Death's Door Spirits, Head Cheese and Hospitality Make a Killing at Crudo

Mix one part Death's Door Spirits, with one part self-dubbed Sumosommelier David Johnson, and two parts Crudo chef-owners Cullen Campbell and Brandon Crouser -- and you have a lethal combination that lures hospitality hopefuls to the table to play Russian Roulette with a cocktail dinner that has just the right amount of uncertainty to keep things interesting. 

And welcome to our Wednesday night in Scottsdale.

The Michigan-grown, Wisconsin distilled, wheat and barley derived spirits -- vodka, gin and "white whiskey" -- take on a new attitude in industry vet Johnson's hands. 

Johnson, who claims to be the hardest working unemployed guy in town while he's in Oakville Grocery Co. limbo, has been running around town, hosting events, and blogging up a storm.

First up: A Bloody Mary that packs the heat sans Tabasco. Johnson infused the Death's Door with New Mexican chiles, added generic clamato, beefy chile Bovril and a spicy aspargaus spear and called it done. Swap out the clamato for V8 and nix the Bovril and you'd have a very happy vegetarian bloody mary lover; as is, it's fantastic... we just didn't want to push our stomach's limits on the first drink of the evening.

Chefs Campbell and Crouser paired bright and flavorful raw tuna appetizer, or in our case veg-friendly avocado, with the kicking cocktail.

TIP: Avoid creating a Molotov cocktail during infusion - like our host did when infusing a 1.5L-bottle of Tito's with chiles - by leaving some room in the bottle and the top slightly ajar... or risk an explosion of flaming hot (not to mention flammable) vodka all over the kitchen.

Then came the buzzed-about second course: head cheese, butchered, slow-cooked and prepared with Crouser's own two hands. (True confession: I don't eat meat.) But the verdict at our table was awesome flavor but an interesting gelatinous texture that didn't necessarily make you want to order seconds. We, on the other hand were pretty happy with our McClendon's greens and beets with a mustardy dressing we wanted to bottle up and take home.

Gin and tonics balanced out the heavy head cheese (or so we were told) and cleansed the palate. Johnson's trick to perfecting the classic cocktail: Key limes and good tonic. He picked up the Q-Tonic for ours at the Tuck Shop in Phoenix.

An interlude between courses two and three provided juicy gossip at our table: Johnson and his longtime friend artist Kade Twist reminisced about waiting celebrity tables at Crustacean in San Francisco back in the restaurant's heyday, sharing stories about tips in the thousands, Vietnamese mobsters and Mimi Rogers' flirtatious advances.

We toasted our final course with a Detroit Nail: The Death's Door White Whiskey combined with gelatinized Drambuie Black Ribbon Scotch Whisky Liqueur reminiscent of the tapioca pearls in a boba tea (which, we've been craving for days now...). Not fans of whiskey on the rocks, this was surprisingly drinkable, not too mention seriously fun.

Rounding out the meal was a creamy polenta that disappeared from most of our plates as soon as it arrived.

The best part of the evening was that we went home -- three hours and three cocktails later --not feeling like we were knocking on Death's Door. And woke up sans crudo Thursday morning. Definitely a reason to come back for more.

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Hannah E Williams