At Penca, I occasionally find it nearly as rewarding and edifying to simply look at all the beautiful and rare mezcals (this time while drinking a Modelo Especial and a short glass of sherry with a friend) as it is to taste through such an exemplary, somewhat intimidating and expensive selection of distillate. Beholding this selection of mezcals, from various small villages around Oaxaca (which vary widely in terms of elevation, agave cultivation, and inherited production methods) whets the mental appetite and creates a map which makes our tasting, when we do taste, more rewarding.
On a recent visit a friend and I noticed that the ‘top shelf’ at Penca was devoid of bottles excepting a bottle of single vineyard Armagnac from 1979 (Armagnac is a region of France which neighbors Cognac and produces a similar grape distillate which is often more authentic and more proletarian than its decidedly bourgeois neighbor) and a bottle of locally-distillated agave syrup, the closest thing we have to an Arizona bred tequila. This arrangement, it seems, is both gleefully random and the manifestation of a higher (non-)ordering principle.
Since its opening days, the “international bar” at Penca has upended the typical top shelf hierarchy that organizes most back bars. Traditionally, bars conflate quality with price such that as bottles ascend the shelves they become more expensive, ending in some absurdist apex of products whose expense far outweighs any meaningful reckoning of the value within. Anyone who delves into spirits with a bit of discernment soon realizes the hype tends to be just that – lowest common denominator marketing which precludes the need to understand the nuanced provenance or traditional crafting of artisan products in favor of simple superlatives. To encourage guests to rethink these hierarchies, then, is the point of arranging bottles in families alongside one another rather than by price within a vertical paradigm of bottom to top. When I asked Bryan Eichhorst about this later he replied, “To create a hierarchy of spirits based on designations like time in barrel–or abundance of marketing–would be a disservice to our guests. Each bottle has its own story as an agricultural product which includes terroir, production methods and its path to market. Cost and quality are rarely correlated in any meaningful way.” This is an approach particularly suited to a mezcal bar which relies on the curiosity of guests and education of the bar staff to promote a less hierarchical and more disperse, investigative approach to taste and tasting. At Penca this inspired paradigm is applied not only to mezcal but all other spirits as well—heartening evidence of its applicability as we become more deft and savvy consumers.
From Penca we headed to R Bar seeking sherry (it was a savory, low-alcohol kind of night) where a reliably fresh stock of the oxidized wine is guaranteed and a sherry cocktail or two likely. The difference between quality, dry Spanish sherry and what Americans label as such is basically the difference between the sacred and the profane.
And so it was that the “Raisin Hell” was discovered, a stirred cocktail composed of rhum agricole (rum distilled from sugar cane juice rather than molasses) house golden raisin syrup and amontillado sherry. The drink was boozy and sweet, buoyed by intrigue and nuance – a tough balance which this drink achieved with ease. The sherry note was happily loud, a distinctly nutty flavor that comes from the wine’s oxidative character. Although more contemplative than refreshing, the sherry presence lent the cocktails some savory depth and a touch of acidity that held it together nicely. My partner ordered a glass of rosé from the La Clarine farms, an isolated property in the Sierra Foothills, which is quietly leading the charge against mass-produced table wines in favor of naturally produced, small batch wines of idiosyncratic character. True to its origin, the wine was singular – textured but bright with a lot of wild-strawberry character that was appropriately springy and herbal. La Clarine Farms makes wine in miniscule batches and when you see these wines in town they tend to be at R Bar, which has been supporting small, natural wineries for years now. As of this writing R Bar is on it’s last 6 bottles, so get it while you can. The mood at R Bar was jovial and lightly chaotic, a product of the fact that the bar’s clientele has a diverse set of expectations. There are intimate nooks, improvised dance floors, a balcony and patio to suit a host of Friday night needs and a drink menu to match. Happily, a glass of rose and a well-made sherry cocktail can be enjoyed when dancing, sitting, gazing, retreating, embracing, coming or going to equally good effect.
50 E Broadway Blvd.
Tucson, AZ 85701
350 E Congress #110
On Herbert Alley
Tucson, AZ 85701
Header image by Karen Schaffner.