Hold on to your swizzle sticks everyone, because we're going cocktailing.
Bur first, some ground rules: We will not be going to Kon Tiki for the fishbowl-sized drinks that have long dominated local cocktail consciousness. There will be no visits to the World Famous Golden Nugget for near-lethal vodka tonics, nor will we go to the Meet Rack for drinks with names so foul and wrong that we refuse to type them.
Ours is a journey into the world of modern mixology, where housemade infusions and fresh ingredients flavor an endless river of good liquor. The glasses are polished; the bartenders are professional; and you don't have to worry about a ride home—because we're driving.
When the sun has fallen and the lights are dim, the flaming ginger margarita at Ignite at the Ritz-Carlton, Dove Mountain is at its best. The Cholula martinis and lemongrass mojitos do fine in daylight, but the flammable cocktail must be ordered at night to see the blue flames dancing in the desert night.
Flaming drinks and eccentric ingredients may seem offbeat for the well-heeled Ritz-Carlton crowd, but beverage manager Todd Brinkman can explain. He created the flaming cocktail and the vodka-spiked rosemary lemonades, as well as blood-orange cosmopolitans and cucumber coolers served elsewhere at the resort.
"You go to any place, and what they do is grab a bunch of bottles and mix them together in a certain recipe, and that's a cocktail," said Brinkman. "No ... that was a cocktail. What we want to do is create something that you can't get anywhere else, because nobody else is doing it."
The cocktails must also succeed on other levels to be worthy, Brinkman said.
"Just like a chef with cuisine: He looks at the plate, and it has to have balance; it has to have sweetness and acidity; it has to have a visual component," said Brinkman. "Same thing with a cocktail."
There are also interesting things happening downtown, where one man is on a personal mission to improve the things we drink.
Aaron DeFeo, bar manager at Hotel Congress and Maynards Market and Kitchen, has earned a fair amount of recent notice for his drinks. Hotel Congress was the first runner-up for this paper's Best of Tucson® Best Cocktail Menu award last year, and Maynards' martini Caprese recently won Tucson Home Magazine's annual award for Best Signature Cocktail.
DeFeo has massive knowledge of the art of bartending and makes the strawberry, jalapeño, vanilla and other infusions used in cocktails at both locations. He says his longtime interest in cocktailing took on a new life when he worked alongside celebrity mixologist Tony Abou-Ganim at last year's Tucson Culinary Festival.
"I had the chance to work with him and make a couple of these cocktails for him, and he loved it; he was really impressed," said DeFeo. "It basically kicked me into overdrive."
DeFeo set to revamping the drink menus, crafting new signature cocktails and putting spins on drinks with pre-prohibition roots. The result is more than 30 specialty drinks—ranging from daiquiris to jalapeño sazeracs, and everything between—that have been hits across the board.
"Two years ago, people just wanted mojitos, because we were the only one serving them," said DeFeo. "Now we've gotten to the point where people are ordering a million different drinks that you would never have expected them to."
We'd be remiss to talk about cocktails in Tucson without mentioning the margarita, and Brian Metzger, who owns jaxKitchen with his wife, Sandy, serves a mean one. The eatery won the margarita competition at the last two Tucson Culinary Festivals, a notable accomplishment for a place that's been open about two years.
At a recent cocktail class that Metzger held for his staff, he went over the preparation of all seven specialty drinks served at the restaurant while offering samples to those in attendance. (The martini with bacon-stuffed olives and the red-wine-and-lemonade cooler were nothing short of amazing.) Afterward, he took a few moments to discuss how cocktails fit into his restaurant's dining experience.
"Cocktails have built-in fun. There's a spirit of liveliness to it; it starts a meal; it's a conversation piece; and it's fun to drink," said Metzger. "If it's not fun, it has no place in this restaurant."
Metzger says he could come up with any number of outlandish drinks, but for him, it's a matter of keeping the cocktails in line with the simple, comfortable personality of his restaurant.
"There are probably a lot of places out there who serve better cocktails than us," said Metzger. "But we just want ours to fit who we are."
Ffter combing Tucson's bars and restaurants for days, it became apparent that it would take an entire issue of Yum! to plumb the depths of the city's cocktail scene. Still, we felt obligated to put together some semblance of a representative sampling, so we hit up an ATM and headed out.
First were caipirinhas and coca-leaf-liqueur cocktails at Sur Real, followed by a trip to NoRTH for crushed blackberries with rum, as well as drinks fashioned from basil, red bell peppers, lemon, honey and Jim Beam. Espresso and chocolate-covered cherry martinis at Acacia at St. Philip's came next, followed by drinks with names like "elderflower drop" and "black rose" at Wildflower's happy hour.
We also stopped in at Harvest Restaurant for drinks made with Willcox apple slices and cocktails served in glasses rimmed with locally produced honey, before finishing with an Incredible Hulk—a greenish blend of Hennessy and Hypnotic—at Thunder Canyon Brewery.
We would have also liked to stop at the numerous other restaurants that serve signature cocktails, but by that point, our journey had left us nearly broke—and somewhat burned out. It was time for reflection and a few nights off.
The 26 different cocktails we sampled barely scratched the surface of what's available. Aside from finding drinks for just about every taste, we also noticed that cocktails, when made right, do an amazingly good job of hiding the alcohol they contain.
Metzger said that's sort of the point.
"At the end of the day, a really nice question a guest can ask me is: 'Is there alcohol in this?'" said Metzger. "That means we did our job."
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