City in a Glass: Tucson

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City in a Glass: Tucson

Thirsty? You’re in luck. In Paste’s drinking-and-traveling series, City in a Glass, we mix up a city’s signature swills and slide them down the bar to readers. Grab a stool. This round, in Tucson, Arizona, is on us.

Tucson, Arizona, is a city on the edge. Located in the Sonoran Desert, a mere hour’s drive from the border, the city’s drinking culture draws from southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico. Agave spirits like mezcal, which are now trendy around the country, were popular here a decade ago. Every cocktail menu in town has drinks made with tequila’s lesser-known cousins such as bacanora.

“The border is irrelevant here,” says local barman Bryan Eichhorst, who grew up in Tucson drinking agave moonshine. “Someone always shows up to a party with a two-liter bottle filled with homemade bacanora. This stuff ran through our veins long before there was any commercial marketing around it.”

This was also long before artisanal, agave-based spirits were available to buy in Arizona. A few years ago, Eichhorst did something about it. “I went a couple of times to Oaxaca [Mexico] and started bothering the distributors,” he says. “Then I rallied all the troops in Tucson, all the bartenders, and we promised to buy a lot of it if they brought in more brands. And we threatened to boycott them if they didn’t.”

The arm-twisting worked: Back then Eichhorst could only stock a handful of mezcal bottles behind his bar. Now he has 60 mezcals, plus all his other bottles of bacanora, high-end tequila and additional interesting agave distillates. He continues to lead groups of bartenders on trips to Mexico every year to learn more about the spirits.

The Old Pueblo’s southwestern drinking heritage is starting to assert itself, too. In the coming months two highly anticipated whiskey bars are opening. One of them, the Owls Club, will be a dusty cowboy bar serving Old West-inspired folk drinks like the Rock And Rye: a liqueur made by dissolving rock candy in cheap rye.

On this city drinks tour, we’re going to introduce you to three Tucson drinks, show you where to find them and even how to replicate a couple of them at home.

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1. Tomacco
Where to order: Tough Luck Club

Tomacco Courtesy Tough Luck Club.jpeg Photo courtesy of Tough Luck Club

If you build a bar in an old funeral home, you’ve got to bring a certain sense of levity to the craft. That’s why Tough Luck Club cocktail bar—located in the underground embalming room of a one-time funeral home—doesn’t take itself so seriously. “If you want to have a carefully made $14 cocktail or have a conversation about the spirits behind the bar, we will be happy to do that for you,” says co-bar manager Stephen Ott. “Or if you want to come in and take some shots and drink beer with your buddies, that’s cool too. We’re a venue for both of those things. We like it that way.”

Here, you can roll a dice to randomly select what type of shot you’ll be drinking (anything from low-brow Jägermeister to high-brow Montenegro) or order one of those carefully made cocktails off of the bar’s hand-drawn menu.

One of those drinks is the Tomacco, created by lead bartender Rob Gillies. “It’s in reference to the Simpsons episode where Homer becomes a farmer and made a hybrid of tomatoes and tobacco,” Gillies says. “We have always joked around making a Tomacco drink and I just thought it was time to actually do it. I have always roasted cherry tomatoes and put them into my grits and one day it dawned on me that that was the perfect method to include tomatoes in this drink.”

His Tomacco cocktail includes their house-made tobacco tincture, roasted cherry tomato syrup, Cynar liqueur and green chile vodka, which is made with California-grown hot and sweet peppers, plus cilantro and lime peel—like a boozy salsa fresca or lighter Bloody Mary. “The drink has a spicy vanilla flavor with strong bitter and savory components,” Gillies says. “The green chile vodka is a good way to highlight the acidity from the tomatoes and acts as a good counterpoint to the rich sweetness of the tobacco tincture.”

Tomacco

2 oz. St. George Green Chile Vodka
½ oz. Cynar
½ oz. roasted cherry tomato syrup, house-made
3 dashes tobacco tincture, house-made
Cherry tomato, for garnish

In a mixing glass, combine all ingredients (except garnish) plus ice. Stir. Strain into a coupe glass. Garnish with a cherry tomato.

2. Tesquino
Where to order: Penca

Tesguino Alyson Sheppard.jpeg Photo by Alyson Sheppard

If you want to learn about a culture, visit, keep your eyes open and ask questions. This is why Bryan Eichhorst, the bar manager at Penca downtown, can often be found on the other side of the border. “I get really into folk drinks—classic ways that people in far-flung places in Mexico were drinking, what spirits they were using, what ingredients they were using,” Eichhorst says. “There’s still a ton of undiscovered spirits in Mexico. Every state has such a vibrant distillation history. In America, we’re just breaching the top of it.”

The best things Eichhorst discovers are usually not on purpose. Take Tesguino, for example, a corn beer that he now replicates at his own bar. While walking through the historic district of Jalisco, he spotted business people drinking a strange creamy substance. He asked someone what it was and then fell down a rabbit hole, tracking down anthropologists and learning everything he could about it. As it turns out, Tesguino has been made by the Tarahumara tribe in the Sierra Madres for thousands of years.

“Corn has been the basis of life for every indigenous group that’s lived in Mexico pretty much,” Eichhorst says. “And as we’ve seen all over the world, anytime you have something that has sugar in it you find a way to make it into booze.” Traditionally Tesguino is made by chewing the corn (saliva helps break the complex carb down into simple sugars), spitting it into a vat and letting it sit for a couple of days to ferment. Wild yeast floating through the air gets into the vat, which turns the sugar into ethanol and thus, corn beer.

At Penca, Eichhorst skips the chewing step. Instead, he mashes the corn and combines it with, piloncillo, the brown sugar cones used in Mexican desserts. He also throws in some other flavoring agents such as cinnamon, allspice or clove, and leaves it out in a big metal pot for a few days to ferment. Like the traditional method, Eichhorst only uses wild yeast, the stuff floating through the air, which keeps Tesguino’s alcohol content very low. “Most wild yeast doesn’t have the ability to survive above 3 percent ABV (alcohol by volume),” he says. “That’s why you can drink it all day long and only get the slightest of buzz.”

On its own, Tesguino has a funky and sour taste to it. “It has a creamy, lactic quality to it, sort of like that sourness that comes through an unflavored yogurt or creamed corn,” Eichhorst says. “It tastes like it went bad, in a good way.” For the novice drinker, he recommends cutting the Tesguino’s intense taste with a little lemon juice and a Mexican lager like Modelo Especial.

3. Space Oddity
Where to order: Obon

Space Oddity Courtesy Obon.jpeg Photo courtesy of Obon

Last year the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Tucson as a World City of Gastronomy. Tucson has a 4,000-year-old agricultural history—the oldest in the U.S.—and many ancient, indigenous plants are still grown there. Matt Martinez, beverage director at Obon downtown, likes to incorporate these heritage herbs into his drinks as an homage to the city’s rich botanical history.

But seeing unusual ingredients like local mugwort and agastache, also known as hummingbird mint, on the menu can scare people off. So he occasionally doesn’t mention them. “The list of ingredients are left slightly esoteric just to avoid some questions and to stimulate others,” he says. “I’m not saying that I’m trying to sneak things into peoples’ drinks. But I pick and choose what we were going to elaborate on.”

For example, instead of the menu explicitly saying a drink includes an unfamiliar spirit like sotol, it says the drink includes a “smoky agave blend” or an “aged agave spirit.” “That way they’re more apt to keep listening and it leaves you open to having that conversation after the fact,” he says.

One definite conversation starter is the Space Oddity cocktail (named for the David Bowie song), which looks like a galaxy in a glass. A collaboration between Martinez and his assistant bar manager, Marlee Palmer, the drink includes squid ink (for color and a touch of salinity) and edible pearl dust, a flavorless cake-decorating tool that twinkles in the glass. Those are combined with a balsamic-plum shrub, bay leaf tincture, apple brandy, vodka and lemon juice and served in a stemless glass with a spherical ice cube.

“As the ice cube travels around the bottom of the glass, it kind of looks like it’s in orbit,” Martinez says. “Despite the fact that it looks like one of the most gimmicky drinks out there, it also tastes really good. I don’t agree with the ethics of making stuff that’s weird just for the sake of being weird.”

Space Oddity

1½ oz. vodka
½ oz. apple brandy
¾ oz. lemon juice
½ oz. balsamic-plum shrub, house-made
4 dashes bay leaf tincture, house-made
1 barspoon squid ink
1 barspoon edible pearl dust

In a mixing glass, combine all ingredients. Stir. Pour into a stemless glass with a spherical ice cube in it.

City in a Glass columnist Alyson Sheppard writes about travel and bars for Paste and Playboy. She currently resides in the great state of Texas.

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