefferson Milk Punch
Bitter & Twisted Cocktail Parlour
On Bitter & Twisted’s action-packed menu, in the punch section — right below the big Duck Bath Punch, which is filled with cucumber bubbles and served in a sizable miniature bathtub — sits a single-serving, milk-clarified punch served in a tea cup. Good things come in small packages, and this good thing is a drink that should not be missed. Elegant as the Queen’s tea, the “soft and creamy” cocktail invites good cheer. Even more exciting is that its flavors change seasonally on bar proprietor Ross Simon’s whim. I order it nearly every time I’m in.
The Wai Kue Athletic Club is a drink that no longer exists, from a bygone chapter in Counter Intuitive's rotating roster of themes.
Wai Kue Athletic Club
This year, we received three distinct menus from Counter Intuitive, the Old Town Scottsdale bar with a rotating theme — most recently, an evolving dive bar theme called Bemusement, which replaced a Prohibition-era Mexican bordertown theme, which replaced Big Trouble in Little Chinatown, a menu with a few dozen original drinks flanked left and right by Asian flavors. Spectacularly, it seemed to not have a single bad drink on it, and while there were many favorites, my favorite drink, from my favorite menu of CI's thus far, was the Wai Kue Athletic Club, a mix of Japanese ‘Nikka Coffey Grain’ Whiskey, Yuzu orange, and mint-family shiso leaves, in the style of a julep. Sprinkled with black sesame, served in a ceramic cup marked with cherry blossoms, the drink expressed everything that went right with that chapter, distilled down to a few choice ingredients blending seamlessly. Fittingly, it was the final drink I had from their menu on the final night of its run.
I want some more Wai Kue Athletic Club in my life.
Cebada is like horchata, but made with barley instead of rice.
Good luck finding fresh cebada — horchata’s cousin, brewed from barley instead of rice — anywhere east of Central Avenue. Powdered mixes and bottled versions exist in the aisles of Ranch Market, Food Citys, and at a choice few Sonoran dog stands, but you don’t want these shelf-stable impersonators. One place to get it is at Ta’Carbon, the wildly successful west-side taco joint buried deep in the avenues. A little closer to the east side, and certainly downtown Phoenix, is El Horseshoe, a tiny Mexican restaurant located in industrial South Phoenix. The owners get Mexican-grown barley shipped to them from their friends back in Sonora. It’s earthy, and only a little too sweet if you don’t have some spicy food on your plate — which you absolutely should, teetering back and forth between bites of house-made chili-studded machaca and sips of barley aqua fresca.
The hurricane, made with rum and passion fruit juice, is a New Orleans classic.
The haphazard Hurricane, a mixture of rum and, usually, passion fruit juice, arrived to Phoenix by way of New Orleans on the back of a strong and steady Southern food trend, served voluminously at the likes of Welcome Diner, formerly Old Dixie’s food truck, and spots like Okra, which opened late in 2015, from the team behind Crudo.
Their Hurricane plays ball in the big leagues — undoubtedly the best in the Valley, due to a careful rum blend and a specially sourced passion fruit juice product from the internet that tastes true and vibrant, their own little secret.
With so many cocktails to try across the Valley, with limited time frames caused by pressure for menus to change every season, I only ordered a few drinks more than once. This Hurricane, fixed to their menu regardless of season, was one of them.
The Tumeric Mule is a great example of garden-to-glass drinking, common at Tratto.
It was tough to pick just one cocktail from bartender Blaise Faber, who’s been busy whipping up refreshing and dry cocktails that do a good job to balance the rich vegetable and pasta dishes coming out of Tratto’s tiny kitchen. I could have picked the chamomile sour, for instance, which reminds me of the desert and smells calm like a rainy day. But the Tumeric mule has a little more oomph, a result of the apothecary Faber has at his disposal. White wooden shelves behind the restaurant's bar are lined with colorful glass jars; one has sliced citrus, another whole citrus, and others are full of young stinging nettle from the chef's garden, buddha’s hand citron, and whole turmeric. Faber has the turmeric sitting in Ford’s gin, slowly extracting its essence, which is more fresh and lively than the dried, powdered version of the root. Sometimes he mixes it with bubbly ginger beer, Gifford Pamplemousse liqueur, and fresh lime juice.
Shot In The Arm
Crudo owner Micah Olson loves bourbon, so he combined the spirit with a relatively new amaro in the Phoenix market, Borsci, from San Marzano, Italy, which to me tastes a little like eggnog, minus the cream. What comes next will surprise you. Bourbon and Borsci get zapped with lemon juice, grapefruit, passion fruit, and … chocolate bitters? I can talk myself into it making sense in hindsight, but really, it doesn’t need to. The drink has an electricity that makes it a standout on Crudo's current menu, and it is one of my favorite drinks of theirs to date.
The 54 Forty-Six let a blackberry shrub shine in the high heat of summer.
“This is not a sipping cocktail,” Rum Bar owner Dwayne Allen said about the drink from his summer menu, inspired by the Toots and the Maytals song "54-46 Was My Number." “This is a drinking cocktail … and this summer I’ll probably drink these more than anything else.”
Since the drink was rooted in a simple Appleton White Jamaica Rum, the intended star was Allen’s blackberry shrub, a mixture of tart berries macerated in white rum, puckery white balsamic, allspice, cinnamon, nutmeg, bay leaf, and toffee-like demerara sugar. Built in a highball over rocks, the shrub and rum were mixed with pineapple juice and a house-made bitter-floral horehound tincture (think root beer). Dry and tart, while simultaneously fruit-forward and crisp from the blackberry shrub, the drink was harmonious and nearly perfect.
But it faded away, perhaps as it was destined to, once the cooler weather rolled in. Maybe, if we’re lucky, we’ll see again next summer. Allen likes to play the hits.
The Stirred Bird at UnderTow is the rare stirred tiki cocktail.
One of the tiki world’s simplest cocktails ranks among its best. No, not the mai tai — I'm talking about the '70s-born Jungle Bird, which combines a healthy dose of blackstrap rum with bright red, devastatingly bitter Campari, soothed by sugar, lime, and plenty of pineapple juice. Served over crushed ice, it can look big, red, and silly — Bitter & Twisted in Downtown Phoenix, for example, makes a delicious one that looks the part.
When the team behind Old Town Scottsdale’s Counter Intuitive opened up the UnderTow tiki bar in Arcadia, they had a dilemma. Known for serving spirit-forward stirred drinks, the bartenders had to find a way to translate tiki drinks, which contain loads of juice and are almost never stirred, into old-fashioned and negroni-style cocktails.
The Stirred Bird is the best example of their success. Taking its cues from the original, the drink combines a spice-y rum blend with rum distilled from pineapples, in place of the juice, Campari, pineapple-infused sugar syrup, a few drops of acid phosphate for mild acidity, and oils expressed from a lime peel garnish, which combine to imitate the characteristics of lime juice.
Four Peaks Brewing Co.
Since Four Peaks released their new White Ale toward the end of last year, during porter and stout season, the beer itself didn’t blip on my radar until recently. But the White Ale style, falling under the wheat beer genre, brewed with orange rinds, unmalted wheat, and coriander — less filtered, too, for a cloudier look and a silkier mouthfeel — has been frustratingly hard to find around Phoenix, resting the burden on bottles of Japan’s Hitachino Nest White Ale, by Kiuchi Brewery, available few and far between at Valley bottle shops and bars. In an undeniable stroke of genius, Four Peaks brewers accessed Phoenix’s landscape and agricultural history at once, combining citrus from Mesa and unmalted Heritage-quality White Sonoran wheat from Hayden Flour Mills, to create a beer even more delicious than it is local — a move that stuck, it should be noted, even after the Anheuser Busch-InBev acquisition months later.
Honor Amongst Thieves bartender Riley Jones crafts a grasshopper from Fernet BrancaMenta and Tempus Fugit Creme de Menthe.
Honor Amongst Thieves
This version of the otherwise contemptible Grasshopper came to my attention only a few weeks ago when I’d seen a photo that Honor Amongst Thieves bartender Riley Jones posted to Instagram of a tiki-mugged drink, garnished with a whole banana-dolphin; it had a clove spike for its eye and its mouth, the stem split in half, was holding a plastic straw. So I decided to pay the central Phoenix bar a visit and check in on what Jones and bartender Ryan Parter were messing around with for their newly christened Tiki Sundays.
I was on my way out when they asked to show me one last thing — their '80s night-inspired version of a Grasshopper, blended like a frappe from Starbucks, amped up with a double-shot of menthol’s cooling properties in the Fernet BrancaMenta digestif and Tempus Fugit Spirits-brand Creme de Menthe liqueur. Throwback cocktails have been in vogue for a handful of years now, ever since trailblazing bartenders like Portland’s Jeffrey Morganthaler, of Pepe Le Moko, began racing to make the best-crafted versions of their parents' lost Long Island Iced Teas. I wasn’t drinking anywhere close to the '80s — neither was bartender Jones — but I have had mint chocolate-chip ice cream blended with milk, vodka, and bottom-shelf creme de menthe. Jones’s modern version, by contrast, is quite literally a blistering breath of fresh air that, depending on your age, will either remind you or reaffirm your suspicions that 2016 was a great year to be drinking cocktails.
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