On the Menu

The combination of a magic berry (or two) and Alice’s Daiquiri from HighWire Lounge is a must try.

You can tell it’s Arizona Cocktail Weekend when phrases like “expressed peels” and “flaming zests” return to the libation lexicon.

Two weeks ago, bartenders from across the Grand Canyon State convened in Phoenix to not only showcase the magnitude of their mixology prowess, but to attend educational seminars ranging from “Essential Herbs and Aperitifs” to “Retox Recovery Drips.”

All that buzz got me thinking of some local bars that have introduced unique flavors and unusual techniques to their cocktail programs. It didn’t take long before I sat down with two spirituous storytellers to get a quick glimpse.

John Hardin might as well wear a lab coat to work, as his downtown lounge is often likened to a chemistry classroom. He built a cocktail program that is, as he calls it, “highly interactive,” and his team regularly pushes the envelope of mixology at HighWire Lounge, 14 S. Arizona Ave. 

The “Alice’s Daiquiri” is one example. It contains two of the traditional Cuban drink’s three ingredients, rum and fresh lime juice, but leaves out the sweetening agent that results in a beverage that would be overly bitter for most palates.

And that’s where the magic berries come in.

Hardin tells me that magic berries (and, for the record, that’s what they’re called) are natural fruits that magically transpose bitter tastes into sweet ones.

“Synthetic versions of these berries are actually being used with cancer patients whose taste buds have been burned by chemotherapy,” said Hardin, HighWire’s general manager and head mixologist. “In these cases, it’s hard for them to experience the sense of sweet, and that’s what these berries produce in a chemical kind of way.”

Hardin serves the Alice’s Daiquiri alongside a vial of magic berries. He instructs his guests to chew on the berries for 30 seconds before they take a sip of the cocktail. With a little support from science, the result is a balanced flavor profile.

While Hardin is playing with his berries, restaurateur Steve Dunn is transporting his guests’ palates to the lavender fields of France.

Lavender is a flower that’s most often associated with soaps, scrubs and aromatherapy sessions, and the thought of plunging a sprig into my cocktail gave me pause. Then, I heard about Dunn’s “Dutch Well Water” at The Parish, 6453 N. Oracle Road, and it all made sense.

This cocktail is made with cucumber-infused gin, fresh lime juice and peach bitters, all tied together with a delicate dose of lavender water.

“We steep lavender flowers in boiling water until the oils and tannins from the petals are released,” said Dunn, a Parish owner. “Once we strain the flowers, we’re left with an infused water that gives us a really nice floral essence to work with.”

Dunn’s lavender is sourced from a region in France where it grows abundantly. He says this particular lavender adds a bright fragrance to the cocktail, with floral notes on the palate that act as bridges among the gin’s botanicals, the tartness of the lime and the distinct peachy notes from the bitters.

“Many guests who order this drink definitely notice a flavor that they can’t put a name to, and that’s part of the fun when we get to tell them this story,” Dunn said.

Arizona Cocktail Weekend will be back before you know it, and I fully expect my peel expression game to be strong. 

Contact Matt Russell, whose day job is CEO of Russell Public Communications, at mrussell@russellpublic.com. Russell is also the host of “On the Menu Live” that airs 5 to 6 p.m. Saturdays on KQTH 104.1 FM, as well as the host of the Friday Weekend Watch segment on the “Buckmaster Show” on KVOI 1030 AM.