It’s impossible to ignore the very recent explosion of agave spirit-focused, cantina-like restaurants and bars across the Valley. Behind Revolu, which opened in Peoria back in October 2016, Ladera, from Genuine Concepts (you know them for The Vig, Cobra Arcade Bar, and Linger Longer Lounge), was the second of this new crop, opening just shy of six months ago in the Sunnyslope neighborhood of north Phoenix.
And in just the past few weeks alone, we’ve seen Chico Malo open in Downtown Phoenix’s CityScape complex, Casa Añejo open next door to Stock & Stable (from the same owners) in Uptown Phoenix’s red hot restaurant stretch along Seventh Street (between Bethany Home Road and Missouri Avenue), and Tacos Tequila Whiskey (a 2012 Bon Appetit 50 Best New Restaurants nominee and now small chain, based out of Denver) opened just last week (New Times food editor Felicia Campbell already gave it a First Taste).
But this recent flood of activity shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. Most reports show that the market for mezcal, a cantina staple that, compared to tequila, is seen as a more artisanal product, has grown tenfold over the past decade, with the U.S. now consuming twice as much annually as Mexico. Celebrities like George Clooney have their own brands, and smokier mescals have even found themselves space on the shelves, if not the menus, of national chain restaurants around the country.
Mezcal, the Oaxaca-bred mescal product, has become part of the ready lexicon of the casual bargoer. One of the most popular cocktails at Valley Bar, the hit Downtown Phoenix concert venue, is a drink named after John McCain that mixes mezcal with chile liqueur and citrus juices. It's proof that when targeting the cocktail-drinking demographic, even bars and venues without serious mixology ambitions know that, in order to be seen as relevant, they need to offer lists containing buzzy spirits like mezcal, even if the average bargoer simply knows the liquor as being a smokier version of tequila.
It seems that nearly every major city across the U.S. has at least one craft cocktail bar specializing specifically in agave spirits, yet, it seems that Phoenix, which is closer in proximity to Mexico, with Sonoran mescal producers just miles across the Arizona border, is just now buying its first round.
We might have Counter Intuitive to thank for the recent dues this near-native spirit has begun to enjoy here in the Valley. The Old Town Scottsdale cocktail bar known for its rotating themes, which have changed five times since the bar opened next door to Cowboy Ciao in 2015, technically was the Valley's first bar to throw a whole concept at the agave spirit with a progressive cocktail mentality. One of the reasons that Counter Intuitive’s deep dive into mescal, Mexican flavors, and the border town lore of Tijuana (their third theme from early in 2016), was so exciting for Phoenician bargoers was because it offered a glimpse into what some of Phoenix’s top cocktail talent could do when tequila, and its agave cousins, were given center stage. In keeping with their concept, Counter Intuitive has since moved on to other themes, now reimagining the dive bar-inspired experience.
After this successful foray into agave spirit mixology, it became clear that a certain portion of Phoenix cocktail drinkers were looking for concepts that pushed the boundaries of what was previously consider a great tequila or mezcal cocktail, tapping into the history of Phoenix as an economic powerhouse and important hub along the trade routes of the Sonoran Desert lands that once belonged to Mexico. And the crater-sized hole in the Phoenix craft cocktail scene created an opportunity for bars and mixologists to dedicate themselves to the wide world of mescal and to create drinks that went beyond salt-rimmed margaritas.
The alternatives to all-in, agave-centric craft cocktail bars fall into two categories of restaurant-bars. One is populated by spots like Barrio Urbano, with long and savvy agave spirit lists and a cocktail menu with extensive, yet static, margarita choices. These are good, and they’ve routinely made lists such as our 10 favorite summer cocktails in 2016, but they could leave the experienced, or simply more adventurous, agave spirit drinkers wanting more.
The other is the craft cocktail bars around town where inventive agave-based cocktails take up only a few drinks worth of real estate on the menus. Impassioned agave drinkers and mixologists bitten by the agave bug, perhaps after frequenting Mexican agave hubs such as Jalisco, will again be left wistfully longing for more options.
The bar programs at the Italian-themed Crudo and The Parlor, the Asian-themed Clever Koi, the cowboy-resort bar at the Hermosa Inn, and certainly the globetrotting Bitter & Twisted, to name a handful, have all explored agave spirits and expanded beyond the spirit’s hackneyed cocktail treatments like the ubiquitous margaritas, daisies, and palomas, but only to the extent that they feel their customers will allow or, at least, to the extent they feel is prudent,
bearing in mind both the recent surge of interest in the spirit, but also the popularity of gin and rum.
But Ladera and Casa Añejo, at first blush, seem to addressing the craft agave deficiency in more promising, fleshed-out and, most importantly, permanent capacities than we’ve seen to date. While both offer margaritas and the like, they also are offering so much more.
At Ladera Taverna y Cocina, bartender Colton Brock, whose background includes time at the Barrio restaurants, played an important role in curating an agave spirit list for a concept that would function as a restaurant, first and foremost. But while you eat your tacos and slurp a very respectable posole, you can dart around a straightforward and focused cocktail list that makes the statement that all mescals are not interchangeable. For instance, the Raspberry Oaxacan, with its use of fresh, floral raspberry, biting ginger, and the nutty, orange-water-spiked almond syrup orgeat, relies on a lean and grassy unaged Kimo Sabe mezcal that wraps the drink together with a smoky bow. By contrast, the La Reyna Peliroja uses an aged version by the same brand, which lends deeper, rounder, more caramel-forward flavors that play well with strawberry, in addition to sweet ginger beer and habanero “firewater” bitters.
“We’re trying to be innovative, but also be approachable to a lot of the neighborhood regulars who we inherited from the restaurant before us,” says Brock, who grew up nearby, about the building that houses Ladera, previously a bar and grill called Corbin’s and a dive bar from the '70s through the 90s. “So we didn’t want to get too crazy. We just wanted to keep things fresh and not have too many ingredients.”
On the weekends, Brock has been serving hundreds of the restaurant’s most popular drink, the Mezcolada. It’s, you guessed it, a frozen piña colada pulled from none other than a slushy machine, which sits tucked into a corner of the bar. Despite being a lo-fi throwback to the blender-filled bars of the past, the drink is no schlub, batched with precision in large quantities, given dimension by Angostura bitters, and a lot of life from El Silencio brand mezcal (named after the L.A. bar in Mulholland Drive), which trades fruitier flavors often found in agave spirits for an earthier set and a solid level of smoke. It’s a smart, simple, and downright down-able alternative to the tired tiki drink (hint hint: it’s on happy hour).
“This is what we wanted to start with, but we want to make sure that every couple months we have some new fresh menu items popping up,” Brock adds. “A year from now, you probably won’t be seeing this menu.”
Though Casa Añejo has only been in business for a few weeks, bar manager Riley Jones, who was previously at Stock & Stable but began his cocktail career as a 21-year-old at Crudo and Okra under the tutelage of owner Micah Olson and bartender Andrew Calisterio, has been given the keys and creative control to Anejo’s bar.
“You know my style,” Jones says. “A lot of tiki influence. Refreshing — I always go for refreshing cocktails. Seasonal. Bright.”
Indeed, Jones has a knack — a reputation, even — for creating summertime cocktails so tropical and complex that they demand an extra dash or two of spirit to cut through them. This has ranged from a drink inspired by resort-style virgin strawberry lemonades, which we included in our top tiki drink roundup last year, to a Stock & Stable drink that mixed a yogurt liqueur with strawberry and aquavit, that caraway-flavored Scandinavian answer to gin.
At Casa Añejo, Jones too, is on-trend with multiple frozen drinks built on very technical specs with fresh juices and high-quality spirits. He outdoes himself with the Bienvenido A Miami, a craft update to one of Miami’s most famous contribution to the '80s bar scene (and there were many), The Miami Vice, a drink named, of course, after the TV show that is built from a 50-50 split of frozen piña colada and strawberry daiquiri. Jones ditches the processed ingredients and imitation fruit flavors (strawberry, lime, coconut, pineapple) for the real stuff, adds Angostura bitters for backbone and spice, and props this laundry list of ingredients up with a smoke-forward mezcal and a rum blend that includes an uber-boozy Plantation O.F.T.D. (the PG version of the acronym stands for Old-Fashioned Traditional Dark) Overproof Rum. It’s the most fun you’ll have in one drink.
The other 22 drinks weave from flavored margaritas (including kiwi, mango, and chile) to stirred, agave-forward sippers. The latter will certainly appeal to anyone of the mindset that, with tweaks to their supporting cast, agave spirits can be interchangeable with liquors of similar proofs, be it rum, gin, or vodka. This allows Jones to dream up and execute successful mescal drinks that bear his tiki sensibility. For example, the salty, mineral-forward Rancho Tepua bacanora (the name for mescal produced in the state of Sonora) pops extremely well in place of a lighter rum for the Bacanora The Explora cocktail, composed of three tiki stalwarts: lime juice, falernum (a liqueur flavored with citrus, almonds, and ginger or cloves), orgeat, and Peychaud’s bitters.
For both the home bartender and the professionals, many rarer and newer tequilas and mezcals have been tough to locate in town, but importers with extensive agave spirit portfolios, like California-based importer-distributor Pacific Edge, are looking to close the gap here in one of the Southwest’s most populous markets. Currently, they’re the best source for the Rancho Tepua bacanora.
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“We can barely keep it in stock,” says Michael Allmandinger, a Phoenix-area spirit specialist and key account manager with Pacific Edge. "Flying off the shelves.”
It seems that Phoenix may at last be embracing the national agave trend, with renewed appreciation for the spirit that has been in our backyard all along.