The origins of cocktail culture don't exactly trace back to our fair and young state — but we can lay claim to one classic: the Tequila Sunrise. Just orange juice and tequila, layered with bright red grenadine, it's essentially, you know, only slightly better than sitting down to the bar and ordering a Shirley Temple. Luckily for us, California is the real culprit behind that interpretation — ours, invented at the Arizona Biltmore in the 1930s, was a much more respectable mixture of tequila, lime, and soda water layered with a deep purple blackcurrant liqueur. The Old Town Scottsdale bar Counter Intuitive does the California version — which might be regrettable if it weren't for a couple of tricks up their sleeves, including fresh juice and a craft spin.

Counter Intuitive
Counter Intuitive/Facebook

Keifer Gilbert is no stranger to the hustle. At one point this past year, he was tending three bars — three of the city's best, in fact — at sister restaurants Crudo and Okra, and weekends at Counter Intuitive (as well as participating in food and beverage events around town). He left Crudo briefly, but only because Counter Intuitive was opening its own sister spot, the tiki-slinging UnderTow, where he began the hustle once again. That's a lot, given that there are usually dozens of original drinks on each menu and only seven nights in the week. But far more to Gilbert's credit than sound memorization and tight technique, though, is his sense of friendly, good-natured bartending.

You've seen the other side of the coin too many times: some of the most charismatic bartenders found guilty of building too much momentum in a night, struggling to find the line between sparking the party and becoming the party themselves. Gilbert, however, nails it. He's appropriately attentive, earnest, and upbeat — it's obvious he's having fun, no doubt about it — but so are you. That's the most important thing. He knows it and tends to it.

Young, hungry, and hospitable, Gilbert certainly has a great year behind him, and an even brighter future ahead as he continues to develop his personal style and tastes at two of the city's very best.

As far as cocktail movements are concerned, "old school" is thought to refer to a time from the turn of the century through the Prohibition era that followed, when the foundation for most classic cocktails was laid. But there is an older school still — America's first cocktail movement, which birthed the 18th-century mint julep. It was medicine then and still is; just brandy, ice, sugar, and mint in an unadorned tin cup — and in uptown Phoenix, Okra makes it better than anyone else. In fact, they dedicate an entire menu to the drink, providing historic variants (the original, with brandy, or instead, a version sporting bourbon dating to the era that followed) and some twists of their own; for instance, an island-inspired julep featuring rum and house-made pineapple syrup.

Counter Intuitive
Counter Intuitive/Facebook

While most cocktail menus straddle a bias between classics on one page and a handful of their own creations on the other, Old Town Scottsdale's Counter Intuitive went ahead and dreamed up a few dozen new, original drinks for their Mexican-inspired episode, Agua Caliente Racetrack. Just as the team created their Chinatown-inspired menu before it, the drink creation is entirely flavor-driven, starting with a list of ingredients that represent a region or a theme. From there, they work their way backward into cocktails that must withstand substantial criticism before any one drink makes the final menu. There is, indeed, a "new school" in the Phoenix craft cocktail movement, and it's in session at Counter Intuitive.

The Rum Bar

Like bourbon and whiskey, rum has the power to warm the mind, body, and soul through a long and hard winter — but we don't have those in Phoenix. It's a good thing, then, that we have Rum Bar, guided by Jamaican-born owner Dwayne Allen, for the long and hard summers, where the bartenders know exactly how to beat the heat with concoctions that are refreshingly cool — and refreshingly creative, too. Here, the apothecary is stocked exotically and the house-designed shrubs flow into drinking territory less traveled. Not that the stalwarts of hot-weather rum drinks aren't there to please and impress; Rum Bar does mojitos, daiquiris, and piña coladas better than any of the other guys.

The Parlor Pizzeria
Heather Hoch

Critics will call them watery salsa or liquified salad, and it can be true. Loaded up with celery sticks and skewered veggies, a Bloody Mary can often knock out a round of drinks and your salad course all at once.

But now, salads and vegetables are getting star treatment — and the Bloody Mary can just as easily steal the show when uncommon ingredients and better booze are in the mix. Cue the Bloody Mary at The Parlor — it's prosciutto fat-washed (that means they let prosciutto fat sit and infuse with alcohol, giving it a rich taste), with a house-made mix, and green chile-flavored vodka. Not a bad way to get those veggies in.

The Gladly
The Gladly

Take one look at the Gladly's towering whiskey collection, stocked from the ceiling down to the bar, and you'll have little doubts they've got it all — or, you know, at least a lot of it. To be accurate, this collection clocks in at around 200 types of rye whiskey, bourbon, and scotch — bottled in bond, pot stilled, blended, or peated. Pick your poison. Tacking a few bucks to each order gets you a perfectly compressed ice ball, too — perfect for kicking around the glass with an agile pinkie and unquenchable thirst for the finer things in life. And, by that, we mean bourbon.

Arizona Distilling Co.
Evie Carpenter

Arizona Distilling Co. has come a long way in just a couple of short years of producing spirits that not only Arizonans could be proud of, but which can compete with most anyone on a national stage. Originally, the company was best know for its gin, which blends a handful of Arizona botanicals into an aromatic and flexible gin — recently, though, it's their Desert Durum Wheat Whiskey, made from locally grown durum wheat. Billed as "Arizona's first-ever grain-to-bottle whiskey," the spirit sets the pace for a company that's wants to be known for quality and community before anything else.

The distillation industry may be large, but in Phoenix, things are still pretty small. That means that when a new distiller opens up its doors, it can potentially make waves quickly — and that's exactly what CaskWerks did after setting up shop in Tempe. Owner Rick Burch and head distiller John Miller were hoping they had a recipe for success when they debuted the spirit they're now so well known for: their delicious, signature Apple Pie Liqueur. What they didn't have, yet, was a liaison to tap into the Valley's bartender community. Enter bartender extraordinaire and one the community's best-known ambassadors, Travis Nass, who joined the team to man the customer-facing side of the equation. Cheers to a bright future.

Though it hails from down south in Tucson, Hamilton Distillers has done a phenomenal job of getting their Whiskey Del Bac spirit placed onto shelves in Phoenix — after all, who wouldn't want to stock and pour one of the state's most intriguing alcoholic products? If you ask us, it's a game-changer; the distillery is taking organic local barley grown in the Tucson area and malting it with mesquite smoke made from wood collected in the surrounding desert — a process not unlike Scotch-making, which requires grain be malted by burning peat. Mesquite is an important part of our local terroir, and Hamilton's Whiskey Del Bac is an important part of appreciating that terroir. We can't wait for what they do next.

Best Of Phoenix®

Best Of