The Black Pepper Pink Melon from Blue Hound Kitchen & Cocktails is a drink that strikes both the eyeballs and taste buds. Its “ice cubes” are frozen hunks of watermelon. When you realize this, a voice goes off in your head saying something close to what those guys on the Guinness commercials say: brilliant.
With cut watermelon as "ice cubes," you get watermelon flavor from what's cooling your drink instead of getting watery dilution. A creative call like this ups the flavor quotient of the entire drink. Mixologist Phil Clark has many such moves in his arsenal.
Pepper-infused vodka, St. Germain, and a house-made “lime cordial” of lime juice, zest, and agave syrup form the base of the drink. Clark pours club soda to a rim dusted with salt, sugar, and black pepper. Cubes of blush melon jut out. The refreshing drink leans to the mild side, routing the late-summer heat.
Clark came to Phoenix from Washington, D.C. There, he worked behind a number of bars with big reputations, including one, Mockingbird Hill, that garnered national attention, partly for carrying 130 kinds of sherry. It was nominated for a James Beard Award.
Clark’s approach to mixology is total. When brainstorming new cocktails — sitting with his long list of ideas and more than 50 mixology books — he considers the cocktail experience from first sight to empty glass. How can garnish enhance taste? How can this and that kind and shape of ice cube improve the drink? How will the various flavors, minus X and plus Y and blown sideways by Z, roll and flow together?
The result is that Blue Hound has a roster of cocktails that has gotten cooler and more refreshing since Clark stepped behind the bar earlier this year. Blue Hound has a tradition of innovative drinks. With Clark, who crafts drinks that spotlight flavors rather than using flavors to spotlight spirits, who confidently mixes and shakes and garnishes in a sleek waxed canvas apron, the Southern restaurant is continuing this tradition.
Another drink, the Boba Tea, mashes the pedal harder, transporting the drinker into more unknown territory. For this creation, Clark steeps loose-leaf black tea in Tito’s Vodka. The infused vodka fills a curvaceous glass with coconut milk, chai spices, dry vermouth, cinnamon syrup, and boba chilled and preserved in simple syrup.
Clark then busts out a blowtorch. He washes a nub of cinnamon in a blue flame for 15 seconds. Atop the drink the cinnamon goes, along with mint and grated nutmeg. The spicy, herbaceous inhalation as you lower your face to the straw is something primal and ferocious.
It layers the Asian-inflected cocktail with an added sensory dimension. The drink surprises with nuanced fall-spice flavors and cool milkiness. It won't last much longer than the first one.
“A lot of people treat garnish as the most important part,” Clark opines. “It’s one important part. Garnish isn’t simply just vision. It’s part of the journey.”
The statement reflects the deep thinking Clark puts into each part of a cocktail: garnish, ice cube, spirit, or whatever. His approach to garnish is also interesting in light of cocktail number three.
The Junglebird has no garnish.
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The drink sits an inch low in the glass. Froth rises to the edges of an ice cube made from Campari (and water), leaving the king cube’s roseate face stark in a white-foam sea. Visually, the orange elixir is pretty damn sexy.
Taste is right up there with the picture. Clark cuts an overproof rum with vodka, builds astonishing flavor with vodka, lime, pineapple, brown sugar, the Campari cube, and a spray of mezcal. The drink is a blast of lush tropical flavor with enough floral side notes and Campari weirdness to prevent things from being too fruity. It’s a 10-out-of-10 banger, the liquid equivalent of a chiming tropical house tune blaring over a beach.
You may have noticed that these three are all vodka cocktails. Vodka is out of fashion. It has deservedly fallen behind the likes of gin, bourbon, mezcal, and other spirits with more range and zap. But vodka is suited to Clark’s ultimate strategy: to above all spotlight flavor.