Back in the old days of Welcome Diner, if you were looking for a drink, you had your choice of two beers on draft and the ubiquitous hurricane, accompanied by shouting and banging when ordered. Now with Mike Pantoja on board, the Phoenix spot has become as much about its attention to quality and creativity on the drink menu as it has the food menu. Also like the food menu, Pantoja is taking care to concoct each drink the right way by experimenting constantly and making his own tonic, ginger beer, grenadine, and bitters.
Pantoja doesn't mind admitting that he's a self-taught bartender, but you also have to know that he's done his homework. He's read Joy of Mixology and Imbibe, but also frequents Liquor.com for new ideas. Apart from that, he credits his love of geeking out with chef and owner Michael Babcock over ingredients and new techniques.
Pantoja and Babcock have been friends for about ten years, but it wasn't until recently that Pantoja took on the task of instituting a cocktail program at the restaurant. With extremely limited space, he makes due by a discerning selection of liquors with one bourbon, one white rums, one aged rum, one gin, one vodka, one tequila, one cachaça, a handful of liquors, and scratch-made mixers. That means if you've just got to have Jack Daniels with your Coke, you should probably head elsewhere.
"We don't have the space for Jack Daniels," he explains, though he doesn't seem too broken up about it. He prefers the Four Roses bourbon they stock instead, though he says he would like to start stocking locally-distilled spirits like Copper City Bourbon.
As for just how he chooses which liquor gets to take up the precious little shelf space behind his bar, he says "tasting is the best part," though he focuses on giving business to small batch distilleries. He feels the farm-to-table mentality of the food at Welcome Diner is reflected in the cocktails when he uses craft spirits from the little guys.
With a strong, but modest liquor foundation behind the bar, Pantoja makes up for limited selection by being creative in other ways. Cocktails on draft and making everything from scratch are just two of the ways he's doing this.
So far, Pantoja has made an apple bitters and a kaffir celery bitters, but he's got his sights set on a house aromatic bitters blend that he's looking to ingredients like smoked cedar to create.
Although he plans on switching some of the drinks out for summer, his current line-up on the menu features a little something for everyone, though he admits his and Babcock's love of whiskey has an obvious imprint on the list. While most of the menu features classics like an Old Fashioned, a Negroni, a Sazerac, and a Manhattan, drinks like his popular Kentucky Thoroughbred and a light and fresh Brazilian cachaça-based Batida Rosa show off his ability to mix up a wide range of drinks with what he's got.
Pantoja says making his own tonic and ginger beer is both cost-effective and allows him to have more control over the flavor of the mixers he's using. Plus, he says once he explains to guests how easy it is to make your own ginger beer, they're usually pretty shocked.
"The ginger beer they sell in the store is kind of a rip off," he says.
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Basically, he says that all he does is finely mince some ginger in his food processor and then he boils the ginger in hot water. After a few minutes, he strains the ginger chunks out and adds sugar. Once the sugar dissolves completely, he adds fresh lemon juice and a little more water. After that, he allows the mixture to cool and then it's ready for the soda siphon, which carbonates the ginger beer.
In terms of proportions, if you want to make your own ginger beer, the following combination will yield two gallons of it:
5 pounds of ginger 2 quarts of sugar 2 quarts of lemon juice