Bar Fly: A Night of R&D With the Counter Intuitive Cocktail Crew

On November 6th Counter Intuitive, the Old Town Scottsdale cocktail bar with a revolving theme, will say goodbye to sultry Havana nights and set their thematic sails to stir up “Big Trouble in Little China Towns.” The cocktail gang will be channeling the historic underground social drinking clubs of Chinese immigrants and the social elite in Oahu, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York.

There will be libations amidst the cloaks and daggers and gold skull-adorned bar spoons, and Micah Olson, Crudo and Okra co-owner, who directs Counter Intuitive alongside Jason Asher, of Young’s Market, invited us to sit in on the program’s second portion of research and development for the new menu.

That means five extroverted-by-profession bartenders dialing in twenty-seven China-centric drinks that, by now, are several weeks in the making — and about 20 will make the final cut. There’s Olson and Asher, of course, and Keifer Gilbert, who anchors service at Counter Intuitive weekend to weekend (and works shifts at Crudo, too) alongside Cowboy Ciao’s Mari Howe, Clint Spotleson of the Renaissance Hotel, and Tim Lafever of Bitter & Twisted. Along for supervision is Rich Furnari (also of Cowboy Ciao). Like any good sports team, with C.I. there’s a good mix of vets and and the next generation of players.

It’s a Monday — a day of rest, if you can call it that, for most of the independent restaurant industry, usually reserved for administrational tasks or errand running — but at 5 p.m. a large portion of the counter space at the Old Town bar is covered in shopping bags from Asian markets, spilling out their contents; guava fruits, Thai iced tea cans, fruit vinegars, lingonberries, juices, a bunch of powdered stuff — like some gunpowder that Spotleson brought, in the same haul as a box of Rice Krispies and a gallon of milk — infused syrups, and a skyline of spirits and liqueurs. In the corner, Lafever is cooking boba. For a cocktail. Spotleson has poured milk into the Rice Krispies and is mixing them with a spoon. For a cocktail.
Olson shows up with a few missing ingredients; a funky, high-proof Rice-based shochu, an Asian spirit, made by the American St. George, some ready-to-drink pineapple vinegar in a pouch (“It’s like a Capri-Sun,” says Spotleson after a sip), and more. He also managed to pickup some Lapsang Souchong, which Asher needed for a drink — a type of oolong tea that’s dried by pinewood smoke. Asher owes him nine dollars for it.

The flavors that each bartender is responsible for representing is the product of a draft a la fantasy football, but with flavors. “I encouraged each of the bartenders to pick flavors they were unfamiliar with,” says Asher. He’s equipped with with a detailed tech sheet of every drink that would be prepared and tested across the evening, down to the quarter-ounce, dash, and peel. He, himself, would prepare seven while most hovered around four.

Each bartender would be expected to prepare two of each drink, enough for everyone to get a sip, to be passed around a community table and critiqued — edits they’d need to make on their own time before the next R&D session, where drinks would either be finalized or dropped from the menu entirely.

Other than their assigned flavors, there are little guidelines to steer the drink making.

“I want every one of these drinks to transport you to somewhere exotic,” says Furnari.

And there, halfway to this exotic place and with a month’s travel left, the fun begins.
“Who’s next?” Asher asks the table.

A moment passes, then Spotleson stands up quickly, recipe sheet in hand.

“Let’s get weird!”

Spotleson had the unique task of working with, without a shadow of a doubt, the most difficult ingredient of the evening — a foul-smelling and equally foul-tasting Chinese spirit called Baijiu. He chose to work it into a julep — a gutsy move, as juleps tend to leanly (with only sugar and herbs) showcase a spirit’s flavor. Sweetened with cherry-infused honey, muddled with shiso leaves (in the mint family), and topped with ginseng, the cocktail arrived at the table — with it came the musky smell of disapproval.

“It smells like a 9-volt battery,” says Olson, first to speak up.

“It smells like sweet tarts,” says another.

“It smells like dirt.”

“It smells like… god damn that shit!”

We’re already tasting Spotleson’s next cocktail, a deliciously daring gunpowder concoction that's come out jet-black (a drink Gilbert jokes only needs fire to be complete), when Howe brings up the baijiu cocktail once more, “It smells so bad it makes you twitch, like, five minutes later.”

Some cocktails, by contrast, were met with unanimous approval. Take Gilbert’s Pimm’s Cup variation — Aviation brand gin, sherry, lemon, and Choya (a type of plum liqueur), syrup — that yielded some easy drinking early on in the evening. “Clean, crisp, refreshing,” says one bartender.

Another drink, Lafever’s Thai tea cocktail (the flavor manifests in a foam whipped on top of the drink), instantly reminds Howe of Hawaiian shaved ice with sweet and condensed milk.

One of Olson's — a drink mixing rum, cognac, orgeat (a floral almond liqueur), passion fruit juice, grapefruit and lime — produced similar, uniform responses. “That’s good. That’s really good,” says Lafever.

“It’s a crowd-pleaser, for sure,” Olson replies.

"You know what that needs though?” says Asher. “Needs a tad more cowbell. Someone needs to come up with some cowbell bitters.”

Howe’s best cocktail is thematically sound down to the presentation, inspired by a tale of the Chinatown social clubs, of a woman doused in gold and admired by all. The drink is both boozy and complex — and earns high praises from Asher: “Star next to that one,” he says without hesitation. The drink, which combines rye, Thai tea syrup, Averna amaro, a 5-spice tincture and orange oil, is garnished with gold flakes.

Last to present — at a point many hours into the evening, when focus and attention were beginning to wane (the group was silently sending emojis to one another) — was Asher, who proceeded to wake the table up with some loud cocktails. His third (a combination of Irish whiskey, pressed fuji apple, apple brandy, vermouth, demerara syrup, celery bitters and tiki bitters) caught Spotleson’s attention. “So, you just blew everyones mind,” he says, making a gun noise for effect.

His final drink is a cerebral eye-opener. It mixes chili-infused orange bitters, lemon juice, simple syrup, something called soap bark (extracted from an evergreen tree), kalamansi lime, and monkey shoulder whisky infused with lapsing souchong leaves — the smoke-dried tea that Micah picked up from the store for Asher.

Olson takes a sip. “This might be one of the most thought-provoking drinks of the night,” he says after a moment of contemplation.

“But you still owe me nine bucks,” he adds.

"That’s what we should call it —,” Olson says with a smile, looking up into the sky, miming a marquee sign with his hands.

“The ‘Jason Owes Micah Nine Bucks’”

So, you’re probably wondering which drinks will make the cut — as in, will the baijiu cocktail, barring revisions, surprise all by coming out on top? Conversely, will Spotleson’s gunpowder cocktail go down in flames? Will Asher’s celery bitters drink actually blow people’s minds? And, of course, will Olson get his nine bucks back?

For answers to these questions and more, you’ll need to show up to Counter Intuitive on or after November 6 to find out.

But close to 11pm — a full six hours after we arrived to document the evening — the only question isn’t whether the drinks will be good enough, or exotic enough, or dialed in enough over the following weeks. It’s, "How long will all these dishes take?" and "Where should we grab food this late?"

“You really want to know why we do this?” asks Asher, a question to answer a question — we’d asked him what title he and Olson, both Phoenix cocktail greats since the Jade Bar days, give themselves for the Counter Intuitive project. He was four drinks in (out of seven) at the time, cranking them out with precision. The fourth drink would be his own take on a julep.

“We really want to develop the next generation of bartenders,” Asher says.  

Moments laster, “Okay, fine, Jason,” Spotleson says with a sigh. “Your julep is better than my baijiu julep."

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Shelby Moore