From the cotton and sprig of durum wheat affixed to the mason jar, to the combination of ingredients that pays homage to the original crops that Gilbert’s first family of farming planted decades ago, it’s evident the old fashioned served at Belly Kitchen & Bar in Epicenter at Agritopia is not the same old, old fashioned.
The libation is a clandestine and tantalizing representation of Arizona's history in a glass.
And that’s exactly what Belly co-owner Paul Waxman intended when he created the Johnston Family Old Fashioned, a very personal and local twist on the classic cocktail.
Waxman grew up in Gilbert going to Joe’s Real BBQ and knew of Joe Johnston and his family, whose contributions were vital in Gilbert’s development.
When Jim and Virginia Johnston, Joe's parents, bought Agritopia Farm in 1960, they grew barley, corn, alfalfa, sugar beets, durum wheat, Pima cotton and sorghum.
“Man, this would make a good drink,” Waxman says of those seven crops. “I wanted to keep it simple. I wanted it to be just a good old fashioned.”
Just over a year later, Waxman made it happen when he added the cocktail to the menu at the Gilbert location of Belly, which opened in 2022.
Waxman sourced Copper City Bourbon from Tempe-based Arizona Distilling Co., which is made with barley, corn and rye. Then, he infused the bourbon with alfalfa, which gives it a grassy, earthy quality. He made simple syrup from sugar beets, and procured Kaoliang, an Asian liqueur made of fermented sorghum.
“That’s what makes it Belly. A bit of that southeast Asian influence,” Waxman says.
Now, he needed to incorporate the last two crops which he accomplished by tying a sprig of durum wheat and a ball of Pima cotton around the mason jar glass with string.
A few other details round everything out. Waxman made bitters inspired by a few ingredients used in Joe’s Real BBQ’s secret sauce: orange, habanero and black peppercorns. He mixed these with angostura and orange bitters. He added a touch of two of his favorite amaros to add depth and bring it "back down to earth.”
Before Belly opened its original Phoenix restaurant, Joe Johnston approached Waxman and his business partners about having a presence in what would become Epicenter. Waxman, who had spent time pursuing professional endeavors in California before returning home to go into restaurants, didn’t hesitate.
“For me, it kind of went full circle,” Waxman says. “Using these rooty earthy ingredients felt in line with me being in touch with my roots.”
But the return journey didn’t stop there.
A 2-inch crystal clear ice cube serves as the anchor in the glass. Suspended in the center of the cube, there's a brand-new stainless steel bolt, the same variety used in most kitchen equipment. Phoenix ice company Artisan Ice makes as many as 75 of these custom cubes a week just for this drink. The process, Waxman says, takes a few days as the cube must be frozen in two steps to accommodate the bolt in the center.
This is a nod to Johnston’s great-grandfather Herbert Johnston, who created the first patent for what became the KitchenAid mixer.
The ice cube’s size yields a slow melt. So slow that the chances of the cube melting and leaving a free-floating bolt before the customer finishes the drink are small. Still, servers will remind guests about the bolt if they recognize an extremely sedated sipper.
“We hope that the cocktail is so good that it doesn't happen,” Waxman says.
“I have a surprise for you and I want to make it for you personally,” Johnston says of Waxman’s request. “I thought it might be that.”
Johnston is an old fashioned fan so what did he think of this version?
“I loved it. I liked that it had a lot of complexity to it, which I like in a cocktail,” he says. “Also, it has that spicy zing because of the barbecue bitters.”
The Johnstons still have a machine shop so the bolt was the detail that put it over the top for him.
“I thought it was great, that he had worked in all the crops,” Johnston says. “It’s not often you can drink a piece of family history like that.”
Belly Kitchen & Bar
Epicenter at Agritopia
3150 E. Ray Road, #180, Gilbert