Craft cocktails in Tucson: Quality, flavor trump the buzz

2013-12-19T00:00:00Z Craft cocktails in Tucson: Quality, flavor trump the buzzBy Gerald M. Gay Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
December 19, 2013 12:00 am  • 

On Mondays, when the downtown restaurant Penca is closed and most of its employees are off for the day, beverage manager Luke Anable and his crew are hard at work.

Much needs to be done to prep cocktail service for the week.

Grapefruits are peeled, juiced, mixed with lemon and raw honey, cooked at 185 degrees and put on an ice bath. The peels are then reintroduced and the juice strained to create the grapefruit cordial used in several of the restaurant’s sangrias and cocktails.

To make the in-house grenadine, shaved beets, dried hibiscus flowers, black peppercorn and raw ginger are blended into a tea, reduced and mixed with pomegranate and molasses.

At some point during the day, the team sits down to talk about the drinks served the week before — what worked and what didn’t — and discuss ways to better convey the flavor of each offering.

“We want to guide people with the menu, then exceed their expectations,” said Anable, 29. “If someone is expecting one thing and gets another, it can be difficult to experience the drink properly.”

These thoughtful and time-consuming efforts are standard practices for Anable and the Penca crew. They represent a growing number of Tucson bartenders on the forefront of the city’s do-it-yourself craft-cocktail movement.

Over the last five years, a contingent of Tucson mixologists and restaurant owners have increased their focus on the quality of the cocktails being served in their establishments.

Following in the footsteps of cities such as Portland, Ore., San Francisco and New York, drinks are being made in innovative ways using fresh, homemade ingredients and high-end, sometimes hard-to-find spirits.

Many of the participating businesses are along the modern streetcar route, from Wilko on East University Boulevard to the brand new Agustín Kitchen at Mercado San Agustín, west of Interstate 10. Agustín Kitchen, which opened this week, offers a full menu of unique drinks created with bartender Garrett Steffgen leading the charge.

Beyond the reach of downtown, craft cocktails can be found throughout the city from Union Public House on North Campbell Avenue, which hosts occasional cocktail nights, to Feast on East Speedway, and Kingfisher and Dante’s Fire on East Grant Road.

Many of the mixologists leading this movement will tell you it is a labor of love, and Tucson has received plenty of love for its efforts.

In 2012, Scott and Co., the small craft-cocktail spot on North Scott Avenue owned by restaurateurs Travis Reese and Nicole Flowers, was hailed as one of the “Top 10 Best New Bars” in the U.S. by Food & Wine magazine.

Downtown’s Saint House Rum Bar, also owned by Reese and Flowers, was featured in Esquire in September for its honey-sweetened cocktail dubbed “53 for the S.P.” Food & Wine named the place one of the best modern tiki bars of 2013.

Penca was hailed as one of the best bars overall in the same roundup.

Local mixology heavyweight Aaron DeFeo has received multiple honors for his talents, most recently taking home the top nod from the inaugural Foodist Awards in Phoenix in April.

“Craft cocktails are meant to transform drinking from a way to get a buzz to a more fulfilling experience,” DeFeo explains. “Tucson is headed in the right direction. We don’t want to be a culture of binge drinkers. We want to be cultured drinkers who go out and enjoy beverages socially.”

DeFeo, the property mixologist for Casino Del Sol, is often considered one of the pioneers of the DIY craft-cocktail movement in Tucson.

He started his career as a bar manager at the college hangouts Maloney’s and Gentle Ben’s. At the time, creating complex flavors for customers wasn’t a priority.

“My philosophy back then was to make as many drinks as I could as fast as possible and to make as much money as I could doing it,” DeFeo said.

A brief stint at the upscale La Ferlita Pizza Café, where Grimaldi’s is now located at East Sixth Street and North Campbell Avenue, gave him a new perspective.

“I saw that there were different types of clientele,” he said. “People who didn’t want drinks with a lot of fruit juices and different puckers thrown in.”

He continued to increase his interest in craft cocktails after accepting a position with Hotel Congress.

“A lot of people downtown are into national trends,” he said. “I got to meet some of those people and saw what their preferences were. A lot of them were looking for something of better, higher quality.”

DeFeo said before 2008, craft-cocktail joints were few and far between in Tucson. Higher caliber drinks were served primarily at the city’s resorts whose parent companies were following national trends.

But that was changing.

DeFeo made it a priority to grow the presence and importance of craft cocktails at Congress.

At the same time, Ciaran Wiese, a bartender at Barrio Grill who now works at Augustín Kitchen, was introducing his own techniques.

“Ciaran had been working in New York City which had already experienced its cocktail renaissance,” DeFeo said. “He was really the first one in town to stretch the limits of what people expected in terms of palate choices.”

Today, the number of bars and restaurants going above-and-beyond with their cocktail programs has increased tenfold.

Many of the bartenders on the scene were mentored by other local bartenders.

David Clark, the chief mixologist and lead bartender for Hotel Congress, started as a busser at the venue nine years ago, but worked his way up the ranks under DeFeo, among others.

“It is like any trade or craft,” Clark said. “You just apprentice under someone and do it thousands upon thousands of times.”

The training helped Clark develop a keen palate and sharp eye when it came to creating cocktails.

The hotel serves 12 regular and rotating options, which change seasonally and are served at the its lobby bar and in the Cup Café.

Clark, 32, likens Tucson’s bartending community to the local music community.

“There is always competition, but there is also a sharing of ideas and knowledge that enrich the entire environment,” he said.

Part of what has made bonds stronger, Clark said, is the local chapter of the United States Bartenders Guild, which launched in 2011.

Clark is vice president of the chapter and DeFeo is president.

It has 40 members for whom it provides monthly educational and social events. The guild also supports bartenders looking to compete in national competitions.

DeFeo said the guild has allowed Tucson to grow overall.

“Tucson is not a craft- cocktail town,” DeFeo said. “It is a domestic beer and whiskey town. We drink a lot here but we are not accustomed to drinking well. That takes a little bit of a learning curve.

“We are just starting to see the consumer base catch up.”

For Anable, the growth of craft cocktails in Tucson has been and will continue to be a community effort.

“I think we all have similar goals in terms of what we want to see happen in Tucson,” he said. “No one person or bar can do that. We need to raise the bar together.”

Contact reporter Gerald M. Gay at ggay@azstarnet.com or 807-8430.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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