Arizona is a place that’s made for cocktails. The weather is right all year long for any variety of tipples, from margaritas and citrus-heavy drinks in the summer to vermouth and Chartreuse-tinged libations in the winter, there’s a cocktail for every season in the Grand Canyon State. Its no wonder, then, that Arizona Cocktail Week–the annual event founded by local cocktail writer Kim Haasarud and Ross Simon of Bitter & Twisted Cocktail Parlour–has created a cocktail renaissance throughout the state and placed Phoenix at the epicenter of this growing drinks scene.
Keeping Things Seasonal at Tratto
Food and beverage intertwine, which is why some of the most interesting innovations in the local cocktail scene are happening at two restaurants run by legendary Phoenix pizza maker Chris Bianco. The pioneering restaurateur has seen great success with his newest restaurant, Tratto, which was named the best restaurant of 2016 by Phoenix Magazine. Chris is dedicated to using fresh, seasonal, locally-grown ingredients, so to complement the food, he brought in a bartender who not only adheres to the locally-grown mantra, but makes a wide variety of his own liqueurs, bitters and elixirs.
Enter the talented Blaise Faber. Having started out at Pizzeria Bianco, he joined the Tratto team when the restaurant opened last year. Faber became interested in cocktails and bartending almost by accident a number of years back. He was at home and wanted to make a margarita but had run out of Cointreau. Instead of running to the nearest liquor store and buying a new bottle, the enterprising Faber decided to make his own. “It turned out okay, so that was the bridge between cooking at home, which is something I did growing up, and making my own beverages,” he said. “The orange liqueur led to me making all sorts of tinctures, cordials and bitters.”
While working at Pizzeria Bianco, Blaise approached the drinks program the same way the kitchen approached the food menu: seasonality. “I like pineapple juice,” he tells me as an example, “but I don’t need to put it on every cocktail menu, especially at a restaurant that focuses on seasonality.” With this in mind, he uses ingredients that are in season and available at local farms, while remaining flexible with the menu. If a particular drink isn’t doing well with customers, if ingredients suddenly become available or unavailable, or if he simply becomes bored with a recipe, everything’s open to change.
This approach to mixing drinks plays well with the changing menus of the restaurant, as evidenced by Blaise’s takes on classic cocktails and beverages like the Manhattan and eggnog. The Manhattan I was served was made with a local rye whiskey and nocino–an Italian walnut liqueur–instead of vermouth, plus aged bitters, all of which combined to form a mildly-spiced, nuanced tipple. Better yet was the eggnog, which was served along with a number of digestifs following our dinner. Unlike the rich and heavy holiday treat we’ve all come to know and love, Blaise’s eggnog included herbs and spices and, interestingly, grappa and house made vermouth, which made it lighter and easier to enjoy after the meal.
Bar Bianco Gets an Update
With his focus on pairings and seasonal ingredients, Blaise has already been changing the face of the Phoenix cocktail scene, and this has led to inspiration for other members of the Bianco family to follow suit. Enter husband and wife team Justin and Erin, who recently took over the bartending and drinks program at Bar Bianco, which resides in a small historic property next to the downtown branch of Pizzeria Bianco in the tranquil and quiet Heritage Square.
Justin has long been a face in Phoenix’s cocktail scene, bringing classic cocktails into the public eye at the enduring Shady’s Fine Ales & Cocktails in central Phoenix. When he started out, the cocktail scene was young and small, but times changed, and since joining Bar Bianco, his methodology has changed as well.
It was there that Justin joined his wife, Erin–herself a veteran of Pizzeria Bianco and Bar Bianco–to change things up. Keeping in mind that the bar was more of a place for patrons to wait for a meal while having a drink instead of coming specifically for drinks, Justin aimed to offer lighter cocktails featuring easy-drinking and lower-alcohol ingredients rather than heavier liquor bases.
The result is a drinks menu that is unique and memorable. I kicked things off with the Andie Walsh, which featured Ransom Grappa, dry curacao, hibiscus syrup and lemon juice that provided a rich mouthfeel and slight bite. Another favorite was the Chrysanthemum, made with white vermouth, Benedictine and absinthe that was light and floral.
Even though Bar Bianco and Tratto are young guns in Phoenix’s cocktail scene, they’re sure to gather a faithful following due to their attention to quality, new flavors and fresh ingredients. Both are well worth a visit, and two shining examples of why Phoenix’s cocktail scene is one to watch.