Anyone who has sipped cocktails at Bitter & Twisted has had the pleasure of drinking at a world-class bar. Though he prefers "bartender" to "mixologist," Ross Simon approaches cocktails like computer science Ph.D.s approach code: as labyrinths within labyrinths, with networks of fine details and possibilities. Simon dispatches them with high creativity and care, like a barman possessed.
And if you've seen his new menu, you might think he is.
Bitter & Twisted has entered its fifth year. The present menu is also the downtown cocktail bar's fifth. The theme of last year's menu was fairy tales. This year's 19-page compendium keeps the same theme, but with a darker twist.
"The place is called Bitter & Twisted," Simon says, tracing the logic of the change. "Why don’t we do a logical, dark, villainous twist on it? And all the bad guys get their days in the spotlight?"
Simon and his team of bartenders spent six months developing the 2018 menu. Last month, he said that the effort was making his eye twitch.
Last year's iteration captured a world top 10 ranking in the category of "World's Best Cocktail Menu" at Tales of the Cocktail, a global mixology summit held annually in New Orleans. Late last week, it was was revealed that Bitter & Twisted's 2018 menu has been nominated for "World's Best Cocktail Menu" once again, as well as "Best American High Volume Cocktail Bar." These are high honors.
The menu remains comprehensive, with favorites and classics preserved throughout. They are strewn through various sections, such as "Mixing Under the Influence" (standouts from last year), "Hall of Fame" (standouts from Bitter & Twisted's run), and "Friends with Benefits" (cocktail recipes Simon has borrowed from some of the great cocktail artisans of our time). The whole riot of offerings is rendered navigable (barely) by a third-page chart, which appears in the form of a graph on a spider web.
You could lose yourself for a long time down the pathways of this menu. And that would be a real fairy tale. But today, we'll hone in on page four.
Page four features cocktails making their debut.
The most interesting, controversial, and potentially disgusting cocktail on this page is the Green Chapulin. This cocktail, essentially, is a grasshopper-inspired cocktail made with, in a paper sleeve clipped to the cup, actual cooked grasshoppers. They have a nice crunch.
“You don’t have to try it if you don’t want," Simon says. "But I go down to Oaxaca all the time and I eat that stuff like popcorn. We wanted to take that kind of culinary risk because we can, and why not?”
The cocktail itself is creamy and lush with delicate mint flavor, and some strange elusive flavors glancing off your tongue thanks to the use of Branca Menta. The chile on the grasshoppers is nice; it cuts through the drink's velvet body some. If you order this, eat the bugs.
Another page-four stunner is the I Don't Carrot All. This drink, served in a tall glass, glows neon orange. Its main ingredient is carrot juice, freshly made in-house (just like all Bitter & Twisted juices, including hibiscus). The flavors of coconut, lime, and ginger take carrot juice into tropical realms. A mountain of ice rises past the glass's rim, keeping the drink glacial.
This carrot juice cocktail isn't glorious because it's complex. It tastes like juice you might grab for breakfast – like a powerfully lush morning juice that hits your brainstem like a cold wind.
It helps that the ice is made from nano-filtered water. It helps that the vodka is Zubrówka, a Polish vodka filtered through bison-trodden grass from the Bialowieza Forest in Eastern Europe.
Other drinks are equally thoughtful, in line with the high bar set by Bitter & Twisted. Though not every drink will dazzle, even the ones that don't tend to have fascinating components.
A tincture featuring Kikori whiskey and yuzu marmalade is light on the citrus, huge on the end-kick of salt, giving the beverage something of a gose vibe.
A beer cocktail unites Dragoon IPA and Aperol, a surprisingly reserved pairing with lots of low citrus notes and hints of fall spice.
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A drink in the hollow of a scooped-out coconut brings a rum, banana, toffee, and cold brew coffee combination that feels more Jamaican than Phoenician.
But yes, we're still in Phoenix. And not the Caribbean or Narnia or Wonderland. You can forget that sometimes at Bitter & Twisted. It's a good thing that Simon and his crew drop a new menu every year to give us a fresh reminder of this, and of what they can do.
Bitter & Twisted Cocktail Parlour. 1 West Jefferson Street; 602-340-1924.
Tuesday to Saturday 4 p.m. to 2 a.m.