Best Cocktails 2018 | Bitter & Twisted Cocktail Parlour | Food & Drink | Phoenix
Heather Hoch

Ross Simon's downtown cocktail emporium continues to glass beautiful libations. This past year, after a six-month revision, his menu moved from a fairy-tale theme to a dark fairy-tale theme. Potable highlights from the latest iteration include a sultry grasshopper (the drink) served with a paper sleeve of fried grasshoppers (the insects), as well as a super-fresh and imposingly tall drink of coconut, lime, carrot juice, and vodka. The illustrated pages of the book-like menu can whisk you to happy places: cocktails with bubbles, a night filled with fresh remixes on the Negroni. With rad upholstered seating and ceilings to the sky, this bar is always a glorious place to be drinking.

Tirion Boan

Hanging out at UnderTow is exactly like sailing the seas in a 19th-century ship's hold — if your boatmates were thirsty hipsters instead of weathered seamen. From the moment you descend the staircase in the middle of Arcadia's Sip Coffee & Beer, you're in a drinking experience unlike anything else in metro Phoenix. The tiny underground space is adorned with faux portholes and barrels, tiki carvings and lanterns, to set the mood. Then come the drinks. UnderTow dropped a new menu in mid-September. Like the previous two iterations, it's divided into UnderTow originals and tiki classics, and most drinks on both sides of the menu are new to the bar's lineup. We like the fruity, potent Signal Fire, made with tequila, rums from three islands, orange curaçao, mango, habanero, orange, pineapple, and lime. Note that the bar only seats a couple of dozen people, which makes for a friendly atmosphere among the guests, but also makes a reservation (especially on the weekends) virtually mandatory.

The Gladly

Move over, Prescott. The real Whiskey Row is lined up behind the enormous chrome-and-glass bar at The Gladly in Phoenix, which offers more than 250 labels of bourbon, rye, American and Canadian whiskey, single-malt scotch, and blended scotch. And any of them can be served over a perfectly shaped ice ball, formed at your table. Magically, the ice takes two to three hours to melt, so it will cool your whiskey without watering it down. We took our ice ball (an extra $3) on a tour through familiar Kentucky bourbons — Woodford Reserve, Basil Hayden, and Angels Envy. The taste held up through all, and there was still enough left of our cute little ice ball that we could have taken it home with us. Next time, we'll bring a small cooler. We were also pleased to see our local favorite, Arizona Distilling's Copper City bourbon, standing tall among the heavy hitters at the bar, and at only $10 a shot. The Tempe product holds its own with middle-shelf Kentucky bourbons like Knob Creek and Maker's Mark. Our only disappointment was that the bar did not stock any 20-year or 23-year Pappy Van Winkle, the most elusive bourbon on the planet. You can buy it online for up to $2,000 a bottle. The Gladly does offer a 10-year Pappy for $60 a shot. That's cheap compared with Orphan Barrel's 26-year Old Blowhard bourbon for $110 a pour. You need balls of ice to pay that for a drink.

Richard Sandoval's upscale restaurant in the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess stocks some 240 bottles of tequila. You can take flight in a number of ways: across styles (like blanco or añejo), across brands (like Don Julio or El Tesoro), by flavor profile, or by high-end ballerness (the most premium flight of three tequilas costs $240). By the glass, blanco, reposado, and añejo tequilas each get their own double-column page of the menu. If you want, you can bust out your wallet for magical extra-añejos, many from world-renowned producers like Terralta. And if you feel like delving deeper into the world of Mexican spirits, La Hacienda also has a selection of mescal, sotol, and bacanora.

Kazimierz Wine & Whiskey Bar

Kazimierz World Wine Bar is almost as difficult to find as it is to pronounce (Kaz-meer-ehz). Let's just call it Kazbar. It's tucked into a back alley in Old Town Scottsdale near its sister restaurant, Cowboy Ciao. But the search for the nondescript entrance, which took us two trips around the block, is worth it. As you walk in, you feel like you're descending into a very rich friend's intimate, well-stocked wine cellar. Kazimierz and Cowboy Ciao share a 47-page wine list that lists some 2,000 choices. If you're like us, though, and don't have a Ph.D. in oenology (the study of wine), you appreciate Kazbar's offering of five or six wine flights. Our two tastings took us on a vintner's tour from the Loire Valley in France, to Sonoma and Napa in California, to the Willamette Valley in Oregon, to Washington state, and finally a side trip to our own Sonoita-Elgin region. Every stop was appreciated. So was the menu of light bites, which includes one of our and the Valley's favorites, the remarkable Stetson Chopped Salad. And if good food and wine isn't enough, there's also live music every night after 9 p.m. So once you find the place, why would you want to leave? As the Zagat review says, "It's not your average wine bar."

Evie Carpenter

The average markup of a bottle of wine at a restaurant, according to Wine Enthusiast, is two and a half to three times its retail price. Some have found bottles marked up as much as five times what you'd pay for them in a grocery store. And usually, the more popular the label, the bigger the markup. That's why wine lovers come to Tarbell's Tavern, which is connected to The Wine Store, part of owner Mark Tarbell's Camelback Road complex. The Wine Store has a remarkable inventory, ranging from top-shelf California labels like Cakebread and Roederer to bottles you'll find discounted at your local Fry's. There are at least a couple of dozen Arizona wines, too. So if you want a bottle of wine with your meal from the Tavern's reasonably priced menu, you simply walk through a short hallway to the wine store, select a bottle, take it back to your table, and show it to your server, who will add it to your bill at the retail price. There's not even a corkage fee. And if you're not sure which wine would be the best choice when you and your date have ordered green chile pork and salmon, there's a knowledgeable steward to help you; for us, he recommended an excellent Arizona wine, a Del Rio Springs pinot noir for only $19 that paired perfectly with both dinners. One warning: If it's late and you each want just one more glass of wine, you'll be tempted when you see it's cheaper to buy a full bottle of some labels. Our advice? Order the bottle and call Lyft.

We're not Sonoma or Napa, but Arizona is blessed with an abundance of excellent winemakers and road-trip-worthy tasting rooms, which are centered in three major areas: Willcox, Sonoita-Elgin, and the Verde Valley. Any of these is worth a long weekend trip for wine-lovers, but by far our favorite stop is Page Springs Cellars in Cornville, which, at 90 minutes away, is also the shortest drive from Phoenix. Owner and vintner Eric Glomski offers an outstanding roster of wines, many from grapes produced on the property. But it is the ambiance and the food that set Page Springs apart. You can enjoy your wine on the outdoor patios as you watch the grapes grow, indoors at the bar, or in a cozy room set aside for club members. Chef Brian Nowicki's menu is superior to any other tasting room we've visited, with a variety of wood-fired pizzas, salads, cheese boards, and Mason jar rillettes (the smoked salmon spread is our favorite). Page Springs also offers tours and special events, including massage and yoga days. Sounds superfluous to us. If you're enjoying the wines and the food, how much more relaxation do you need?

Maybe you don't have to be a rocket scientist to start a winery, but it couldn't hurt. Mark Beres, co-founder of Flying Leap with his former military pilot buddies Marc Moeller and Rolf-Peter Sasse, still works his day job, an engineer at defense contractor Raytheon. That training helped get the vineyard off to a flying start. "We did a lot of research and data-gathering before we started the company," Beres told Edible Baja Arizona in an interview. "We want to know everything before we make a decision. We're engineers and mathematicians so it's in our DNA. We studied Napa, and I mean we studied Napa. Why are some wineries successful and some not? What are they doing right and wrong? Why do customers go back?" The line of customers on a recent weekend at the tasting room in Sonoita-Elgin and at the adjacent distillery seems proof that they're doing something right. Flying Leap opened in 2010 and already has added tasting rooms in Willcox, Bisbee, and Prescott. The owners told us they've found the desert temperatures combined with the elevation of the vineyards in Willcox and the Sonoita-Elgin region are conducive to growing Spanish-style grapes, which are producing some excellent wines — white blends like a 2015 Trio and a 2016 Fly Girl, and reds like a 2014 Grenache, a 2014 Estate Tempranillo, and a 2014 Mourvedre. And certainly you don't need to be a rocket scientist to appreciate drinking them.

As you pull into the drive at Lightning Ridge Cellars, you are greeted by Monty, a huge Great Dane who can look you in the eye even when you're in an SUV. It can be a bit intimidating at first. Much the same can be said about Americans trying a new varietal of red wine. Think Paul Giamatti in Sideways: "No fucking merlot." He got us to try pinot noirs. Now maybe Monty, who is as gentle as this wine is smooth, can persuade you to try the wine she's named after, Lightning Ridge Cellars' 2013 Montepulciano. The Italian grape is rarely grown in the U.S., but former engineer Ann Rancone is making it work in Elgin. The grapes are 100 percent estate-grown, and aged for 38 months in East European oak barrels. If you have a nose for this sort of thing, you notice aromas and flavors of back cherry, plum, and — ex-smokers will love this — tobacco leaf. The 2013 Montepulciano was named Best in Class at the 2018 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. And it was among the least expensive at $28. Alas, we would have brought a few bottles back with us, because it's not available in stores yet, but it was sold out. We settled for the latest, a 2016 vintage, but we prefer the full Monty.

Let's face it: White wine doesn't stay in the bottle long during the summertime in Arizona. One cool sip leads to another, then another, and the next thing you know, you've got another dead soldier in your hands. Arizona's growing wine industry produces several good whites, noticeably last year's Best of Phoenix winner Symphony Sweet Lies Reserve and this year's Arizona Growers Cup winner, the 2016 Wild Child White, both made by movie director and actor Sam Pillsbury's Pillsbury Wine Company in Cochise County. But we've developed a fondness for Flying Leap Vineyards' 2015 Trio, a blend of malvasia, grenache blanc, and picpoul grapes. The winery likens it to a classical trio of piano, violin, and cello playing in perfect harmony. Sure. We like Trio because drinking it is like biting into a chilled piece of fruit on a hot summer's day. (Is there any other kind here?) And you want to consume it all before the weather sweats away its crispness. Oops. There goes another empty bottle for the trash.

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