BISBEE — A good drink is challenging, surprising and sometimes confusing.
At least that’s what the bartenders at Cafe Roka think, which is why they are revamping their cocktail menu after more than two decades.
No, old favorites like Roka’s margaritas and martinis aren’t going anywhere, but new creations with a twist on classic recipes will make their debut next weekend with exciting flavors and intriguing undertones.
After Roka celebrated its 25th anniversary, Fred Miller, a 24-year Roka employee and the restaurant’s beverage manager, said it was time for a change. He’s adding a collection of drinks known as “craft cocktails.” The specialty-drink menu will be filled with about dozen beverages tantalizing to taste buds, made exclusively by Roka’s bartenders.
“As with food, you try to layer ingredients so that people can taste the individual ingredients,” Miller said.
Craft cocktail culture is nothing new. In fact, there’s been a resurgence of an older drinking standard that’s taking over bars and restaurants across the country.
Instead of serving generic drinks like the vodka cranberry or gin and tonic, bars are turning cocktails into an astir tasting experience. It’s even a concept that people are willing to pay big money for.
One such “mixology” course is offered by Beverage Alcohol Resource, a private organization based in New York. The course is a five-day program given at a site called Pier A Harbor House in the Big Apple, and costs almost $4,000 to attend. It involves an application to get in, and the classes themselves last 12 hours.
But it’s all for the love of liquor and a fine tasting experience.
Yoni Evans, a newer bartender to Cafe Roka, said the restaurant is bringing that mentality to Bisbee. It’s an exciting experience that he and Miller hope to give their customers through the new menu.
The idea is to embrace the history of classic cocktails made during the late 1800s and early 1900s, and using that knowledge to influence what’s mixed into drinks today, Evans said.
“Our scope of flavors is increasing, but our ingenuity isn’t,” he said. “We are just trying to get it back to what we once knew, which was having cocktails that are very complex and alchemical.”
Miller said Roka’s specialty-cocktail menu — available starting next week on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays — features an offbeat take on classic cocktails like the vesper and Jasmine, bringing in Southwestern influences reminiscent of Arizona’s desert environment.
To Evans, the move toward more complex and intriguing tastes is a step away from fast flavors and short-changed drinks.
“I think that it’s been pretty common that the fallout from the 1970s and ‘80s is that their spirit drinks became expedited,” Evans said. “People started using juice in cans and bottles; people weren’t looking for wild flavors — basically, the bar became smaller and smaller.”
These new drinks will cost a little more than the average vodka soda, but it’s the quality and thoughtfulness that goes into every drop that makes it worth the extra few dollars. It’s not about following the rules, Evans said. Instead, the point to create something memorable, exciting and — perhaps, most importantly — tasty.
“What we see now is an eye toward quality — using fresh, good ingredients. It is borrowed from the original view of cocktails,” he said. “Things were complex back then and done with only the best ingredients, and that’s what we are looking to redo.”
Miller is excited for the new menu’s debut. Based on the community tasting he held with a few days ago with close friends of the bar, he and Evans got a sense of what customers are craving in a cocktail.
Paul Freistedt, an 18-year Bisbee resident and longtime patron at Roka, said he’s no cocktail connoisseur, but is looking forward to the bar’s new menu. His favorite among the new concoctions is the creosote Old-Fashioned. It’s a drink inspired by regions south of the border, and uses mescal or sotol (instead of bourbon), creosote-infused bitters and agave.
“For me, what appealed to me is that they are including sotol, which a tequila relative. It has a smoky flavor than most tequilas do,” Freistedt said. “The combination between the smoke and the creosote notes is what attracted it to me. Also the fact that is was less sweet than other cocktails.”
As a longtime customer, Freistedt thinks the menu is sure to draw an enthusiastic crowd.
“It’s an interesting mix of people who are very receptive to new ideas,” he said. “I anticipate it will be received well.”
Miller thinks this is the perfect opportunity to educate the cocktail-curious with the new menu. It’s all about the world of possibility, he said.
“If there’s no possibility, you can’t expand anybody’s horizon,” Miller said. “We want to encourage experimentation in drinking and drinking responsibly.”