If you find yourself with a Jack and Coke in hand this summer, you're not doing it right. In the wonderful world of cocktails, weird is the way to go. Whether that means you stumble into the back-alley entrance of a speakeasy or you take your drink muddled, shaken, and flambéed into Flavor City, the humdrum of long summer days is sure to be broken by some alcoholic experimentation.
The beauty of the craft cocktail and mixology craze is variety. Whether you like the botanical flavors in St. Germain and Crème de Violette or you go for the bitter kick of vinegar, there are a few local spots that can satisfy even the oddest drink craving you have. Some of the best local trailblazers include Citizen R + D, Mabel's on Main, Last Drop Bar at the Hermosa Inn, and Bar Crudo.
Also in the Summer Guide:
Weird Cocktails: Put Down That Jack and Coke This Summer
A look at any local craft cocktail menu suggests that mixologists are taking drinks back to their roots, with many places dating the recipe to indicate its genesis. Micah Olson of Bar Crudo and AZ Mixology says the throwback trend is getting cocktails back to where they used to be.
"It's like how people are starting to grow their own gardens again. We're going back to a simpler life," he says. "There's more going on than just passing a drug off to somebody else."
Olson's ever-changing cocktail menu reflects a variety of flavor pairings suited to any palate. As a chef would prepare a fine meal, Olson researches and experiments with different combinations until he discovers the one he likes.
"The second you stop trying to do stuff different and [do it] over the top, life's going to get really boring," he says. "To me, if you're going to spend your whole life on it, you better enjoy it — even on your time off — and have a real opinion on it."
With the trend reverting to old-style preparation methods, you won't get a million different flavored vodkas, but you will get an artisanal drink created with handmade syrups, boutique bitters, fresh fruit, and classic techniques. All these ingredients can seem overwhelming for the home bartender, which might be part of the reason craft cocktail bars are so popular right now, according to Olson.
"The amount of money that goes into an old-school drink . . . all to try one cocktail, maybe, that you've never had before, and it sounds good, but you end up hating it and you spent $200," he says. He explains that his bar — and bars like it — give adventurous drinkers the "opportunity to come and experience without putting in the investment" at home.
However, if you decide to try your hand at home mixology, be careful when trying any recipe that involves fire. Olson recommends reading Imbibe to learn the basics before you go too far into mixology. The book pulls ideas from recipes dating to before Prohibition and translates them for modern-day application.
Another book Olson uses on a near-daily basis is The Flavor Bible. The matrix of flavor pairings comes from a chef database and shows how to combine ingredients such as cinnamon and lavender if you're not sure how to incorporate them. If you're interested in the scientific side of cocktailing, Drunken Botanist shows the wonderful, wild, and even dangerous world of mixing flora to create or enhance spirits.
Making great-tasting artisanal drinks doesn't have to be complicated, though. Olson recommends keeping one or two bottles of your favorite liquor on hand. He thinks the home bar should be a reflection of one's own tastes, but acknowledges that it's still best to buy higher-end liquor. For ideas on what to buy, stop by Tops Liquor (403 W. University Dr., #104 , Tempe, 480-967-5643, www.topsliquors.com), where the knowledgeable staff can point you in the right direction.
To liven up spirits, many bartenders agree that a dash of bitters does the trick. Local AZ Bitters Lab (www.azbitterslab.com) puts out some of the most mouthwatering and unique flavors for bitters in town, including the figgy pudding bitters ($18.95), made with cinnamon, clove, cardamom, and figs. The delectably spiced bitters is a delicious addition to any bourbon-based drink.
Even if you prefer common drinks with soda mixers, high-end ginger beers and locally made mixes make the average cocktail just that much more lux. One must-have item for the home bartender is John's Premium tonic syrup, made in Phoenix with cinchona bark and amber agave nectar and can be added to any cocktail with soda water, straight up like in the Geneviere at Tuck Shop, or even with Perrier.
John Cavanagh began researching how he could make his own tonic syrup, to be mixed with soda water from a soda siphon, out of necessity, due to a lack of space and a soda gun when Tuck Shop opened in 2008.
"I had this epiphany like, 'What'd they do before soda guns?'" he explains. "In keeping it simple I made things really complex."
Even gathering the proper ingredients, like the cinchona bark that contains the quinine found in tonic, took time. Cinchona bark is still regulated by the FDA, as it is a known treatment for malaria, and Cavanagh says the tea brewed from the bark mixed with government-rationed gin for commanding officers in the English army on their colonial conquests is likely how the gin and tonic was born.
Though his tonic syrup was the first to be sold online, he says, it's unlikely that a Phoenician would get credit for starting a trend, but the multitude of copycats shows him that he was on the right path.
"Phoenix is like the big city that just gets forgotten or lost — we always get overlooked," he says.
One thing he thinks would put Phoenix on the map for mixology is having a local distillery. The notion may give hope that Phoenicians might be seeing one pop up sooner rather than later. Regardless, Cavanagh and Olson both agree that the city is on the right track.
"As much as I travel, I think Phoenix's cocktails are as good as anywhere else; we just have fewer places that are doing it," Olson says. "The movement is definitely happening here."
Citizen R +D's G + T: One of Phoenix's best mixologists, Richie Moe, takes crafting unique cocktails to the highest level at Citizen R+D. In the back alley behind Scottsdale's Citizen Public House, there's a staircase. Read the posted rules, call upstairs, and pray they have room for you in the small, 20-person lounge. Once you're in, you can pick from a wildly inventive cocktail list that uses ingredients like a popcorn tincture and pearl dust. The classic gin and tonic, which is John Cavanagh's favorite drink, is a delicious spectacle at Citizen. Distilled tableside using a double boiler, 100-proof vodka, juniper berries, and other fresh ingredients, two glasses' worth, served with Fever Tree tonic and a lime, will run you $17. (7111 E. 5th Ave., Scottsdale, 602-904-3904)
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Palo Verde Lounge's Pickle Shot (or the Tijuana Hooker): If the exclusivity of a Scottsdale speakeasy turns you off, never fear. Even dive bars keep it weird by using leftover ingredients. That's where one of the best shots in town comes in. A shot of crappy well tequila with a half-shot pickle juice chaser might sound disgusting, but the brininess of the juice completely cuts the burn of the tequila. Plus, you can spice your pickle shot up with hot sauce, thus getting the disturbingly named Tijuana Hooker. PV's pickle shot runs $3.50 per go, so you might find yourself under the table quickly. (1015 W. Broadway Road, Tempe, 480-968-9221)
Bar Crudo's Arcadia Club: Egg whites? In a cocktail? Don't worry, you can't taste them, but after a vigorous shaking of the cocktail, you can feel the frothy, smooth difference in texture that it adds. The fruitiness of the raspberry syrup and lemon, the herbal flavors of Nolet's silver gin and the thyme garnish, and the tart Peychaud bitters combine to make a perfectly balanced and cravable summer cocktail. You can grab an Arcadia Club at Bar Crudo for $11. (3603 E. Indian School Road, 602-358-8666)
Crescent Ballroom's New Old Fashioned: Though Crescent Ballroom has made its name with great music in a beautifully restored garage space downtown, its specialty cocktails — like the sweet, strawberry Rest Stop and fizzy, ginger Honey Badger — have created a buzz in more ways than one. The most recent addition to the list is the New Old Fashioned ($8), which is a mix of Jim Beam's Devil's Cut bourbon, simple syrup, and water muddled with strawberries, oranges, bitters, and mint. Mixologist Micah Olson loves the classic combination of spirit, sugar, and bitters in the classic old fashioned, and the update with fresh ingredients at Crescent Ballroom is a welcomed addition. (Disclosure: Heather Hoch works at Crescent Ballroom.) (308 N. 2nd Ave., 602-716-2222)
Last Drop Bar at the Hermosa Inn's Yellow Jacket: While most of Last Drop Bar's menu has drinks dating from the late 1800s to the mid-1900s, the Yellow Jacket recipe is a 21st-century drink with a smooth, sweet, and refreshing taste. Corrido reposado tequila, St. Germain, yellow chartreuse, and orange bitters are all stirred together on ice and filtered into a martini glass with a lemon peel garnish, creating a light flavor that ends up tasting like a grown-up cousin to the margarita. If you stop in for Mixology Mondays, you can try it out for only $8. (5532 N. Palo Cristi Road, Paradise Valley, 602-955-7878)