In the barstool-traded lore of drinking culture, this year will go down as a supreme outlier. Bars and restaurants have been operating at a reduced capacity or closed. People have been drinking more at home, killing time and enjoying the sheltered life with tasty beverages. Overnight, my own drinking rhythms shifted, as they tend to every few years.
This was the year, at last, that I became enchanted by the art and history of cocktails and entranced with making them. At home, I shook, stirred, and punched my way through the classics, beginning at the beginning with the Old Fashioned and moving outward through time and spirits. (One liquid on this list flows from that journey.)
My year of drinking, though, traveled far beyond the cocktail. Here are my five favorite local craft drinks of 2020.
Navajo Tea Sake from Arizona Sake
In this straw-gold bottle, two cultures blend at a level just above sensory perception, propelling Atsuo Sakurai’s masterful junmai ginjo down new back alleys of tiny, ephemeral, morphing flavors. The base sake is Japanese. Grassy clippings lean in each bottle. These are Navajo Tea, an herb also known as greenthread, a nod to Diné co-owner Heather Sakurai’s culture. Each sip is different, the lightly infused sake changing. It is floral and fruity, at one moment like peaches or lychee, then maybe a touch rice-milky and herbaceous, with something of a wild meadow where moisture releases the soil smell and you might turn up wild mushrooms or an old cattle skull. This sake packs enigma yet brightness. Like Atsuo’s others under Arizona Sake, it is brilliant.
Commerce Gin from Arizona Distilling Co.
Spirits are one of the few areas of food and beverage where non-local tends to trump local. Arizona Distilling’s Commerce Gin is one exception. It won’t replace your classic dry gin, your Tanqueray with its sharp, juniper-fragrant, doctor’s-office punch, a launchpad for so many great cocktails. Nope. This gin has softer aromatics and florals, with delicate spicing and an echo of citrus. This is all kindled through careful use of eight ingredients from northern Arizona and warm spices, including coriander and cumin. In my mind, the spirit leans nicely into gin cocktails with citrus components, like a French 75, or one centering botanicals, like a Last Word.
Ginger Beer from Big Marble Organics
What I realized after my first cold-bottle sip of ginger beer from Danielle Leoni and Dwayne Allen’s Big Marble Organics, as the soft fire of the ginger rose and rose and rose (somehow rising still, how is that possible, how did they pack so much flavor into this beverage, still building in flavor seven seconds after my first sip, like a roller coaster clacking up and up and up seemingly forever) was that, once the warmth and gentle sizzle and needling carbonation finally trailed out, I’d never really had ginger beer before.
Forbidden Fancy from Superstition Meadery
The bottle shop inside the newly opened Superstition Downtown is Disneyland for adults who drink weird and well. Dozens of meads line the shelves: classic meads, metheglins, melomels, limited-release bottles, and offerings aged in barrels from workaday oak to tequila, port, and cherry brandy. Though the choice is paralyzing, you can only choose right. Forbidden Fancy is a melomel, a mead made with fruit: apples and pomegranates. Under a thick cover of sweetness, the fruit melds beautifully into the wild textured florals of the fermented honey. Some heat from an unshy ABV (15 percent) and the influence of the mead’s rum-barrel aging round out this small-batch offering smoothly.
Absinthe Minded GOLD by Absinthe Minded
On a cold day early in the year, I drank a lot of absinthe. This absinthe was made in Arizona. Concocted by the sharp-dressed duo behind Absinthe Minded, my licorice-touched spirit was born in Tempe at facilities owned by Adventurous Stills. The headiest absinthe they offer, Absinthe Minded GOLD, approaches rocket-fuel intensity at 70 percent ABV. Its recipe aims to closely track the Swiss original, wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) and all. A few sips in, the ornate woods and linens and space within Zinc Bistro crisped into focus. The chatter-filled cool air felt hot and sharp. Life turned light and good, the kind of low-gravity joy that would become too rare in the rest of 2020.