10 Best Winter Cocktails in Metro Phoenix

Here are 10 winter cocktails — some new, some time-honored, all worth seeking out, even during the most frigid Phoenix winter night. 

The Spot: Bitter & Twisted Cocktail Parlour, Downtown Phoenix
The Drink: The B&T Martini, pimped with Old Raj Gin

The martini may come across as the serious, or downright sacred, cornerstone from which all cocktails stem — and from which the martini glass stemware got its name — but the practiced drinker knows that, beyond spirit and vermouth, the martini’s most crucial ingredient is the drinker’s own set of preferences. That simple knowledge justifies “shaken, not stirred” and also lets guys like Ross Simon, proprietor at Bitter & Twisted, take liberties that warm up this drink in winter.

But to do so, he must get the drink colder than any martini in town. Just as Dukes Bar (the watering hole where James Bond author Ian Fleming did his best brainstorming) has for years, Simon pre-bottles a blend of Old Raj gin and Martini & Rossi vermouth, then sticks it in a cooler cranked down to 10 degrees. The Old Raj is a gold-colored gin that gets its hue from an infusion of saffron, a tea-like herb among the most expensive in the world. It lends a savory warmth to the drink’s classic structure and builds upon flavors of soft juniper and vibrant orris root.

It’s also 110 proof — and when Simon decants the blend into a pre-chilled glass, he takes a temp on the finished drink: 7.9 degrees. The bartender points out that the liquid will actually outpace the glass, keeping it cold instead of the other way around. The low temperature seizes the heat from the proof, but the palate’s warmth releases the saffron's aroma, and the drink warms you from the belly outward.

“It’s a winter warmer,” says Simon. He takes a sip of his own concoction. “Yeah, that would turn a bad day into a good day real [expletive] fast.”

The Spot
: Okra, Uptown Phoenix
The Drink: Milk Was a Bad Choice

Ordering the Milk Was a Bad Choice is remarkably similar to stealing candy from a baby — so we hear. A cocktail so creamy, so calmly sweet, and so complex shouldn’t end with, of all things, a boozy afterburn.

But there will be booze — and each sip will make good on the pieces leading up to that final impression. The cocktail, furthermore, is an improvement on where other bar teams might’ve stopped conceptualizing. Brown butter-washed Hamilton rum leads the push and sure as hell ends it. The goat’s milk — not cow’s milk or cream — is tangy and less familiar. Arizona-grown dates — rather than brown sugar or demerara syrup — sweeten while imparting their one-of-a-kind earthiness. And Mi Casa bitters from AZ Bitters Lab add baking spice bunkmates myrrh and ginger. Finally, a fresh, old-fashioned grate of cinnamon reminds you that you’re still at Okra, a contemporary bar, that it isn’t Christmas, yet, and that you’re not drinking at a speakeasy goat stable in Bethlehem.

The Spot:
Pizzeria Bianco, Town & Country, Biltmore area
The Drink: Italian Egg Nog

It’s nearly impossible to drink this egg nog with a stiff upper lip — it’s too fun, too inviting, too under-the-covers with cheer. It’s also Italian. “Nearly all Italian,” says Blaise Faber, barkeep at Pizzeria Bianco’s Town & Country location. He means it; the base spirit is an aged grappa — grappa being an Italian brandy distilled from grapes'  skins, seeds, and stems after they’ve been pressed for wine-making. An aged version is suited well for a winter flavor set — and the result is a toasty, oaky spirit with a strong presence of hazelnut, which Faber further rounds out with just a touch of bourbon and rum. There’s also Carpano Antica, an Italian sweet vermouth, in the mix. Aside from the cinnamon and nutmeg grated on top, the rest is as local and fresh as possible, as you’d come to expect with anything Bianco: cream from Udder Delights and eggs from Two Wash Ranch, both used in the kitchen.

The Spot: The Clever Koi, Central Phoenix
The Drink: West Indian

The East India cocktail is less a classic cocktail than an artifact. While it’s recently been brought to the attention of bartenders by today’s  cocktail historians, the drink originally was defined by Harry Johnson in his New and Improved Bartenders Manual, published in 1882, counted as a favorite among English living in East Africa.

And then there's the version at The Clever Koi, the West Indian, which can be considered neither classic nor artifact — as it finds new life as a pre-dinner cocktail. It’s lower in alcohol — a drink style called a shim — that delivers less booze and more flavor and understands the palate should be teased, but not fully satiated, by the time the diner gets their fork in the kimchi salad course.

Laird’s Applejack Brandy plants one foot firmly in the ground, while sherry and a house vermouth blend give it some lift. Alyx McMillan, lead bartender at Clever Koi, points out how long she must give this cocktail a stir — the shim style needs the dilution from the ice and the simple set of ingredients need time to marry. It gets no garnish but a perfume of citrus oils from expressed lemon.

The Spot: Crudo, Arcadia
The Drink: Rye The Way

A veteran from the Crudo bar menu, the Rye the Way gives you many reasons to imbibe. The drink sets up the evening with no-nonsense rye, flirts with the jovial, herbal liqueur Benedictine and its baking spice notes. There is a bright citrus garnish, which plays nicely with the floral, smoky mezcal hidden in the mix — the part that Crudo owner Micah Olson says “pulls you up to a fire.” 

The Spot:
Rum Bar, Downtown Phoenix
The Drink: Jack Rubie

Aside from the classics — mojitos, daiquiris, or rum Old Fashioneds — Rum Bar's strengths are found in its role as medicine man and apothecary, sporting inventive drinks supported by exotic spices and liqueurs, tinctures, syrups, and juices, all housemade. 

The Jack Rubie features an aged Clément Rum Agrichole, derived from sugar cane, as soft and floral as it is oaky, laying a foundation for housemade creme de cacao and an apple spice syrup made with produce from Cochise County — from Sam Pillsbury’s vineyard apples. The drinks gets a layer of depth from a housemade mauby bark tincture with a flavor similar to root beer.

“In Jamaica, we are fond of using mauby bark for anything that ails us,” says Dwayne Allen, Rum Bar’s owner.

The drink also receives one of the most meticulous garnishes we've seen lately: thinly sliced apple with dried, crispy sage pressed directly into the center.

The Spot: Rum Bar, Downtown Phoenix
The Drink: Hot Buttered Rum

Don’t count out five-year winter cocktail veteran the Hot Buttered Rum at (of course) Rum Bar.

It’s not too simple to say that bar’s warmest drink also is its hottest, gaining quite the fanbase, as owner Dwayne Allen puts it. “People are not happy when we take it off in the spring.”

Neither is it too simple to say that the Hot Buttered Rum is the hot equivalent of the aforementioned Jack Rubie. After all, Bryan Burton, bar manager at Rum Bar, said it first. If the Jack Rubie is somewhat light and nice to drink just before dinner, the Hot Buttered Rum is what Burton calls a “quintessential after-dinner drink.” Warmed up on a burner in the back, salted butter is added for extra rib-sticking. Some of the same players are cast: rum (though a much darker, heartier molasses-based rum), silky texture from housemade coconut liqueur and whipped coconut cream, and nutmeg sprinkled on top, akin to the spiced syrup from the Jack Rubie.

Cocktails get a lot more complicated, but seldom do they get more satisfying.

The Spot:
Crudo, Arcadia
The Drink: "No Name"

Here it is, folks, your winter Manhattan, a drink that — if considered a mixture of spirit, vermouth, and bitters — takes liberties.

Crudo's Micah Olson goes to Four Roses bourbon for his spirit, and chooses two vermouths —  Bonal (an aperitif that’s seemingly both a sweet vermouth and an amaro, tasting predominantly of quinine) and Montenegro, an amaro Olson chose for its citrus qualities. He echoes that citrus later with an orange peel garnish that sits on the rim of the glass. Jerry Thomas Bitter Truth bitters allow you to taste some fruitiness up front, but spice as well toward the middle and end of each sip.

This drink is a nightcap. It would go great with a cigar.

The Spot: The Clever Koi, Central Phoenix
The Drink: Hidden in a Crowd

The Hidden in a Crowd cocktail might as well have gotten its name from the lengthy ingredient list. Just how many crowd together for a cocktail measuring no more than a few ounces? Very Old Barton bourbon is there, and so is Carpano Antica sweet vermouth.

And amaro lovers rejoice; so is a house blend of Amari — Contratto, which lies somewhere in-between Aperol and Campari, and Gingembre, tasting expectedly of ginger — and so is Fernet. A 50-50 blend of Peychaud’s and Angostura bitters to add yet another layer.

“Then there’s a bar spoon of gomme syrup from Small Hands,” lead bartender Alyx McMillan says. Gomme largely fell out of fashion for bartenders who liked the viscosity it added to drinks but found it difficult to make — especially when simple sugar syrup is so much easier.

It’s a dark, brooding cocktail, where the madness and appreciation lies in unlocking its complexity. “The opposite end of the spectrum from the West Indian,” says McMillan. “It’s an after-dinner drink."

The Spot:
The Parlor, Biltmore Area
The Drink: Ciao Bello

The espresso martini has never been the choice of anyone who knows better. Too fussy and bad tasting to be humdrum or "drinkable." The kind of drink Jamie Oliver would tweet out harmlessly, the kind a cocktail historian like David Wondrich would rather not validate.

Likely this is because espresso is an unruly — if not a potentially lively and exciting — ingredient. Most bars can’t pull a good shot, and then there’s the matter of most standard recipes calling for vodka (usually so tasteless that bad poor espresso becomes the star) and, perhaps, creme de cacao.

Michael Allmandinger of The Parlor flips the espresso cocktail on its head. The Ciao Bello incorporates St. George’s NOLA (New Orleans-style) coffee liqueur, salted cacao bitters from Workhorse Rye, and Fernet Branca Menta amaro for a minty twist. Allmandinger lets Italy’s two traditional after-dinner beverages, espresso and amaro, sing in harmony, as they flirt with a minty profile and mint garnish that lands the drink deliciously close to a mint chocolate frappuccino from Starbucks; a distant flavor memory, but a good one.

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Shelby Moore