Photo by Jackie Alpers

Feature Story — Spring/Summer 2018

Mix It Up

Pull up a barstool and sip on a craft cocktail at these six Tucson waterholes. | By Edie Jarolim

Potent potables raised to an art form, craft cocktails bring out the inner geek in many imbibers. Whether re-creating historic recipes or doing contemporary riffs on the tried-and-true, these drinks are exceptionally detail-oriented, down to the shape of the ice and the origin of the garnish. Tucson is a kicked-back desert and university town where we call our shakers and stirrers bartenders rather than mixologists. Nevertheless, you’ll find a lot of distinctive spots to slake a thirst for meticulous sips.

Consider R Bar, a speakeasy-style watering hole tucked into an alley near downtown’s Rialto Theatre. The theater was built in 1922 to screen silent films, but R Bar didn’t join the scene until 2014. The “R” in the bar’s name is a reference to the performance venue, but it could also stand for the color of the decor. The intimate space is relentlessly, radiantly red, from the walls and ceilings to chairs, banquettes, lampshades, and the light fixtures…you get the rosy picture.

The cocktails don’t conform to any particular color scheme, but they’re likely to leave you feeling rosy, too. You might sip the house specialty Rialtor—a blend of ginger-infused vodka, cardamom, lime, and ginger beer—or a Tiki-inspired Painkiller, mixing rum, coconut liqueur, pineapple, and orange juice. The menu is confined to two types of grilled cheese sandwiches—one with cheddar and tandoori spices, the other featuring gruyere—but limiting the need to make complex food decisions can be a bonus at a bar.

There’s a far larger menu at Maynard’s Kitchen, but the choices—and prices—are pared down during happy hour, when poutine, fresh oysters, and potato pizza are among the options. Part of the historic depot complex that includes downtown’s Amtrak station, the Art Deco–style Maynard’s mimics a railroad dining car with its long, narrow shape, faux tile ceiling, and chandeliers encased in mica and steel.

With footrests made of a length of 1890s rail track and studs on its metal siding resembling boxcar rivets, the polished zinc bar is the perfect backdrop for the restaurant’s most popular cocktail: Maynard’s Manhattan. Its key ingredient is Buffalo Trace bourbon infused with vanilla beans and orange peels, and is aged in a Buffalo Trace barrel. Equal attention is paid to the garnish: Italian Amarena cherries, and soaked in cognac for 30 days. Like to drink your dessert? The White Chocolate Martini, made with Stoli Vanilla and Godiva White Chocolate liqueur, packs a sweet punch.

Just across the underpass that connects downtown with Fourth Avenue, a popular dining and drinking drag near The University of Arizona, The Coronet has a similarly retro ambience—and a similarly interesting history. The restaurant formerly hosted guests of the 1928 Coronado Hotel. The painstaking restoration included installing a bistro classic floor with encaustic tiles arrayed in intricate fleur-de-lis patterns and a 1906 bar from a small Arizona town.

The cocktails produced behind that bar pay similar attention to detail. The wonderfully simple but potent Vesper, for example, blends gin, vodka, and Lillet, while the Old Fashioned has just the right proportions of bourbon, bitters, and simple syrup. Other drinks have more whimsical names, but don’t be deterred. The Rabbi Slept Late, for example—Bols Genever Gin, Velvet Falernum, lemon, almond milk, vanilla simple syrup, and a dash of nutmeg—is seriously good. So are such happy hour nibbles and snacks as warm olives, bruschettas, and housemade patés.

Pizza and stargazing are on the menu at the solar-powered Sky Bar, the country’s only astronomy bar. Staff astronomers (you read that right) are on hand every night to assist with viewing through three high-powered telescopes on the patio. This is an especially popular gathering spot during galactic events like harvest moons or comet showers—and University of Arizona basketball games. In many ways, this is a typical college bar, with karaoke, live music, TVs, pool tables, and the affiliated Brooklyn Pizza Company next door where you can order a slice, calzone, or hero sandwich.

But several of the cocktails celebrate the features that make Sky Bar—and Tucson—such standouts. The Major Tom, for example, defies gravity with whiskey, brandy, fresh-squeezed lemon and orange juices, organic agave nectar, and a flaming orange peel garnish. Locally grown citrus is also a feature of the Sonoran Lollipop, mixing tequila, watermelon schnapps, lime juice, and chamoy—a sweet-and-salty Mexican sauce made with pickled fruit that captures the city’s distinctive south-of-the-border flavor.

On the topic of south-of-the-border flavor, Reforma Cocina y Cantina, named for the wide boulevard that sweeps through the heart of Mexico City, has it on lock down. The restaurant’s location in the Spanish village-style St. Philip’s Plaza also evokes Mexico’s capital, as do from-scratch preparations of traditional central Mexican recipes like carnitas tacos; everything from grinding the corn masa for the tortillas to butchering pork shoulder for the filling is done on site.

With more than 300 varieties, Reforma has Southern Arizona’s largest selection of distilled agave spirits—bacanora, sotol, and mezcal, as well as tequila—and you can expect unexpected things to be done with them. For example, in the Paloma—Mexico’s most popular tequila cocktail—fresh grapefruit juice and Pamplemousse grapefruit liqueur take the place of grapefruit soda. The Maestro Gentry, named for a leading botanist of agave studies who taught at The University of Arizona, uses housemade pomegranate molasses to offset the smoky taste of mezcal. Even the house margarita does a spin on the tequila classic, using salt foam rather than a crusted salt rim for salinity without the grit.

Also in St. Philip’s Plaza, Union Public House is a sprawling gastropub that serves updated versions of traditional American comfort food—meat loaf that incorporates pork belly, say, or a grilled chicken sandwich with fig jam and Cambazola—as well as such newcomers to that category as ramen noodles with bacon dashi.

The bar is known for its vast selection of whiskey, but the mixed drink that dominates is the Moscow Mule, combining vodka and ginger beer. Even before the cocktail became ubiquitous around town, it was a Union staple—so much so that the copper cups in which it’s served began disappearing at alarming rates. Putting the restaurant’s name on the metallic souvenirs didn’t stop the theft but at least balanced it with free advertising.

Now a variety of mules turn up on the shifting menu, each highlighting a different spirit. The London Mule, for example, incorporates gin, the Brazilian Mule is made with rum, and the Irish Mule uses Jameson. The latest kick is the frozen Moscow Mule, which is produced by a state-of-the-art slushy machine. It’s the quintessential cocktail for a casual city that puts a premium on staying cool.

Tucson Guide Contributing Dining Editor Edie Jarolim found it difficult to choose from all the city’s terrific cocktail spots, so she is continuing her research on the subject, hoping to be assigned a follow-up piece in the future.