It was a normal Saturday evening in Downtown Chandler, save for the 2,000 or so who lined up for the return of the Chandler Craft Spirits Festival on April 25. Dr. A.J. Park was full of spirit -- and spirits -- and we tried everything craft, local, and ridiculous.
5:05p -- The booth directly to the right of the entrance is already one of the best. They're still setting up, but you just know it's going to be good if guys like Geoffrey Wilson, who did a nice job the with the bar menu of Chandler's late Barrelhouse, is sharing booth space with Eddie Garcia of 'Eddie Garcia's Arizona Cocktail Hour.' I visit and tell them I'll be back around to see what they've got later. Sazeracs from Wilson, which he also did the previous year, ended up being really good, and Garcia's shaken mixture of Azunia reposado tequila, Giffard banana liqueur, ancho chile liqueur with a nutmeg dusting was the best thing I tasted all night.
5:15p -- I have a mouthful of 'Gold Miner' Barrel Reserve Rum from Kingman's Diamond Distillery resting on my palate, it's zesty finish clearing my senses. One-fourth of an ounce goes a long way. The distillery, one of a couple smart enough to charge money for full cocktails such as um-and-root-beer, offers Dark Rum to taste, too, but I rarely go down that stormy path and choose to find a palate cleanser instead.
5:20p -- Gin will do. And I haven't tried anything from Prescott's Thumb Butte Distillery. I don't really care to try their standard gin, which promises to be juniper-forward, so I instead I ask for their 'Western Sage Gin.' The distillery has cut back the juniper by 20% to make room for what becomes a mouthful of sage (a look back at my iPhone notes says "sage through the effin' roof!") in the distillation process. If success can be measured by such mouthfuls, then Western Sage wins. Maybe too much so though. The sage is seriously dominating the tasting experience, but could be put to good work in a punch or a relative of the Pimm's cup cocktail.
5:35p -- Drinking spirits neat has the unique effect of making you feel more intoxicated than you are, even if you've only had 3/4 of an ounce in half an hour. A taste of Tombstone Distillery's pretty pleasant brandy had been my last sipper, and at that point I felt my journalistic duty to local distilleries and their neat, unadulterated spirits 75% fulfilled.
I need to walk to the North side of the festival, past the DJ booth, to brave the masses.
5:45p -- Strolling past six-or-so of Chandler's finest boys-in-blue doubles down on the feeling of inebriation. I've never been in trouble with the law, but they still make me nervous. The Chandler Police Department has their own booth, and it's not quite apparent what they're here for (aside from the obvious prolific drinking) or what requires so much man-power. Maybe it's a sign of things to come. I stop and ask them what they're expecting, to which I'm met with equal optimism.
5:50p -- An hour in, Deep Eddy Vodka's line is the deepest. Comes with the name, I guess. The line stays that way all night long. The solo bartender, with sweat pooling up under his spiked hair and around the collar of his navy polo, is the busiest man here. The brand is going all in on their 'Ruby Red Grapefruit' product just in time for summer.
"It's low in calories," he says, never breaking motion. "I drink it before my jazzercise class." The Chandlerites are eating this stuff up. That's his line for the middle-aged women. For the middle-aged men: "Come party at Sonny's afterwards." Sonny's is a nearby strip club that's, apparently, sponsored-or-something by Deep Eddy Vodka.
6:00p -- The show goes on. I pass a booth moonlighting as a triumvirate of three concepts sharing the same ownership: The Living Room, Chop, and Rock Lobster. One serves a cucumber-vodka mule with Gosling's ginger beer, which is a big hit from the the few attendees I witnessed come through the line. Another cocktail features Veev, a surfer-brand acai berry voda.
The male bartender, also sporting the collared shirt/spiked hair combo, asks me who I'm working for. "New Times," I tell him.
"Well I'm standing here with two pretty ladies," he pauses and they pose. "So," he smiles, which must mean, "C'mon, man, take our photo." I oblige. I feel that I have to. I'm three-quarters of an ounce deep and, much to my chagrin, having fun with the people-watching.
6:10p -- The next booth is none other than Jim Beam, sporting their "boutique" Maker's Mark and Knob Creek products. I've had Maker's Mark on several occasions -- everyone has -- but I don't recall ever tackling Knob Creek neat. Now I have to: the overlooked, not-so-sexy Knob Creek has just won "Best Small Batch Bourbon" in the 6-10 years category at the 2015 San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
I hand a ticket over to the girl behind the counter, and photograph the pour -- she tried to do it slowly for the photograph, but user error resulted in, like, three ounces of Knob Creek.
I walked away sniffing the bourbon, which alone made me stumble. First swish: Bourbon. Second swish: Not-bad bourbon. Third swish: I'm getting some floral, fruity notes here. Fourth swish: I appreciate bourbon and fancy awards, but I still don't really like it that much.
I toss the cup -- the other 2.5 ounces of "one man's treasure is" -- and move on.
6:20p -- I pass booths of heavily tattooed men slinging mixers, a cigar tent, and something called "Headbangers," which after tasting "Best Bourbon" I had very little interest in.
6:30p -- A guy in a cowboy hat takes photos with two women dressed in angel outfits. "My 17-year-old dropped me in his Camaro," he said later when he found me and asked what the photos were for. "Got him the Camaro for his birthday. He's gonna pick us up later."
I pass by Arizona Distilling Company's booth, owner of the second-longest line at this point. They're pouring all of their products, but going with the motions here I ask for their Arizona Dry Gin, which earned them a double-gold medal at the San Francisco Spirits Competition.
6:40p -- Arizona Distilling Co. gin-and-tonic in-hand, I stroll once again by the Chandler Police Department booth, which is now offering free breathalyzer tests to anyone who's ever asked themselves, "Am I okay to drive?" and didn't have a breathalyzer handy to do the testing. I decide to give it a whirl. I'm almost done here, and need to get an idea of where I'm at.
I ask the officer if it matters that literally just took a sip of my gin-and-tonic, to which he says, "Yeah, mouth alcohol could throw it off."
I blow into the breathalyzer, nervously, and afterwards he asks me, "Would you drive?" Conviction falls over me. I'm nervous. I say, "I bet I'm right on the edge. I'd grab something to eat, drink some water, and see how I feel in an hour or two." Which I was sure sounded pretty textbook but wasn't untruthful; it really was the plan.
"You just blew a .085." Just over the legal limit. I speed walk to the nearest trash can, toss my gin and tonic, and find the nearest water station. I drink two cups, swish my mouth to cleanse it of anything but water, and march right back over to the Chandler Police with vendetta.
I ask politely for another go at the breathalyzer, "For my own education, officer."
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SHOW ME HOW
I blow a .013. Hallelujah. The officer seems happy that I'm happy. "Now go get something to eat, close off that pyloric sphincter, and get home safely," he says.
I leave the tent of the Chandler police, their anatomy lessons, as well as the hundred of drunken Chandlerites, behind me and never look back.
The Festival, I decided over a post-dinner espresso, was equal parts "craft" as it was "crass." Such is the nature of alcohol.