If You Like This, Try This: These 5 Cocktails Put a Creative Twist On Classic Drinks

The Mushroom Margarita at Ghost Donkey gets its earthy essence from huitlacoche.
The Mushroom Margarita at Ghost Donkey gets its earthy essence from huitlacoche. Ghost Donkey
Cocktail connoisseurs who want to broaden their horizons can find plenty of twists on traditional tipples around metro Phoenix.

Erudite and inventive bar talents have taken standard drinks and stirred in fresh ideas, personal inspiration, and global spirits to come up with modern takes on fan favorites. Here, we've rounded up five recommendations based on classic cocktails to help you figure out where to get started.

If you like: Margaritas
Try: The Mushroom Margarita at Ghost Donkey

903 North Second Street
Mexican cuisine aficionados are probably familiar with huitlacoche, a puffy, protein-rich fungus that grows on ears of corn and tastes much like mushrooms. It’s delicious in tacos, quesadillas, and omelets. But in a cocktail?

Yes, downtown Phoenix bar Ghost Donkey serves a Mushroom Margarita ($15) that features huitlacoche-infused Montelobos Mezcal Espadín, an unaged mezcal, along with agave syrup, lime, and Nixta — a liqueur made in Jilotepec, Mexico, from ancestral corn. The cocktail was developed at the original Ghost Donkey in New York City, which is now defunct.

“It’s as much about corn as it is about mushrooms in that margarita, which is fun,” says Dustin Fox, beverage director for Ghost Donkey’s parent company, Flagship Restaurant Group.

The huitlacoche infusion lends “an earthiness and almost a funkiness,” he says, while the Nixta provides an “extra touch of sweetness." Mezcal brings a smoky essence to the party.

The clincher is the rim of sal de guzano or worm salt, made from roasting the worms that live off the agave plant and blending them with salt and spices.

“We put that on the rim of the glass instead of a salt rim,” Fox says. “It’s a little more savory, almost meaty, and provides a little more smokiness and depth of flavor.”

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The Hero du Monde at the Grey Hen Rx was devised as an homage to the Big Easy.
Barter & Shake Cocktail Entertainment

If you like: Espresso Martinis
Try: The Hero du Monde at Grey Hen Rx

3626 East Indian School Road
The espresso martini saw a rampant resurgence in 2021 and became one of the 10 most-ordered drinks of 2022. In homage to the revival, the talented minds at Barter & Shake Cocktail Entertainment — which counts Grey Hen Rx in its stable — created an over-the-top version called the Hero du Monde ($18) that takes the nostalgic dessert drink to new heights without the sticky sweetness or harsh alcohol afterbite.

Grey Hen’s concept conjures the Big Easy, and the Hero du Monde drew inspiration from the team’s travels to New Orleans for Tales of the Cocktail, the world-renowned conference devoted to the art of mixology. The impressive ingredients list includes Hardy Legend 1862 Cognac, Plantation O.F.T.D. Rum, Caffé Borghetti Espresso Liqueur, Mr. Black Cold Brew Coffee Liqueur, tamarind, cacao malted milk, whole egg, chicory, and roasted fennel seed.

Barter & Shake founding partner Jason Asher and beverage director Jackson Donahue modeled the texture of the drink on the frozen Irish coffee at the storied French Quarter bar, Erin Rose.

“It’s a really creamy Irish coffee known throughout our bartending world as a gold standard,” Donahue says. “I wanted to be able to mimic the texture and blended nature of the cocktail but without having the cream.”

The whole egg in the recipe adds roundness and fat, Donahue says, which is cut by the slight acidity of the tamarind. The drink also includes malted cacao syrup made in-house with cacao nibs, coconut milk, and malted milk powder. The cognac plays its part, bringing a hint of chocolate. Two types of coffee liqueur are added for balance.

“Mr. Black is a little sweeter,” Donahue says, while the Caffé Borghetti imparts more of the bitter espresso character. Roasted fennel seeds bring coffee notes as well. Finally, in a nod to Cafe du Monde’s famous coffee, bartenders sprinkle chicory on top.
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Piccolo Virtù's Nero Milano is modeled after a Black Manhattan.
Piccolo Virtù

If you like: Manhattans
Try: The Nero Milano at Piccolo Virtù

7240 East Main Street, Scottsdale
It might sound scandalous that a bourbon-based drink is one of the most popular at the staunchly Italian and Mediterranean Piccolo Virtù, but the Nero Milano ($16) isn’t your basic cocktail. However, fans of the Manhattan and Old Fashioned will love it.

The tipple is technically modeled after a Black Manhattan, a modern twist on the classic developed at the legendary Bourbon & Branch in San Francisco that uses Amaro Averna out of Sicily in lieu of vermouth.

But Virtù Restaurant Group's beverage director Jeremy Key takes the idea and runs with it, substituting the standard rye whiskey for Buffalo Trace Bourbon and adding three types of amari: Dimmi, Amaro Montenegro, and Amaro Sfumato.

Key likes bourbon in this mix because it’s sweeter than rye, but Amaro Montenegro adds a bitterness with floral flavors, and the Sfumato lends even more bitterness with notes of rhubarb and charred earth, he says. Finally, the Dimmi is made with botanicals similar to vermouth, but it’s infused with peach and apricot blossoms to add fruitiness.

“It kind of brightens up the cocktail a little bit,” Key says.

Amari, or Italian herbal digestives, have been proliferating at bars coast-to-coast for several years now, but Piccolo Virtù has about 170 — the largest selection in the Southwest and one of biggest in the country, according to Key.

“There’s a couple places in Manhattan that may be able to rival us,” he says.

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The Space Cadet at Teddy's Preserve is a modern take on the retro Grasshopper.
Teddy's Preserve

If You Like: Grasshoppers
Try: The Space Cadet at Teddy’s Preserve

1001 North Central Avenue
Like the espresso martini, the nostalgic Grasshopper is having a moment, and Teddy’s Preserve has reimagined this throwback for a more discerning demographic.

The Space Cadet ($13), as this version is called, uses white crème de cacao from the original recipe for the chocolate flavor but substitutes Fernet Branca Menta for the green crème de menthe and a house-made pandan coconut mix for heavy cream. A splash of Milagro Silver tequila is in there, too.

“Topped with fresh mint, it is my favorite drink on the menu,” says Kyla Hein, operating owner and beverage director at TWP Hospitality.

Like Rough Rider, the basement bar and restaurant underneath it, Teddy’s Preserve honors former President Theodore Roosevelt, and has a “national park camp vibe,” Hein says. The bar is all about conservation and preservation — it composts, uses no plastic, and turns its bottles into glassware.

Unlike Rough Rider, though, which conjures the Victorian era, all of the drinks at Teddy’s Preserve riff on what was popular in the 1970s. There’s the Foxy Mama, based on a Harvey Wallbanger, and the Jeepers Creepers, which is like a Blue Hawaiian but with mezcal. They even do an interpretation of a Singapore Sling.

The idea is to “take a really old recipe that uses old shitty ingredients because there weren’t any good ingredients around, per se, and transform it into something really cool,” Hein says.

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For a Southwestern take on a classic, try the Dirty Cactus Martini at Valentine.

If You Like: Martinis
Try: The Dirty Cactus Martini at Valentine

4130 North Seventh Avenue
A Martini is a classicly simple cocktail, unless you're talking about the Dirty Cactus Martini ($15) at Valentine. Like much of the regional wizardry served at this Southwest-inspired restaurant and bar, the drink looks straightforward, but that couldn’t be further from reality.

First, the base is a mix of well vodka and two Arizona gins: Suncliffe and Arizona Distilling Co.'s Commerce Gin. Then, bartenders add escabeche brine, pulled from their escabeche olives and adjusted with a little salt and acid.

“We kind of brine it up a bit extra,” says Valentine’s bar manager, Aiden Dunnigan.

The X-factor is Valentine co-owner Blaise Faber’s vermouth which is made in-house from a mind-boggling list of ingredients including nopales, tomatillos, Tohono O’odham squash skin, Hoja Santa (an herb popular in Mexico), palo santo (an aromatic wild tree that grows from the Yucatan down to South America), lemon, and honey.

Oh, and there’s a touch of housemade dried orange bitters to boost the acid content. It’s garnished with a pitted Castelvetrano olive and pickled tomatillo.

“It adds another cool layer on top of it,” Dunnigan says. “It maintains this cool elegance while not being a salt bomb.”
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Geri Koeppel is a professional writer, voracious reader, devoted traveler, and an amateur cook, wine drinker, birder and tennis player. She's lived and worked in Detroit, San Francisco, and Phoenix.
Contact: Geri Koeppel

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