The 5 Best Drinks Our Critic Drank in 2019

Sonoran Prince with its crown of foam.
Sonoran Prince with its crown of foam. Chris Malloy
Food tends to win the spotlight and column inches, but drink culture in metro Phoenix deserves just as much attention and praise. Craft beverages here can be fantastic. Maybe it’s a product of the summer heat, or of the shapes, colors, and energy of the desert, or the kinds of beverage artisans these have shaped.

Whatever the source, you can drink like a champ here. Beer. Mead. Wine. Cider. Sake. And a cocktail culture that, at the high end, feels to be in a bracing state of steady evolution, resulting in an ever-changing cutting edge of craft concoctions.

So cheers to all the craft juice here, then, now, and in the future. Here are my five favorite drinks of this year.

Sonoran Prince

Arizona Wilderness Brewing Co.
Multiple Locations

One of my favorite foods is a bursting ripe peach. For flavor and juicy rush, for brightness and depth of sensory experience and journey into memory, there are few comparisons. Arizona Wilderness, always wizarding some prodigal brew into existence, manages to snare this sensation ... in beer form. A cloudy amber tinted with rust and gold, frothy on top like stormy sea (or maybe that was a new keg being tapped), a cold bright sip can tug summer by the swimsuit strings. This mixed culture wild ale pulses with the essence of meaty Schnepf Farms peaches, more than a ton per batch. And the lush fruitiness unfolds in a tart, wholesome direction rather than sweet, suggestive of wild ale. It is deepened, too, by French oak aging. A sip of Sonoran Prince is place and time blissfully wed in a bottle (or keg). It is beer at beer's lofty, realized potential.

click to enlarge The Hoppy Stoic will make you see hard apple cider in new ways. - CHRIS MALLOY
The Hoppy Stoic will make you see hard apple cider in new ways.
Chris Malloy

The Hoppy Stoic

Stoic Cider
11500 West Fair Oaks Road, #9473, Prescott

This scientist-run cidery operating on a 60-acre farm near Prescott has been widening its distribution south. That’s a lucky thing for people who like Western history, as Stoic brews dry, wine-like ciders using apples from old Arizona orchards and boutique orchards from the American West. That’s also good for people who simply like to drink the best of what our state can offer. Take the Hoppy Stoic, one of the driest and wildest ciders I've ever tasted. Fresh hops from the farm gently imbue the cider, a lucent gold slowly fermented from Newtown Pippin apples, an old American variety. The final cider isn’t lush. It isn't sweet. It's weird, savory, and almost salty, more like a gose or Gewürztraminer than fermented apple juice. It grows on you. And as you sip, your eyes, tongue, and mind open to a small but vast new local corner of cider.

click to enlarge Close-up of a junmai ginjo label (not Desert Snow!). - CHRIS MALLOY
Close-up of a junmai ginjo label (not Desert Snow!).
Chris Malloy

Desert Snow

Arizona Sake
Multiple Locations

Atsuo Sakurai, the sake master of Holbrook, Arizona, has been hard at work building a sake brewery. He is still crafting micro batches of junmai ginjo, using rice from California, water from Arizona, and his own koji. Each batch of his standard junmai ginjo turns out a shade differently — maybe more citrusy and lightly herbaceous in one batch, maybe in the next more of a smoky whiff of flowers. His Arizona Sake also changes flavor within a single batch, evolving from week to week. Lucky for me, I was able to sip some of Sakurai’s Desert Snow earlier this year, his rare carbonated sake. It leaned floral and seemed to overlap slightly with Champagne, but also carrying undertones of the milky, beautiful depths of rice treated masterfully.

click to enlarge Little Rituals makes one seriously interesting daiquiri. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI
Little Rituals makes one seriously interesting daiquiri.
Jackie Mercandetti

Curry Daiquiri

Little Rituals
132 South Central Avenue, Fourth Floor

The most mind-blending, Seussian cocktail I had this year was from Little Rituals. Across a coupe glass showing a pale yellow elixir thinly laced with frost, a colored line of dots travels from rim to rim, wobbling. Improbably, the dots are dyed Sichuan pepper oil. The leaves clipped to the glass? Curry leaves. A sip brings a trace of their fragrance — and cold, rum-based deep refreshment, bright like a daiquiri should be, only with the expected-yet-wholly unexpected notes of curry braided through. Who knew curry could blend so fluidly into Cuba’s most maligned cocktail, lifting it to new places? Who knew that one of town's most arresting beverages could be spined by syrup made from many spices, by a dotted line of colored oil?

click to enlarge Pie Thief cans from the first fall 2019 release. - CHRIS MALLOY
Pie Thief cans from the first fall 2019 release.
Chris Malloy

Pie Thief

Wren House Brewing Company
2125 North 24th Street

Come fall, the craft beer crowd begins to anticipate the release of new styles and seasonal specialties. In recent years, Wren House’s Pie Thief series has emerged as a local favorite. This series of beers packing an ABV wallop falls in the category of pastry stouts. They are beers that, through adjuncts like nuts and lactose, through wheat selection and barrel aging, aim to create pie flavors in liquid form. In 2017, I stopped by Wren House to shadow brewer Preston Thoeny as he deployed pecans smoked by Little Miss BBQ to brew Pecan Pie Thief, a wheat wine. When the cool rain came this fall, I scooped a four-pack of Wren House’s original Pie Series beer, Pie Thief (not pecan). And yes, pumpkin beer can be a great thing.
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Chris Malloy, former food editor and current food critic at Phoenix New Times, has written for various local and national outlets. He has scrubbed pots in a restaurant kitchen, earned graduate credit for a class about cheese, harvested garlic in Le Marche, and rolled pastas like cappellacci stuffed with chicken liver. He writes reviews but also narrative stories on the food world's margins.
Contact: Chris Malloy