6 Don't-Miss Events During AZ Cocktail Week: Feb 16-22

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I've said it before and I'll say it again. Phoenix is becoming a bona-fide food-town, "becoming" (present progressive) being the operative word. Exhibit A, for your consideration: the second annual Arizona Cocktail Week, a seven-day series of boozy events -- some educational, others not so much -- bringing some of the biggest names in the beverage industry together in one place: Steve Olson, Dale DeGroff, Charlotte Voisey, Tobin Ellis, H. Joseph Ehrmann, Tony Abou-Ganim and dozens more -- right here. In the little food-town that could.

See also: -- AZ Cocktail Week Kicks Off Feb. 16: Expect a Carnival, Competition and Seminars. Better Line Up a Designated Driver -- The 11 Best Things I Drank in 2012

It's going to be a grand time, but if you don't have $295 to spend on a ticket that gets you into everything, you're going to have to make some hard decisions. I've read the Arizona Cocktail Week website, talked to people and dithered considerably. Here are the six events I don't want to miss, arranged chronologically.

Cocktail Carnival: Feb. 16, 6-10 p.m., The Lawn, Hotel Valley Ho, GA (general admission), $55

If you do nothing else, you should go to the Cocktail Carnival, which will be the relaxed but lively carnival-like kick-off for the week's events, held on the lawn at the Hotel Valley Ho. Even if all the celeb-mixologists conducting seminars aren't on hand this first night (but I'm guessing LOTS of them will be) local/regional/national talent will show up in droves, mixing and mingling as well as mixing and muddling. Some of the top brand ambassadors in the country will be dispensing spirit samples and/or cocktails, while a handful of cool bars from other cities will be represented as pop-ups, showing off their own signature drinks. There'll be music from Colorado-based Bonnie and the Beard (variously described as "psychedelic desert blues" and "carny folk rock"), a food court, games, prizes and booze-infused cotton candy (because it's a carnival, see?). VIP ticket holders can also attend "Beam and BBQ on the Balcony" for Jim Beam bourbon cocktails and 'cue.

Seminar -- The Perfect Pairing: A Mix Made in Heaven, the Bar or the Kitchen?, Feb. 17, 1-2:30 p.m., Sands Building, Hotel Valley Ho, $65

I started my career-in-eating life as a wine-drinker, so I've never been entirely convinced that cocktails and food are a match made in heaven. Mixologist Richie Moe of Citizen Public House has probably more effectively moved me off my wine-centric stance than anyone else I can think of, thanks to a particular cocktail dinner he and his chef-partner Bernie Kantak hosted last fall. Still, I'd like to learn more about cocktail and food pairing and I can through this seminar, conducted by three outstanding locals: Jennifer English, Jason Asher and Beau MacMillan. Not only will there be food involved (yay!), but the trio will take guide us through classic cocktails and the cuisine that goes with them, signature dishes and why some cocktails don't work with them, original pairings that seem improbable but work, and fundamental pairings that always work -- each section of the four-part seminar offering a bite and a cocktail to go with it. Can't wait!

Seminar -- The House of Punch, Feb. 18, 11 a.m.-12:30 p.m., Sands Building, Hotel Valley Ho, $25

When local celeb-mixologist Jason Asher was working at Mabel's on Main a few summers ago, I fell in love with punch. Every Sunday night, he invited fellow mixologists and friends to help him create a four-drink menu with punch at the top of the list. I drank and loved nearly every single one. They're refreshing and easy-drinking (believe me, Asher etal never sacrificed complexity), so I'm eager to learn more about them -- especially from Brit-expat Charlotte Voisey, who probably has punch (an English invention) running through her veins. She'll be joined by Marcos Tello of Varnish in LA, who will help her discuss punch's history as well as provide tips for making punches at home. This seminar sounds practical and deliciously fun.

Seminar -- Discovering Le Cognac: Feb. 18, 1-2:30 p.m., Sands Building, Hotel Valley Ho, $25

If you think Cognac is something whiskered septuagenarians sip from their arm chairs, think again. Cognac is back, and what better way to learn about it than in a seminar conducted by beverage giants Steve Olson (wine somm for Chris Gross back in the day) and Andy Seymour? The two will discuss Cognac's illustrious history, differences between styles and classifications, oak aging and terroir. Participants will sample classic Cognac cocktails as well as modern interpretations that prove why this elegant spirit has become popular again. If you're a wine and/or whiskey lover, this is the seminar for you, given that Cognac is distilled wine that's blended and aged like fine whiskey.

Imbibe n' Dine -- Blue Hound Kitchen & Cocktails, Feb. 20, 6-7:30 p.m., $49++

Eight restaurants are offering their own cocktail-paired dinners, and many of them are places (and chefs) I like a lot. Do I want to eat Bernie Kantak's food? Or Matt Carter's? Yep, all day long. But we're talking about cocktail dinners here and so I'm also swayed by the beverages involved. Most restaurants are running with a theme (bourbon and scotch at The House, Guinness cocktails at Citizen) but at Blue Hound, mixologist Shel Bourdon has taken a more scatter-shot approach, pairing each course with a cocktail using a different spirit: vodka, gin, whisky and Kahlua. I love the opportunity to try completely different spirits with my food, and frankly, Chef Stephen Jones had me at smoked rum raisin push pop.

Imbibe n' Dine -- Lon's at the Hermosa, Feb. 22, 6:30-9:30 p.m., $69++

Travis Nass, the "spirit guide" and perfectionist at The Last Drop (the tiny bar inside Lon's), has made me some beautiful cocktails over the years, so I feel the same way about him as I do my favorite chefs: if you're making it, I'm having it. Nass will be featuring liquors from Haus Alpenz a small importer from Minnesota who offers obscure liquors from Austria, Indonesia and Jamaica. Chef Jeremy Pacheco's food menu AND Nass's cocktail menu make my mouth water.

Here are two examples: Dungeness Crab Salad with spicy local greens, Lon's garden grapefruit and yuzu-curry sorbet paired with a punch composed of Batavia Arrack Hum Botanical, grapefruit oleo saccharum, green tea and ginger bear; Duck Confit Croquette with pretzel crust, duck prosciutto, arugula, blood orange vinaigrette and blood orange compote with an aperitif of Royal Dock gin, Cocchi di Torino, Byrrh and St. Elizabeth's Allspice Dram. Exotic? Hell, yeah! And really fun. Each course is just this interesting, so I'm all the way in on this one.

By the way, if more restaurants had their menus posted on the Arizona Cocktail Week website already, I'm pretty sure they'd be getting reservations by now. And I know my decisions on Imbibe n' Dine might have looked different. Then again, I don't think there's a wrong choice in this category. It all depends on what you like to eat and drink.

Go to the Arizona Cocktail Week website to make reservations or get more info. Then get out there and carpe diem. Just make sure somebody else is driving, okay?

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