If nostalgia is what you're searching for in a bar, Magnum Cigar Bar pretty much feels like a step back in time. With a clientele of mostly old dudes puffing on cigars bought at the store next door, the vibe can certainly verge on boy's club. The whiskey-centric back bar is lined with backlit bottles from all over the world. To pair with it, there's a leather-bound book that lists every spirit in the house. To focus your efforts a little, before diving into the spirit book, sample a couple of drinks from the small, newly revamped cocktail menu.
Magnum is definitely going for that speakeasy ambiance most bars are so intent on proliferating. Arguably, Magnum also achieves it more genuinely than other bars too. Although it isn't the most chic spot in town, the rich leather and dark wood filled lounge has a charm to it, when combined with the tobacco-scented air, that's undeniable.
Honestly, part of that charm is that this three-year-old bar is the converted storeroom of the nearly decade-old North Phoenix cigar and liquor store located, like so much of Phoenix's food and beverage scene, in a seemingly bland strip mall next to a Basha's and a Firestone Auto Care store. Though they've made strides to make it feel like the den of some secret society that you've walked through a decoy bookcase to get to, it also still feels homey and relaxed--much less uptight than other spots in town going for the same thing.
Although the website uses words like "mixology" for the menu and the obnoxious, albeit innocuous, term "speakeasy" for the ambiance, the spot itself is betrayed by buzzwords like this. In reality, it's the kind of place where you can have two fingers of your favorite brown liquor on the rocks or neat while chatting with friends. Besides, calling any spot a speakeasy that has a TV pumping sporting events into the bar seems a little off-base.
When it first opened as a bar, Jason Asher was hired on to pair cigar and liquor tasting notes for the menu. Recently, Magnum's batenders Charlie Waltrip and Jed Bowen updated the cocktail menu to a much more simplified list of eight options.
The menu itself is broken up into two sections with two different price points: Cocktails ($15) and Stir My Soul ($12). Regardless of how you feel about the name of the latter section, it's a pretty straightforward and respectable list of whiskey-based classic cocktails, including the rye Boulevardier with chocolate bitters, a "Pre-Prohibition Old Fashion [sic]," a Manhattan with Buffalo Trace and Carpano Antica, and a Sazerac.
Like the other stirred options, the Sazerac got it mostly right with Rittenhouse rye and Peychaud's bitters, though it didn't have simple syrup or a sugar cube. The absinthe-misted glass, rather than rinsed, and the large rock-style ice cubes were nice touches, though the flamed lemon twist proved a bit much for the bartender who nearly singed her fingers attempting the trick. It was a decent Sazerac regardless, though the $12 price was a bit too high for what we got.
On the $15 side of the menu, there's a much less spirituous approach that focuses on fresh juice and fruit. While the previous menu featured eight specialty cocktails alone, the new menu cut that list in half. It also cut the ingredient list for each drink down from six to eight ingredients to a more simplified four or five.
The blackberry gimlet combines Brokers gin, muddled blackberries, and lime juice for a tart, fruity cocktail. It might have ended up a one-note cocktail if not for the addition of a smacked basil leaf garnish, which added a bright, herby aroma to the otherwise acidic drink. Again, it wasn't a bad drink, just not worth $15.
One of the most interesting drinks that's hashed out on the Magnum menu is the North Shore. Tackling the peaty, ditry Laphroaig 10 year scotch in a cocktail is a task. Adding strong flavors from orgeat, Hum botanical liqueur, and lime juice helps transform the intense spirit base to something a little closer to a cocktail, but the flavor and smoothness weren't quite there yet for this concoction unfortunately.
Other than that, there's a couple juicy, drinkable vodka cocktails, which certainly don't warrant the $15 price tag as they would probably be priced closed to $8 elsewhere. Despite the high prices, Magnum's efforts to bring craft cocktailing to the world of a delightfully musty cigar lounge are admirable. It makes a great place to stop for an indulgent first cocktail and smoke of the night before you move on to cheaper pastures.
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