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 Phoenix, is on us.
picture the desert, they think of a dry, barren landscape where cacti cling to the dirt and tumbleweeds blow across the highways. This limited perception is what makes Phoenix, Arizona, located within the Sonoran Desert, so striking: Here, life thrives. Citrus trees bear neon-colored fruit in nearly every front yard. “People don’t think of Arizona as being an agricultural state for the most part, but we have 330 days of sun,” says local barman Micah Olson. “You see quite a bit of herbs and berries and citrus in our drinks compared to a lot of other places.”
Until very recently, however, these kinds of cocktails—made with fresh juices and syrups and quality spirits—were hard to find outside of the luxury resorts that dot this part of Arizona. Local bar owner Joshua James says that because these massive resorts (stocked with spas, golf courses and gourmet restaurants) are a draw for affluent clientele from all over the country and world, they were some of the first places to be pressured into taking cocktails to the next level. “People were coming in from Los Angeles, New York and Chicago, places where cocktails were in the forefront before they were a thing in Phoenix,” James says. “These guests expected to get the same craft and style that they do in their own cities.” And because the resorts have practically unlimited budgets, their bartending jobs were incredibly lucrative. “For the longest time the resorts were the gatekeepers of good cocktails,” says local bar owner Ross Simon.
But in the past few years that fine restaurant and bar culture has been seeping out into the rest of the city, fueled by a revitalization of downtown and a broader interest in craft spirits. Cocktails made with Latin American spirits such as mezcal and pisco do well here (Arizona does, after all, share a border with Mexico), as do drinks made with citrus juices, which help cut through the heat. “Phoenix is no longer the land of just strip malls and chain restaurants,” Simon says. “When you talk about cocktail bars, you think New York and San Francisco. Now people, fortunately, are talking about getting a great cocktail in Phoenix.” On this city drinks tour, we’re going to introduce you to three great Phoenix takes on classic cocktails, show you where to find them and even how to replicate them at home.
Where to order: Okra Cookhouse & Cocktails
Photo courtesy of Okra
At Okra Cookhouse & Cocktails, a Southern restaurant uptown, classic cocktails from the Deep South shine. One whole section of the menu is dedicated to juleps, a category of drink that is a favorite in Kentucky. “I don’t know why, but you don’t really see juleps on menus,” says co-owner and head bartender Micah Olson. “Everybody knows what a julep is, but few people have had one other than a really bad one on Derby Day. I wanted to give it a little life.”
While the most well known julep is of the mint variety—bourbon, powdered sugar, water and mint—juleps can be customized in unlimited ways. Olson’s Julep Noir is inspired by one of his favorite daiquiri recipes, the daiquiri noir, which is made with rum, simple syrup, lime juice, mint and Drambuie liqueur. Olson incorporates those ingredients in a different way for his julep, mixing rum with brown sugar, lime juice, mint, amaro and Arizona-made aromatic bitters. “This is a great introduction to the julep without diving headfirst into the boozy classic,” he says. “The pineapple rum brings a little different element and when interacting with the orange amaro, it creates a really refreshing flavor profile.”
1½ oz. Plantation Stiggins’ fancy pineapple rum
½ oz. Meletti Amaro
½ oz. lime juice
½ oz. brown sugar
10 mint leaves
3 dashes AZ Bitters Lab Mi Casa bitters, for garnish
Combine all ingredients except bitters in a julep cup. Stir. Add crushed ice. Garnish with a mint sprig and bitters.
Where to order: Bitter & Twisted Cocktail Parlor
Photo courtesy of Bitter & Twisted
Bitter & Twisted Cocktail Parlor was one of the first dedicated cocktail lounges in the city when it opened in 2014. Owner and principal barman Ross Simon actually moved from London to Phoenix with the intention of bringing some of that English cocktail culture to Arizona. “I could have worked anywhere,” he says. “But everyone moved to New York. Everyone moved to San Fran. Everyone moved to Hong Kong and Australia. I wanted to do something different and challenge myself.”
He found that while Phoenix’s cocktail culture may have been lacking, the city’s attention to design was plentiful. And there was something very appealing about starting from the ground up. He built his bar to focus on the total package: ambiance, design and drinks. “Our menus are not supposed to just be a list of words and commas—boring explanations of things you can’t pronounce,” he says. Instead, he lets fantastical presentations speak for themselves. On his latest menu, which has a retro video game theme, there’s a cocktail that comes out in a mini ceramic bathtub, which people drink out of as if it’s a scorpion bowl. There’s also a Long Island iced tea that is served inside a Coca Cola can.
Then again many of his drinks are simple tweaks of classics such as his La Chocolate Sazerac. A traditional New Orleans Sazerac contains rye whiskey, Peychaud’s bitters, sugar and absinthe. He gives it a southwestern kick by adding Aztec or mole-style chocolate bitters. “We never had to reinvent the wheel, it was just going back to what made drinks great,” he says. If you want to see what else is on the menu, you’ll have to stop in for a visit; Simon does not publish it online.
La Chocolate Sazerac
2 oz. rye whiskey
½ oz. crème de cacao
4 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
4 dashes Fee Brothers’ Aztec Chocolate bitters
Combine all ingredients plus ice in a mixing glass. Stir. Strain into a frozen, double rocks glass. Garnish with a spritz of absinthe and an expressed lemon twist.
Where to order: Clever Koi
Photo by Shelby Moore
Joshua James opened his restaurant and bar Clever Koi in 2013 with the intention of giving Phoenix a little something different than its requisite pizza and pasta. And different it is: This Asian-inspired joint dishes out things like soft shell crab steamed buns, pig face dumplings and Japanese oyster stout beer. “We have Asian flavors in our cocktails, but there are a lot of American influences as well,” says James, who is also the beverage director. “Asian bars don’t necessarily lean into Asian ingredients—that’s more of an American idea.”
In Japan service is of the utmost importance. “There is a lot of creativity coming out of Asia, but they’re really industry leaders is hospitality,” James says. “Their craftsmanship comes with technique, spirits and ice. As we try to progress and get better, we try to mimic what they do with service more so than putting outlandish cocktails out there that fly over peoples’ heads.”
But there are still a few outlandish cocktails on the menu. One of Clever Koi’s most beloved is its Japanese(-American) take on the dirty martini. The House Martini is made with seaweed-infused dry gin, dry vermouth and a house brined water chestnut. “The idea was to have the properties of a dirty martini but have it be more natural than just olive juice from a jar,” he says. “We replaced the saltiness of the olive brine with real iodine of the ocean. Kombu (cured seaweed) and nori (dried seaweed) give it a green, sort of faint harbor smell. The brined water chestnut gives it a little more earthiness.”
2½ oz. nori- and kombu-infused “Hayman’s Royal Dock Navy Strength gin”: http://www.haymansgin.com/royal-dock-products/ (recipe below)
½ oz. Dolin dry vermouth
Make infused gin: In a large mason jar, combine one, 750-mL bottle of gin with one, ¾-inch piece of Kombu and one, ¾-inch piece of nori. Steep for 15 minutes while gently stirring every 5 minutes. Strain using a fine, mesh strainer or cheese cloth.
Make brined water chestnut: Combine 1 cup water, 1 Tablespoon coarse Kosher sea salt and 1 Tablespoon rice vinegar in a large mason jar. Stir until salt dissolves. In a colander, rinse one, 8-ounce can of water chestnuts. Allow to air dry for 30 minutes. Add water chestnuts to mason jar filled with brine. Seal and let sit for at least 24 hours in the refrigerator.
Make drink: Combine gin and vermouth plus ice in a mixing glass. Stir. Strain into a chilled Nick and Nora coupe. Garnish with a brined water chestnut.
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.