Say what you will about weird weather, the economy, the election, the budget battle, gun control or whatever else has put your brow in a knot and your britches in a bunch this past 12 months, but 2012 has been a fantastic year for cocktail drinkers. Here in Phoenix, we've got serious behind-the-bar talent as well as a growing number of indie restaurants committed to taking cocktails and the culture surrounding them to higher ground.
I've had my mind blown and whistle wetted in the most delightful ways. Here are 11 luscious libations I hope to drink again -- in no particular order:
The Kiwi Reserve at Rum Bar
Last March, when the city's citrus trees were in bloom, Rum Bar owners Dwayne Allen and Danielle Leoni made a tincture out of pilfered lemon blossoms (shaken from a neighbor's tree), creating a fragrant bit of magic they later added to a mixture of Mt. Gay Special Reserve Rum, muddled organic kiwi fruit, hand-squeezed lemon and pineapple juices and house-made lavender bitters. The result was a light, lovely cocktail, served in a coupe, whose pale green color and fresh flavor profiles perfectly reflected the season ($9). Here's hoping these thirst-quenching thieves never mend their ways.
Un-named Cocktail at The Last Drop Bar in Lon's at the Hermosa
Super-talent Travis Nass, who barkeeps at The Last Drop, made me this gorgeous and as yet un-named cocktail late last summer as I dithered about what I wanted to drink. It's his elegant riff on the Clover Club, a pre-Prohibition cocktail named for a famous Philadelphia men's club, frequented by the movers and shakers of the early 1900's. Nass's version contained Nolet's gin, fresh raspberries, lemon juice and egg white. What made it his -- and not simply a remarkably good re-make of a classic -- was the addition of fig syrup, which added sweetness and complexity to a frothy pink confection that seemed just right for me but surprisingly girlie for the early titans of industry. Garnished with a single rose petal, it's a beautiful drink -- a little tart, a little sweet, a little creamy. If we're lucky, it will go on The Last Drop's menu in the weeks to come at $12-$15.
Ants on a Log from Travis Nass
That same day, Nass was fiddling around with a cocktail for BLT's upcoming Bourbon Battle, and his entry was to be Ants on a Log. Admittedly, it's a drink that might be too out there for many people, but I loved its playfulness. Nass cleverly captured the celery, peanut butter and raisin flavors of that beloved childhood snack, and he did it with W.L. Weller bourbon, Pedro Jimenez sherry (which lends the raisin component), celery juice, lemon juice and peanut butter foam. Doubt if it will ever make the menu but it sure was fun.
Peter Rabbit, Latin Cinema and Coyote at Searsucker
Thanks to high-powered consulting from San Diego-based Pick & Rocks, infusion-obsessed Searsucker makes three cocktails ($10 each) I really loved this year: Latin Cinema -- a fat-washed margarita composed of buttered popcorn-infused tequila, pressed lime and agave nectar); Peter Rabbit -- a light, easy-drinking refresher made with Pimm's #1 and basil lemonade); and Coyote -- a fizzy, bourbon-based change-up on the Moscow Mule, warmed with cinnamon. I couldn't really pick one favorite (which is why I'm listing them all here); it would surely depend on the day. But when my colleague Laura Hahnefeld received sloppily executed versions of two of these very cocktails recently, the bad news gave me pause. Sad to say, consistency could be an issue. All I know is, done right (bar manager Chris Rouns made my perfect renditions), they're really fun.
PDWT (Please Don't, White Trash) at Citizen Public House
Fat-washed cocktails are all the rage for good reason. Infusing spirits with fat adds subtle flavor and gives cocktails an unctuous mouth feel. Bartender/co-owner Richie Moe created this hilarious cocktail for a pumpkin cocktail dinner last fall -- which tasted yummy and paired well with mini jarred pumpkin pie dessert. The ingredients couldn't be trashier: Spam-infused Wild Turkey 81, Boone's Farm Strawberry Hill reduction syrup and sweetened Miller High Life foam, the glass rimmed with salted pork rind and Twinkie dust. This is the drink that put Moe in the final three at the Bourbon Battle last August. You won't find it on the menu (more's the pity), but I guess you'd have to be pretty trashy to want it anyway. What does this say about me?
Queen's Park Swizzle at J&G Steakhouse
Popularized in the States by Trader Vic in the 40's, this beautifully layered cocktail is Trinidad's sexy answer to the mojito. Although it isn't on the menu at J&G, bartender Julie Hillebrand will happily whip one up for you (and you should watch the process), combining Mount Gay Eclipse rum, muddled mint, lime juice, simple syrup and Angostura bitters ($12). It's the bitters that give this hot-weather cocktail a bit of depth and complexity. As the swizzle stick is spun through the crushed ice, frost forms on the outside of the glass, making this the most refreshing looking drink imaginable.
Market Street Hot Chocolate at Market Street Kitchen
At first blush, Green Chartreuse combined with hot chocolate may sound weird, but think about it. Chartreuse has herbal, botanical notes that pair very nicely with chocolate -- as artisan chocolate bars containing rosemary and other herbs so deliciously prove. Rich Heider's warm and ultra-rich concoction turns sweet, simple hot chocolate into something soothing and sophisticated at once, capping off the cocktail with a drift of cinnamon whipped cream ($12). It goes down mighty easy, so be careful. Or save it for dessert.
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La Fin du Monde at The House Brasserie Okay, the world didn't end on December 21, and La Fin du Monde (which is French for "the end of the world") isn't even a cocktail. It's a cloudy blonde tripel-style golden ale produced in Quebec by Unibroue. But let's not split hairs. This is, after all, one of the best things I've drunk this year and that was the question put to me. Although it's maltier than a hefeweizen, its notes of banana, clove, coriander and citrus remind me of one. Really, the aroma is heavenly. With its rich, yeasty and slightly fruity taste, this smooth, medium-bodied beer has a lot going on -- and all of it's good. The House has a terrific beer selection (go, try), and the cocktails sound amazing too, making this #1 on my 2013 cocktail to-do list.
Heathen Child at Blue Hound Kitchen and Cocktails
Thanks to super-star mixologist Shel Bourdon and Kimpton's master mixologist Jacques Bezuidenhout (who curates rare and artisanal spirits) Blue Hound boasts an impressive range of cocktails -- classics, hangover cures, cocktails made with wine, cocktails made with beer and serious cocktails for the aficionado. The pretty, walk-on-the-beach Heathen Child falls into the last category, combining Smith and Cross rum, strawberry coconut crème, domaine de canton (an elegant ginger liqueur with hints of orange blossom, almond and vanilla), lime and angostura bitters ($10). Like almost everything on my favorites list, it's breezy and refreshing with a dark undertow.