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Talking Cocktails With
Arizona's Best Bartenders

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We Caught Up With Top Bartenders From Around The Valley At The Devour Phoenix Bartending Competition At DeSoto Market

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By Wayne Schutsky
Modern Times Magazine

March 2, 2016 — Bartenders. Mixologists. Unlicensed Self Help Gurus. Whatever you call them, the people who make our drinks can make or break a night out or turn around a bad week simply with the shake of a tumbler. But, not all bartenders are created equal. For every talented auteur, there are a thousand pretenders.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s a time and place reserved for an unbalanced, whiskey-heavy Jack and Coke. Weddings, work functions, a night out with friends that’s hijacked by six ex-girlfriends.

But, occasionally I just want a really good drink. You know the kind. The kind of drink that features a flavor palette, nuance and tastes like someone put a lot of thought into it.

Enter the Devour Phoenix Bartending Competition. This year’s event took place at DeSoto Market in downtown Phoenix and pitted some of the Valley’s best bartenders against each other. The objective? To create the wonderful craft cocktails (preferably with local ingredients) to please the crowd and a panel of expert judges.

This year’s event featured Dustin Bolin of Pressroom, Jillian Newman of DeSoto Central Market, Joshua James of The Clever Koi, Michael Liberatore of Citizen Public House, Rob Moore of The Windsor, Robert Porter of The Thirsty Camel, Tanner Lips of The Henry, Titus Fauntleroy of St. Francis, and Zach Smith of Welcome Diner.

Also on hand were representatives from popular local distilleries like Arizona Distilling Co. and O.H.S.O. Distillery. Several of the drinks made during the event contained liquors and other additions from these distilleries.

Palmer ended up with the event’s main prize, but, really, all of these folks crafted delicious, unique drinks that you won’t find anywhere else. That’s why I decided to take a moment to ask a few of them (and one liquor distiller) some questions to help us laymen increase our craft cocktail knowledge.

Their answers are honest, sometimes vague and even occasionally helpful.

Titus Fauntleroy, St. Francis

Modern Times Magazine: In your opinion, what is the most underutilized liquor for making cocktails?

Fauntleroy: I am going to go with brandy. It’s definitely its own flavor and a heavyset flavor, so it’s hard to mix things with that, like juices and things like that. But I think it is underrated, and I think there should be more cocktails out there that [utilize it].

Joshua James, The Clever Koi

Modern Times Magazine: What ingredient or flavor makes for the perfect Arizona cocktail?

James: I feel like you should drink whatever you want whenever you want, but in Arizona it has to be colorful at least. Whatever it is, it has to be colorful.

Zach Smith, Welcome Diner

Modern Times Magazine: In your opinion, what is the most underutilized liquor for making cocktails?

Smith: In general, vermouth has kind of got lost a long time ago, but there are a lot of new vermouths out there that are really good. Like a lot of local vermouths from different cities. I feel like a few years ago I could have said a lot of things, but now there aren’t as many [underutilized liquors] because the craft cocktail scene has gotten so big that everyone is looking for those weird, old things that got forgotten about. The scene has gotten so much better that they’re taking advantage of everything they can get their hands on.

Tanner Lips, The Henry

Modern Times Magazine: In your opinion, what is an underutilized ingredient or flavor for making cocktails?

Lips: Nowadays, I would say anise. Anise is ignored a lot. I mean you get a lot with absinthe cocktails, but anise is one you don’t see a lot being thrown into the mix. That and pepper.

MTM: For someone who wants a gateway into anise, what should they try?

Lips: Green chartreuse, yellow chartreuse, lower yield absinthes and stuff like that.

Greg Arias, Distiller, O.H.S.O. Distillery

Modern Times Magazine: What makes a great vodka?

Arias: We have our gin and our vodka highlighting simplicity. Frills turn people off. Frills scare people. They think that it’s going to be something unexpected, so we want to be very open, very honest and very easy. We’re going to get a little crazy later, but to get people to come in first, you have to have something that people are going to want to drink. That’s about it. Keep it simple. That’s our motto.

These interviews have been edited for clarity.
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