Ladies and gentleman, it's officially here. The months you've been waiting for. Summer. An iced beverage could never be more refreshing, more welcome than it will be over these next dozen weeks. So, skip the hard lemonade — heck, skip the regular lemonade while you're at it — and get to drinking some of our favorite summer cocktails from around the Valley of the Sun.
THE SPOT: Windsor
THE DRINK: No. 67
Tracing the origins of watermelon in cocktails could take you back to the '90s, when Martha and Emeril muddled basil for melon margaritas, or even further back to the '80s for watermelon-cubed white-wine coolers. Better to fast-forward to modern times, where craft-minded bartenders are taking nature’s most refreshing fruit to new heights. Upwards Projects Beverage Director Brent Karlicek has a knack for offering big flavor in an approachable setting, and at Windsor his take on watermelon involves kaffir lime-tinted tonic from the Valley’s very own Iconic Cocktail Company, started by Windsor barman Matt Farrow. That, the juice of the melon, a splash of soda, and a healthy dose of Plymouth-style gin is, in one word, delightful.
THE SPOT: Barrio Urbano
THE DRINK: Sonoran Daisy
Despite the abundance of dried hibiscus flowers that arrive at the Valley’s mercados to be used in the form of jamaica aqua frescas, hibiscus' vibrant flavor and deep maroon color are seldom called upon by local bartenders. If it is utilized by a bartender, it’s usually for a margarita, and some are very good. If you're looking for an excellent example of this riff, check out Barrio Urbano’s Sonoran Daisy, which is easily built — made with hibiscus-infused blanco tequila, ginger liqueur, and fresh lemon juice — and even more easily enjoyed.
THE SPOT: Okra
THE DRINK: Julius Freezer
At the tail-end of March we called Okra’s Julius Freezer the most fun, most frozen cocktail in Phoenix. Creamy, boozy, and a touch spicy, this Vitamin C-centric cocktail is an Orange Julius re-imagined by adults with an arsenal of booze at their disposal. Making too many orange peel-garnished old fashioneds led to too many peel-less oranges, so the Okra crew juiced them and, inspired by the summer classic, wound up with their own wacky version. It might come across as a spiked smoothie if not for the sneaky addition of Ancho Reyes Liqueur, one of the Valley’s hottest — and spiciest — new imports.
THE SPOT: Bitter & Twisted Cocktail Parlour
THE DRINK: Bear Witness
Start looking forward to the easy-drinking Bear Witness. So far as appearances go, it stands in as the new version of last year’s L.I.T. Up cocktail, a drink that was served in an old Coca-Cola can. But similar to its predecessor, looks can be deceiving — that one packed a punch, and this one will force your lips into a peppercorn-spiced pucker. Simon’s vessel of choice is an emptied honey-bear squeeze bottle, which is stuffed with Kikori whiskey, lemon, grapefruit, yuzu marmalade, and pink peppercorn honey syrup. The concoction is served over crushed ice and garnished with a sprig of dill. Sweet and fun, it’s a teddy bear of a cocktail that isn’t afraid to bite.
THE SPOT: The Clever Koi
THE DRINK: Sour Times
In April, we told you what it’s like to be the prettiest cocktail in the room. This is that cocktail — and it’s designed for summertime sipping. The Sour Times is a vibrant and deep shade of purple that gives way to a thin, pale pink layer of foam. The drink is then crowned with an absurd amount of fresh herbs: a fat bundle of sage, Thai basil, mint, and rosemary. “It’s a visually appealing, garden-style sour," says Joshua James, co-owner of the Clever Koi. "We wanted something with both a feminine and a masculine touch. It’s really pretty, and you also get a ton of aromatics.”
THE SPOT: Nobuo at Teeter House
THE DRINK: Smokey Thompson
Nobuo at Teeter House’s elevated take on a simple whiskey sour, called the Smokey Thompson, is one of the most terroir-driven cocktails in metro Phoenix. For starters, Nobuo bartenders begin with local mesquite honey and egg whites from Dave Jordan's Two Wash Ranch. They add floral yuzu orange and lime juices from local farmer Bob McClendon (though when they’re not in season in Arizona, the restaurant sources them from a Japanese distributor), and finally, for the booze, there’s Whiskey Del Bac, a spirit made from organic barley grown at Tucson’s family-owned BKW Farms. The barley is malted by burning mesquite collected in the surrounding desert, creating a scotch-style spirit with Sonoran flavor.
THE SPOT: The Brickyard
THE DRINK: Ain't Cho Paloma
If a martini says suit-and-tie, then a paloma says swimwear and sandy flip-flops. The drink maintains a humble existence, often as simple as a mix of Squirt-brand grapefruit soda and cheap tequila, and secretly, that’s how Brickyard bar manager Bobby Kramer, who calls himself a paloma traditionalist, admits to liking his. But that is, like, off the clock. On the clock, it’s a different story. A house-made grapefruit shrub, infused with fresno chillies, gets some real fruit flavor in the mix and delivers a kick. Soda gets it fizzy, and a chili flake, sugar, and salt rim delivers a Mexican candy effect on every sip. This is a party drink, not a serious one — but this thing is seriously spicy from start to finish.
THE SPOT: Tratto
THE DRINK: Tumeric Mule
Tratto barman Blaise Faber has an apothecary at his disposal. White, wooden shelves behind the restaurant's bar are lined with colorful glass jars; one has sliced citrus, another whole citrus, and still others are full of young stinging nettle from the chef's garden, buddha’s hand citron, and whole turmeric. Faber has the turmeric sitting in Ford’s gin, slowly extracting its essence, which is more fresh and lively than the dried, powdered version of the root. Recently, he ran it as a special mixed with bubbly ginger beer, Gifford Pamplemousse liqueur, and fresh lime juice. Now it’s on the menu. It’s too bad you can’t enjoy this one poolside.
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THE SPOT: Rum Bar
THE DRINK: 54 Forty-Six
Rum Bar can do dark, and Rum Bar can do stormy, and they’ll stir rum old fashioneds all winter long. But it’s summer now, and though the daiquiris and mojitos are superb at the Caribbean restaurant and bar, you’ll probably want to try something new. Look no further than the 54 Forty Six. Like nearly every liqueur used at the bar, the tangy and tart blackberry shrub in this cocktail is made in house. Perfectly spiced and just a tad sweet, it’s mixed with fresh pineapple juice, white Appleton rum, lemon, vanilla, and house-made horehound bitters, a signature Rum Bar ingredient. “This is not a sipping cocktail,” Allen says. “This is a drinking cocktail … and this summer I’ll probably drink these more than anything else.”
THE SPOT: The Mix Up Bar
THE DRINK: Sonoran Sage Martini
The martini has certainly evolved since the days when the best ones were only found in hotel and resort bars, though both the tepid martini drinker and the very nostalgic might maintain otherwise. The Mix Up Bar, tucked into The Royal Palms resort, can serve you the perfect martini, of course, but also something a little more summer-minded and a little less traditional. With the Sonoran Sage Martini head barman Charlie Zeiler mixes Western Sage Gin from Prescott’s Thumb Butte Distillery — “The smell reminds me of when it rains in the desert,” says Zeiler — and Contratto white vermouth. From there, he adds just a touch of a simple syrup made from Phoenix-based Cotton Country Jams’ mesquite amber syrup. In a dry desert, it will taste like catching a raindrop on your tongue.