Best Distillery: Arizona Distilling Company
601 West University Drive, Tempe
This popular micro-distillery, which recently debuted its tasting room and cocktail lounge near the Arizona State University campus in Tempe, uses local ingredients to craft unique, top-flight spirits. Try the Desert Durum Wheat Whiskey, which is made from high-quality Arizona durum wheat that's also used in the production of Italian pasta. The stars of Arizona Distilling Company's spirit portfolio are its Commerce Gin, Mission Vodka, and Copper City Bourbon (the first Arizona-made bourbon), all of which have earned double gold medal wins at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
Best Bartender: Phil Clark of Blue Hound Kitchen & Cocktails
2 East Jefferson Street
Phil Clark, a relatively recent import from Washington, D.C., has brought a huge new personality to Phoenix's craft cocktail scene. Over the past year, he has aggressively flipped and revitalized his roster of cocktails at Blue Hound, always striving for more. You'll find a bulletproof Old Fashioned here, yes. But you would be wise to put your lips to one of Clark's specialty drinks. The lush, tropical depths of his impossibly juicy Junglebird will unspool into your thirsty daydreams.
Bitter & Twisted Cocktail Parlour
1 West Jefferson Street
Ross Simon's downtown cocktail emporium continues to glass beautiful libations. This past year, after a six-month revision, his menu moved from a fairy-tale theme to a dark fairy-tale theme. Potable highlights from the latest iteration include a sultry grasshopper (the drink) served with a paper sleeve of fried grasshoppers (the insects), as well as a super-fresh and imposingly tall drink of coconut, lime, carrot juice, and vodka. With rad upholstered seating and ceilings to the sky, this bar is always a glorious place to be drinking.
3620 East Indian School Road
Hanging out at UnderTow is exactly like sailing the seas in a 19th-century ship's hold — if your boatmates were thirsty hipsters instead of weathered seamen. The tiny underground space is adorned with faux portholes and barrels, tiki carvings and lanterns, to set the mood. Then come the drinks. UnderTow dropped a new menu in mid-September. Like the previous two iterations, it's divided into UnderTow originals and tiki classics, and most drinks on both sides of the menu are new to the bar's lineup. We like the fruity, potent Signal Fire, made with tequila, rums from three islands, orange curaçao, mango, habanero, orange, pineapple, and lime.
2201 East Camelback Road
Move over, Prescott. The real Whiskey Row is lined up behind the enormous chrome-and-glass bar at The Gladly in Phoenix, which offers more than 250 labels of bourbon, rye, American and Canadian whiskey, single-malt scotch, and blended scotch. And any of them can be served over a perfectly shaped ice ball, formed at your table. Magically, the ice takes two to three hours to melt, so it will cool your whiskey without watering it down.
Best Tequila Selection: La Hacienda
7575 East Princess Drive, Scottsdale
Richard Sandoval's upscale restaurant in the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess stocks some 240 bottles of tequila. You can take flight in a number of ways: across styles (like blanco or añejo), across brands (like Don Julio or El Tesoro), by flavor profile, or by high-end ballerness (the most premium flight of three tequilas costs $240). By the glass, blanco, reposado, and añejo tequilas each get their own double-column page of the menu. If you want, you can bust out your wallet for magical extra-añejos, many from world-renowned producers like Terralta.
Best Deal for Wine-Lovers: Tarbell's Tavern
3209 East Camelback Road
The average markup of a bottle of wine at a restaurant, according to Wine Enthusiast, is two and a half to three times its retail price. That's why wine lovers come to Tarbell's Tavern, which is connected to The Wine Store, part of owner Mark Tarbell's Camelback Road complex. The Wine Store has a remarkable inventory, ranging from top-shelf California labels like Cakebread and Roederer to bottles you'll find discounted at your local Fry's. There are at least a couple of dozen Arizona wines, too.
Page Springs Cellars
1500 North Page Springs Road, Cornville
We're not Sonoma or Napa, but Arizona is blessed with an abundance of excellent winemakers and road-trip-worthy tasting rooms, which are centered in three major areas: Willcox, Sonoita-Elgin, and the Verde Valley. Any of these is worth a long weekend trip for wine-lovers, but by far our favorite stop is Page Springs Cellars in Cornville, which, at 90 minutes away, is also the shortest drive from Phoenix. Owner and vintner Eric Glomski offers an outstanding roster of wines, many from grapes produced on the property. But it is the ambiance and the food that set Page Springs apart.
Best Arizona Winery: Flying Leap Vineyards
342 Elgin Road, Elgin
The line of customers on a recent weekend at the tasting room in Sonoita-Elgin and at the adjacent distillery seems proof that Flying Leap Vineyards are doing something right. Flying Leap opened in 2010 and already has added tasting rooms in Willcox, Bisbee, and Prescott. The owners told us they've found the desert temperatures combined with the elevation of the vineyards in Willcox and the Sonoita-Elgin region are conducive to growing Spanish-style grapes, which are producing some excellent wines — white blends like a 2015 Trio and a 2016 Fly Girl, and reds like a 2014 Grenache, a 2014 Estate Tempranillo, and a 2014 Mourvedre.
Best Arizona Red Wine: 2013 Montepulciano, Lightning Ridge Cellars
2368 Highway 83, Elgin
As you pull into the drive at Lightning Ridge Cellars, you are greeted by Monty, a huge Great Dane who's named after Lightning Ridge Cellars' 2013 Montepulciano. The Italian grape is rarely grown in the U.S., but former engineer Ann Rancone is making it work in Elgin. The grapes are 100 percent estate-grown, and aged for 38 months in East European oak barrels. If you have a nose for this sort of thing, you notice aromas and flavors of back cherry, plum, and — ex-smokers will love this — tobacco leaf. The 2013 Montepulciano was named Best in Class at the 2018 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.
Best Arizona White Wine: 2015 Trio, Flying Leap Vineyards
342 Elgin Road, Elgin
Arizona's growing wine industry produces several good whites, but we've developed a fondness for Flying Leap Vineyards' 2015 Trio, a blend of malvasia, grenache blanc, and picpoul grapes. The winery likens it to a classical trio of piano, violin, and cello playing in perfect harmony. Sure. We like Trio because drinking it is like biting into a chilled piece of fruit on a hot summer's day. (Is there any other kind here?) And you want to consume it all before the weather sweats away its crispness.
Best Brewery: Wren House Brewing Company
2125 North 24th Street
So many of the most innovative and headiest beers of the last year were released by this brewery, still in its toddler years. Piloted by Drew Pool and Preston Thoeny, central Phoenix's Wren House, already great, has only been getting greater. This past year, Wren House's Pie Series included an eerily dessert-like pecan pie wheat wine made with pecans smoked by local favorite barbecue joint Little Miss BBQ. Las Frescas, the brewery's fruit-infused sour line, recently debuted, changed weekly, and was the main summer attraction for geeky craft beer drinkers.
The Wandering Tortoise
2417 East Indian School Road
Many craft beer bars carry local just to carry local. The Wandering Tortoise is different, curating a selection with a rigor that shows that the owners, Shay Gau and Justin Evans, have a more complete understanding of beer. The Tortoise's 22 taps flow with some of the best and rarest offerings from top Arizona breweries, including Wren House, Arizona Wilderness, and Pueblo Vida. But the owners go further, procuring treasured kegs and cans from intriguing far-off breweries like Omnipollo (Sweden) and Melvin Brewing (Wyoming). A stunning selection of to-go bottles and cans awaits you as well.
Best Cider Selection: Cider Corps
31 South Robson, #103, Mesa
Josh and Jason Duren usually keep about 15 ciders flowing in their Mesa taproom. They also have cider aging in barrels at one end of the large space, as well as icy cider spinning in a slushy machine. Where most cideries are content with apple-flavored beverages, the Durens shift into new gears. They have apple ciders flavored with mango, black tea, and peach; with bacon and maple syrup; with cascara and pea flowers that turn the cider deeply violet and funky. Not every cider is great, but, thanks to the sheer creativity, every visit to the Cider Corps taproom is.
One of the great jolts to our food scene in recent memory has been the rise of Arizona Sake. Since 2017, Atsuo Sakurai, a native of Yokohama, Japan, has brewed incandescent sake in his Holbrook garage. He makes Junmai ginjo, an old-school sake that allows only rice, water, yeast, and koji (a kind of fungus) in production. Some of the town's most lauded chefs revere Arizona Sake, which changes batch to batch, week to week. Sakurai doesn't pasteurize or filter. He does everything the hard way. What he gets in the end is a beautifully floral sake with distinct Arizona spirit.