You won't find pumpkin spice syrup or any other artificial junk on Charlie Zeiler's new Mix Up Bar cocktails menu. The Royal Palms' bartender, instead, builds on classic recipes with new ingredients to make unique autumnal drinks. While discussing his new menu, Zeiler explains which ingredients he's using this fall, his dedication to the classics, and what it's like to work at a resort cocktail bar in the Valley.
Whether you're a gin, bourbon, or mezcal fan, Zeiler's menu has a little something for most people, which he says is both the challenge and benefit of running a cocktail program in a resort. Having worked at the Montelucia, Camelback Inn, and Sheraton in downtown Phoenix before settling in at the Royal Palms, Zeiler knows well the benefits and drawbacks of a resort bar.
"You definitely have to take it back and make sure there's some crossover. What might be common here might be completely uncommon in, say, Pittsburgh." Zeiler says. "You're always meeting somebody new, though, whether they're from around the world or around the corner."
One of Zeiler's new creations specifically illustrates both his ability to please the tourist crowd and still satisfy local tastes. The Desert Dame mixes fresh prickly pear puree for the crowds who want something very Southwestern, but instead of putting it into an over-tart margarita like most places, Zeiler mellows it out with Arizona Distilling Co.'s Desert Dry Gin, lemon, and allspice dram.
You'll notice a couple of common ingredients on the menu, such as that very fall "in" flavor allspice dram. Benedictine and AZ Bitters Lab's figgy pudding bitters both appear throughout the menu as well. Overall, these elements, and other creative uses of nutmeg, tea, and maple syrup add those fall flavors without falling back on the fake stuff.
There's pretty much no drink on the menu more drinkable and overtly seasonal than the 52 Apples. Named after the location off of 52nd Street, Zeiler mixes Woodford Reserve with apple, fig, lemon, Benedictine, and figgy pudding bitters for a cider-like sweet drink topped with a skewer of dried apple slice and half of a fig.
While the 52 Apples has obvious appeal, the Pear of Aces was the standout on the menu. Riffing on the base of a Vieux Carré, the cocktail combines Bulleit rye, pear brandy, Contratto Blanco, Benedictine, and Angostura and Peychaud's bitters. The cocktail retains all of the depth and smoothness of its predecessor, while lightening up in flavor a bit. Garnished with a fan of sliced pear, it's simple, but flavorful.
On the other end of the spectrum, if you're looking for something tart, bubbly, and a little showy, the Smoking Berries is the way to go. Using a locally-made blackberry-ginger infused balsamic vinegar from Outrageous Olive Oils & Vinegars as his shrub, Zeiler adds mezcal, tequila, crème de cassis, and local honey into a Perlini carbonating system. Though Zeiler could technically carbonate any cocktail with it, the aeration helps lighten the intense flavors in this drink in a nice, well-balanced way.
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Zeiler says using as much local ingredients as possible, whether it's honey, vinegar, fresh produce, spirits, and bitters, is important to him, regardless of what season's menu he's working on. Taking those fresh Phoenix flavors, he adds a new twist to drink combinations you might already know.
"They say the basis of the greats have all already been made," Zeiler says. "Your twist on that, using new ingredients, is where creativity comes into play."
You can try those four cocktails, along with drinks like a Hot Buttered Rum, the Mix Up Mule made with housemade ginger beer, and a barrel-aged Rosita (tequila-based Negroni), at Mix Up Bar now for $14 a pop.