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 PrinceArizona Wilderness Brewing Co.
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.
The Hoppy StoicStoic 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.
Desert SnowArizona Sake
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.
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Curry DaiquiriLittle 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?
Pie ThiefWren 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.