A Local Drinks Kit on the Cutting Edge of Cocktail Culture

A Century Grand experimental cocktail kit.
A Century Grand experimental cocktail kit. Chris Malloy
Jason Asher rises from his home chair to mix a drink. His computer camera follows him as he strides into a bright room, where he fills a cocktail shaker.

“You’re going to give this a nice hard shake," he says. "Not long, three seconds.”

Asher's audience — a Zoom happy hour — sips pale red cocktails as they watch him pump the sleek metal shaker. Ice crashes. Then the lid is off, and he’s straining a pale red liquid into a tall glass. On goes a wheel of dehydrated Persian cucumber and cinnamon shavings fresh from the stick. The red drink is inspired by a Pimm’s Cup, but leaves Pimm’s behind the way a manned rocket drops its big fuel tank in order to reach outer space.

It's the fourth drink Asher has demonstrated as part of an experimental takeaway cocktail series from Century Grand, the Arcadia bar and restaurant Asher runs with Rich Furnari. When you order one of their kits, you get a stout bottle filled with liquors, liqueurs, tinctures, herbs, spices, and other ingredients — plus separate components like citrus, juices, and garnishes.

click to enlarge Jason Asher - EVIE CARPENTER
Jason Asher
Evie Carpenter
In a way, though, your finished cocktail isn’t quite finished. Each weekly experimental cocktail is a frozen moment in creative time — a late step in its journey from idea to a final-draft, menu-ready cocktail.

“This is a way for our guests to experience the R&D process that I go through every time I make a change to our menus,” Asher says.

When Asher and Furnari reopen Century Grand, The Grey Hen (its whiskey bar) will have a new theme. The Grey Hen was primarily doing retail, Asher says, "But we’re going to convert it into a cocktail bar.”

The new theme: a Prohibition-era apothecary with some 20 drinks, many whiskey-based, with a few classics. This being the Barter & Shake duo, most cocktails will be fiercely imagined. The experimental cocktail series is a weekly glimpse of this imagination and the ongoing formation of the new Grey Hen menu.

Kits, each yielding three to four cocktails, go on sale midweek. (Tip: follow Century Grand on Instagram.) They can be picked up at Century Grand beginning on Thursday, August 6. Century Grand makes about 50 kits a week.

How wild do these cocktails get? A few days after the Zoom session, Asher started to devise experimental cocktail number five. “This week’s drink began with mezcal and me breaking down the flavors, and that led to pho,” Asher says.

Cocktail kit number five will be “mezcal-centric with the flavors of Vietnam.”

That means rhum agricole from Oaxaca, the new NARAN espadín from Mezcal Carreño, rum “for salinity,” Serrano pepper, pho spices (like cloves, allspice, and cinnamon), and more. “It’s going to be this really beautiful sour with a little bit of fresh bergamot,” Asher says, reporting that his first stab at the cocktail was good, but that he needs to better “bring out that charred onion quality,” perhaps with smoked tea.

click to enlarge The bar at Century Grand in pre-pandemic times. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI PHOTO
The bar at Century Grand in pre-pandemic times.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo
Batch four, germinated from a Pimm’s Cup, had taken a much different creative path.

“The Pimm’s Cup was really my jump-off point,” Asher says. “The goal was to experiment with flavors similar to the ones we use in the mainstream.”

A mainstream Pimm’s Cup uses gin, cucumber, ice, and a carbonated liquid like soda or ginger beer. Asher wanted to retain the drink’s refreshing spirit (especially as he and his wife, Kailee, have experienced this at the Napoleon House in New Orleans) while making improvements. He infused the gin (Hendrick’s) with borage to punch up its cucumber notes. He hoped this would “deliver cucumber in a similar fashion” to a classic Pimm’s Cup. But in this mission, Asher says, “We failed."

Nonetheless, the drink was crisp, a shade tropical, and layered with warm spicing. It incorporated heirloom alchermes (a liqueur with historical roots in central Italy) and John D. Taylor Falernum, fennel seed, sandalwood bark, quillaja bark, and green shiso.

click to enlarge Batch four from the experimental cocktail kit. - CHRIS MALLOY
Batch four from the experimental cocktail kit.
Chris Malloy
Asher has an inclination for these kinds of ingredients. “I was getting bored,” he says, of his life in mixology before starting to shed the rocket ship's fuel tank. “How often can we put gin and grapefruit and basil together before we’re blue in the face?”

In recent years, he has studied ingredients more deeply. Discoveries trigger eureka moments of flavor possibilities. He once learned that Thai basil and anise share a common chemical. “And then you go down the rabbit hole of that ingredient … and then you go, 'Wild bergamot leaf or bee balm flower, those taste like fennel!'”

Asher, who studied engineering before switching to architecture at Arizona State University, has redirected these energies into arcane ingredient unions and cocktails since his days captaining Counter Intuitive, the now-closed Scottsdale bar that has produced a family tree of top-notch area mixologists.

“I love being creative,” he says. “I was just very impatient. The impatient portion of my makeup led me to cocktails. Instantaneously, you have this beautiful building you constructed, a.k.a. a cocktail.”

In the Zoom happy hour on Saturdays, Asher briefly outlines how these ingredients puzzle into one version of a drink on his way to a final version. He invites on makers of other products in his series, like the folks behind Big Marble Organics ginger beer (used to top off the Pimm’s Cup) to share their stories. You learn a whole lot about cocktails, get to drink one or two, and a rare window into the art, science, and history of mixology opens.

Not to mention, a window into the world of possible ingredients.

“When it comes to flavors," Asher says, "I push.”
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Chris Malloy, former food editor and current food critic at Phoenix New Times, has written for various local and national outlets. He has scrubbed pots in a restaurant kitchen, earned graduate credit for a class about cheese, harvested garlic in Le Marche, and rolled pastas like cappellacci stuffed with chicken liver. He writes reviews but also narrative stories on the food world's margins.
Contact: Chris Malloy