Drinking is easy. Finding the right bar, not so easy. We’re here to help. As a public service to all of you thirsty explorers, every week we highlight the best bars in America and tell you what makes them so damn great. This week we’ve got a bar that’s dishing out Southern hospitality in the Grand Canyon State.
NAME: Okra Cookhouse & Cocktails
LOCATION: Uptown Phoenix, Arizona
ON THE JUKEBOX: The Black Keys, War, The Rolling Stones
WHAT TO ORDER (NEWBIES): Okra Cup: homemade Pimm’s, strawberries, cucumbers, lemon and seltzer
WHAT TO ORDER (REGULARS): Dog Will Hunt: Buffalo Trace bourbon, Del Maguey Vida mezcal, Bigallet amer liqueur and homemade pecan falernum
WHY WE LOVE IT: Even if you haven’t been to Phoenix before, you can surmise a thing or two about the bar culture: it’s hot. Citrus-based drinks do well here because they cut through the heat and outdoor patios are essential. But one thing you may not expect? The sizzling popularity of a bar specializing in Southern drinks.
“We’re still very much a transplant state,” says Micah Olson, co-owner and head mixologist of Okra Cookhouse & Cocktails. “Many of the people who live here are only first or second generation.” One of those transplants is Olson’s business partner, Cullen Campbell, a chef who grew up in Arkansas. The duo had success with their first venture in Phoenix, the Italian bar and restaurant Crudo, so they followed it up with the Southern-inspired Okra last year. “Cullen wanted to get back to his roots and reinterpret the food he ate on his family farm,” Olson says. “I’m a bourbon drinker, so I was happy with that.”
Okra, like a good country barn, has an industrial yet comfy feel to it. The overhead rafters are exposed, balls of what looks like twine hang from the ceiling and the wooden backbar is filled with tons of bottles of whiskey. The menu includes modern creations like the Noggin’ Buster, made of rum, peaches, allspice, cream and a whole egg, plus classic Southern cocktails such as the Sazerac and Seelbach.
An entire section of the menu is dedicated to craft juleps, a ubiquitous Kentucky drink that is hard to find outside of the Bluegrass State. “Juleps are something that people aren’t drinking,” Olson says. “I wanted to give it a little life.” He has five versions of the traditional bourbon swill on the menu, including one made with Champagne and rosemary and another made with mezcal and mint.
Fresh herbs, chilis and tropical fruits shine at Okra. “People don’t think of Arizona as being an agricultural state, but we have 330 days of sun and we grow a lot of produce here,” Olson says. His drinks are especially garden-to-glass. “I piggyback off of the chef’s orders with local farmers and try to use some of the same stuff in my cocktails that he’s using in the kitchen.” The food menu will be familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of the South; it includes dishes like Tennessee hot chicken, pig cheek pot pie and hush puppies. “Our food is really rich and has a lot of butter and cream, so our cocktails tend to be high in alcohol or high in acid to wash the fat away and refresh your palette between bites,” Olson says.
Uptown Phoenix, where Okra is located, is currently exploding with bars and restaurants; Olson could name eight big ones that are opening on his street this year. And as the nightlife scene grows around it, God willing and the creek don’t rise, Okra will keep its porch lights on, a beacon for the parched visitors looking for a place to remind them of home.
Alyson Sheppard writes about bars and restaurants for Playboy.com. She grew up in Alabama. Find her on Twitter: @amshep