It might be best to look at the issue in the scope of two of Arizona's most prominent bartenders: Jason Asher and Micah Olson. The two men crossed paths at Jade Bar at a time where New York and L.A. had thriving cocktail movements and Phoenix was still lagging behind. The two ran a cocktail consulting company in town called AZ Mixology, and, in 2010, Asher made the cover of GQ magazine after winning the Bombay Sapphire Most Inspired Bartender competition.
"Bartenders decided to run first. They were making cocktails because they were mixologists," Asher explains. "People began putting a lot of ingredients in drinks thinking it would add complexity, but they didn't allow the fundamentals of making drinks... to bring complexity"
Since then, you likely have tried Olson's top-notch creations at Crudo, which he co-owns. You've also probably tried Asher's drinks, though you might not know them as such since he works as a cocktail consultant for Young's Market Company. The liquor distributor is responsible for 85% of craft liquor sales in the state and I've heard from proprietors that Asher's cocktails are definitely a contributing factor to their success in the market.
In the last 12 months, Young's has seen craft liquor cases sold at a 71% increase in bars, hotels, and restaurants. Since January of 2012, craft liquor's overall growth for the company is closer to 88% with a 53% growth in overall revenue.
That meteoric growth in just the category of spirits designated as craft can tell you a few things--craft spirits aren't going anywhere anytime soon and, if this is a fad, it's one that's making money for restaurateurs.
"I keep feeling more and more restaurants that are going to focus on their cocktail program," Olson says. "It's such a money-maker. It's definitely spurring our business and I get calls every week asking for help from other people just starting."
"It's on it's way to becoming a very important part of a food and beverage program," Asher adds. "Chefs that want to take their restaurants to the next level and maybe get that James Beard award will need to ensure everything, from the lighting to the cocktail program, is perfect."
In the category, Young's biggest trend leader is the local Arizona Distilling Company, which the company solely distributes. After that, a handful of whiskey brands, such as Templeton Rye, Buffalo Trace, and Four Roses, lead the pack. More surprisingly, the fifth brand that's selling well for Young's is St. George, a craft distiller out of California known primarily for its gin.
"The biggest thing I've noticed is there's less resistance now from guests than there was before," Olson says. "You used to have to push a gin drink on people, but now people are asking for something different. People are more aware and adventurous than they were seven or eight years ago."