Sean Traynor is about to mix a drink. He is behind the bar of his new "restaurant," Cotton & Copper, which he sold his house to buy and outfit. He sloshes lime juice into a stainless steel shaker; an Optimus Prime tattoo whorls with his arm. Traynor has started to mix a potent, roasty, bracing cocktail called Agua Caliente.
Agua Caliente lives in the left column of Cotton & Copper’s menu. Two of the menu’s three columns are devoted to drinks, a fact often lost in the buzz about this new south Tempe hot spot, which seems to gather around its chef, Tamara Stanger.
Though Cotton & Copper is both, the space is a bar before a restaurant. The focal point of Cotton & Copper, tall and sparely furnished to the point that there seems to be an echo, is a looming bar back of dark wood, bottles, and mirrors. The vibe is saloon. Saloon but with dragonfruit puree, groomed beards, and a framed print of an AT-AT walker.
“Public house,” Traynor says, pinpointing what he was going for. “Prancing Pony,” he adds, which may or may not bring a fresh level of clarity. (The Prancing Pony is the inn in Lord of the Rings where the hobbits meet Aragorn. Pipe smoke. Good drinks. Warm vibes.)
“That was the whole idea behind the place, a modern take on what I thought a public house could be,” Traynor says. “And then just really drive the narrative of, it’s craft cocktails supported by an amazing food program, and not the other way around.”
Traynor’s drink menu pays homage to Arizona and his mentors. Cotton & Copper celebrates some intensely local ingredients, like Saguaro fruit and corn ash, as well as products of local farms, breweries, and so on. Stanger has tailored her food to the drink. Traynor shoots for cocktails that are fresh and well-balanced – not too fancy, but often using items like Zucca and blueberry jam. “I just want to make cocktails that are super-accessible for people,” he says. “It’s a neighborhood place, but I don't want to dumb things down."
A cocktail that tunnels you into Traynor’s mind, and to Cotton & Copper’s heart, is the Agua Caliente.
He makes the drink from chile-infused mezcal, lime juice, ginger, and pineapple. Once these ingredients have been added to the steel shaker, Traynor shakes for about seven seconds. He then pours over a rose-gold strainer. Yellow liquid climbs a Collins glass. Shards of ice resettle as the drink nears the brim.
Traynor’s first next-level rendezvous with mezcal came after he left Culinary Dropout, back when he was at Counter Intuitive, the influential Old Town Scottsdale bar by Jason Asher and Rich Furnari. Traynor started behind the bar during a "super agave-forward" theme called Agua Caliente, one of the many "episodes" the cocktail mecca once ran. His present drink of the same name nods to this history.
Agua Caliente channels, also, Cotton & Copper's communal spirit.
“I would say it has a great community aura behind it,” Traynor says of the drink. “Mezcal production is never what you would think. The palenques [distilleries] are almost always in somebody’s backyard. It’s not this crazy refined backyard element. It’s very much like backyard breweries.”
Traynor settled on Agave de Cortes mezcal for his Agua Caliente for a few reasons.
First, he wanted the drink to have a low smoky undertone, and for this he needed a mezcal with a smoke at the mellow level of a wood-fired pizza. This particular Oaxacan mezcal unfolds with a less intrusive husk, giving citrus and ginger room to malleate the smoky qualities of the mezcal (and the chiles) into something whispery and beautiful.
Second, Traynor likes the people behind this brand of mezcal. “It wasn’t that I was combing through different varieties [of mezcal] to find just the right one,” he says. “It was, I really want to work with these people."
He infuses the Agave de Cortes with roasted New Mexico ancho chiles. Three chiles per 750 milliliters.
As Traynor tops off your glass with a spurt of soda, and as he sets it before you, you might get a whiff of smoke. The pale yellow cocktail looks plain, agnostic in its awareness of the digital age, simple, almost like iced lemonade. Maybe that’s because of the glass.
Some Cocktails at Cotton & Copper come in antique glasses from Blakely Service Stations, a bygone chain of gas stations popular in Arizona during the mid-20th century. There are eight glasses in the Collins set that Traynor uses at Cotton & Copper. Though his grandfather worked at Blakely’s, Traynor had to work to score this glass.
He took a trip north to two towns on the Mongollan Rim, Pinetop and Show Low, in search of old Blakely’s sets. He went from antique shop to antique shop, plucking a few frosted glasses here, a few there. At the last seller Traynor visited, he struck the mother lode.
“The lady said she had something like 29 or 30 glasses at her house,” he says.
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As a result of this trip, Traynor’s Agua Caliente fills a tall glass with retro art down the front. Each of the eight glasses in the set depicts a different desert plant. “Originally I saw them and thought, ‘man, if you’re doing an agave drink, how cool would it be to put it in a glass with an agave on it?’” Traynor says.
Once he has placed a retro glass of Agua Caliente before you, ice cube jutting over the rim, Traynor steps back from the agave.
He moves on to the next bottle. On to the next spirit. On to measuring another jigger of juice. On to sloshing more house banana amaro. On to the next customer below the jackalope peering out from the top of the bar back like a flowing-haired woman carved into the prow of a ship. On to the next drink — perhaps not an Agua Caliente, but surely a drink made with the same molecular intention, with the same friendly care.
Cotton & Copper. 1006 East Warner Road, #113, Tempe; 480-629-4270.
Tuesday to Thursday 3 to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 3 p.m. to midnight; closed Sunday and Monday.