Ever get stuck at a cocktail party talking to the only guy drinking a beer? Perhaps we have met, for I am that guy. I never drink cocktails. So, when my editor asked me to write an article on the signature cocktails in Anchorage, I accepted on the spot. Why? Because the guy drinking beer at a cocktail party is skilled at feigning confidence.
But it seemed prudent to have backup, so I brought along some friends. We went around town, asking bartenders and bar owners what they considered their signature cocktail. We drank, discussed and gave each drink a score. Without further ado, here is a Layperson's Guide to Anchorage Cocktails.
Bear Tooth Grill
Hours: 11 a.m.-11:30 p.m. Mon.-Fri., 9:30 a.m.-11:30 p.m. Sat.-Sun.
Location: 1230 W. 27th Avenue
The Bear Tooth opened its doors in August 2001; six short months later, Amy Mack joined the staff and has never left. Today, she is Queen Mixologist of Bear Tooth and arguably of all Anchorage. For the past 12 years, Mack has been creating drinks made with the Bear Tooth's house-aged Reposado Tequila.
For the uninitiated (including myself), "house-aged" means that the Tooth stores tequila in oak barrels for two months before serving it to customers, organically adding color and flavor. No other Alaska establishment ages its own tequila. Why does this matter to the customer? "We 86'd any tequila that says 'Gold' on it, because that means it has artificial coloring, extra caramel or sugar," said Mack. "Our color comes from the barrels. If you know anyone who had a bad experience with tequila when they were younger and can't drink it anymore, blame the Gold. Our stuff won't leave you with a headache the next morning." Both of Mack's recommendations included the good stuff.
First, I tried the classic: the Bear Tooth Margarita ($9). The Tooth's signature cocktail is made with house-aged Reposado Tequila, Patron Citronge Orange Liqueur and a mostly-secret house-made margarita mix. Mack insisted that we also try the "skinny" substitute, which relies on fresh lime juice instead of the sweetened Rose's lime variety, creating a more tart, less sweet result. Of note, "skinny" does not mean that this drink is a dieter's Splenda-rita, though it is naturally lower in calories. We recommend both. Score (out of 10): 7 regular, 8 skinny.
But everyone's had a Bear Tooth Margarita. I wanted to try something new. Mack recommended the Refresco de la Hacienda ($8). Translated as "Refreshment of the House," the Refresco is the product of a vacation Mack took with Crossbar owner Kenny Ryther many years ago. "Kenny and I were in Tequila, Mexico. We walked into a bar and were handed a delicious mystery drink. So we spied on the bartender as he made the next batch. He started with tequila, then reached under the bar for what was obviously the secret ingredient. You know what he pulled out? A two-liter bottle of Squirt."
Mack came back to Alaska and developed a homemade grapefruit soda blend -- grapefruit, lemon, lime and soda. She poured in house-aged Reposado Tequila, put chili-lime salt on the glass and added Refresco to the menu. Hidden in the House Specialties section of the menu, it's easy to miss but hard to forget. Score: 9.
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday, 11-12 a.m. Tues.-Sat., 9 a.m.-10 p.m. Sun.
Location: 2830 C Street
Next, I visited Crossbar, co-owned by Ryther, a self-described "spirit geek." He recommended that we start with the Beauty, Eh? ($9), named after the phrase that a Canadian hockey fan uses to compliment ... anything. A refreshing blend of Peach Ciroc vodka, house-made ginger syrup and fresh pink grapefruit, this tart drink will make your cheeks hurt on the first sip -- a pleasingly alarming sensation that encourages another sip, eh? Score: 6.
Next, Ryther pointed us to the GWG ($8), short for "Game-Winning Goal." Ryther notes some people call it the "Great Whiskey Grog," an appropriate handle for this mix of Bullet Rye Whiskey, Crossbar Sour, agave nectar and Angostura bitters. Kenny's favorite drink slightly favors the sour mix and bitters, but the whiskey and agave also leave their mark. Score: 8.
Hours: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Mon.-Fri., 9 a.m.-11 p.m. Sat.-Sun.
Location: 1049 W. Northern Lights Blvd.
A few days and many glasses of water later, a friend and I visited Spenard Roadhouse, where head bartender Shawna Calt offers a diverse drink menu and tries to point savvy drinkers (and luddite newspaper reviewers) towards options that will challenge their taste buds. According to Calt, the Roadhouse has the largest selection of bourbons in the entire state, and she suggested we try two bourbon-based libations.
First, we tried the Resurrection Bay ($10), made with Henry McKenna Bourbon, Clear Creek Distillery cassis, Angostura bitters and muddled lemon, my friend described this as "a berry drink that a manly man won't be embarrassed to drink, because it's got bourbon." Score: 6.
But the Devil's Breakfast ($9), made with Jim Beam Devil's Cut Bourbon, Kahlua, Frangelico and a shot of espresso, caught our attention. It may sound too sweet at first blush, but my drinking companion exclaimed on tasting, "I'd order this over any dessert!" Light in taste but with a creamy mouthfeel, this dessert drink is a must-sip. Score: 9.
Bar hours: open until 11 p.m. Sun.-Thur., 12 a.m. Fri.-Sat.
Location: 425 W. 5th Avenue
Next, we headed downtown to taste two drinks at Ginger. The bartender first recommended the namesake Ginger Rum Cocktail ($9.50), which was a disappointment. The flavors canceled each other out, and it only seemed to be the signature drink because of the name. Score: 4.
But the other drink we tried was the highlight of the entire tasting tour. The Chupacabra ($9.50), named after a mythical blood-sucking creature, offers a less deadly but still very surprising spiciness. This drink is composed of Truuli Peak vodka, fresh-squeezed lemon and grapefruit juices, simple syrup and jalapenos. "If you appreciate Latin foods, there is no way you won't love this drink," my friend observed. Score: 10.
F Street Station
Hours: 10 a.m.-2 a.m. all week
Location: 325 F Street
Our last two stops focused on drinks famous for being developed in Anchorage. First, we visited F Street Station, home of the Turbo Corona ($12). The Turbo pairs Corona beer with vodka and lime juice. Full disclosure: I was not looking forward to sipping this drink. But, surprise, add some vodka to a bottle of Corona and you get magic juice that tastes like honey. It's delicious. I was shocked. Developed 10 years ago at F Street by bartender Andy, the Turbo has become a staple drink at the Station. Score: 9.
The Peanut Farm
Hours: 6 a.m.-2:30 a.m. Sun.-Mon., 6 a.m.-3 a.m. Fri.-Sat.
Location: 5227 Old Seward Highway
If Anchorage had just one signature drink, it would be a 1987 Peanut Farm creation: the Duck Fart ($6.50). The Fart is a three-layer shooter: Kahlua at the base, Baileys in the center and a Crown Royal float on top, designed to be drunk in one big gulp. Sweet, smooth and desserty, the Duck Fart is tasty all over town. But get one at the Peanut Farm and you will taste the history, right after the Crown Royal aftertaste wears off. Said assistant manager Brian Johnson, "When you look in a drink manual and find the Duck Fart, it usually says it was invented in Anchorage, here at the Peanut Farm. It's a nice smooth shot. We are proud of it."
After a few weeks of drinking too much after work, like a baby who misplaced his security blankie, I yearned for a beer. But I also learned a surprising new truth: I like sampling cocktails. And Anchorage has many that deserve a chance.