Rory O’ at Wilko

October 3, 2012 |

Back when Rory O’Rear began frequenting the Red Room, where bartender Luke Anable poured the drinks that helped Rory develop his appreciation for bartending, Rory mostly drank his spirits straight. Luke and Rory are now head bartenders at Wilko, where they preside over an impressive cocktail list, but back in the day “no one in Tucson did this ‘cocktail stuff’ that’s becoming so prevalent,” Rory explains. The revival of craft cocktails is undoubtedly a good thing, says Rory. However, this new direction in drink mixing is sometimes misunderstood.

“There are certain people who, when they think of craft cocktails, imagine a bartender with suspenders and a handlebar mustache who refuses to make you your favorite drink,” he tells me. “But that’s not it. The craft cocktail revival isn’t at all about snobbery, it’s about raising the standard that you hold that favorite drink to. It’s about taste as an experience.”

Craft cocktails demand the highest quality ingredients — from the booze down to the ice cubes. At Wilko, the bartenders go so far as to hand-carve ice cubes for certain drinks. I tell Rory that sounds like the punchline of a joke about overzealous bartending, and he smiles. “It feels like a joke sometimes when you spend six minutes carving at ice cube for one drink!” But the finished product — “a drink that stays cold even as you linger over it, allowing subtle flavors in the spirits to unlock — is worth it,” Rory says. The attentiveness and care that goes into each drink creates a unique experience every time.

That experiential nature that Rory identifies as a quality of a good drink makes it hard for him to pick a favorite, but his preferences seem to lean towards the classics. “I like drinks that are comfortable and well-worn,” he says. Indeed, a “classics” section was recently added to Wilko’s cocktail list, and the ingredients to these drinks are simple and straightforward: things like lemon, raw sugar, and bitters. The drinks don’t end at the menu, either. Rory tells me that he loves to make a patron his or her favorite drink, “but the best one they’ve ever had.”

Pressed to choose a favorite drink, Rory finally chooses the Vieux Carré, a New Orleans take on the Manhattan. Rory describes the drink — with its classic foundation and hints of nutmeg and cinnamon, as “a gesture towards nostalgia.” I ask him the best place to drink it. He thinks for a second. “New Orleans,” he says, and then smiles. “Wilko’s not a bad spot, either.”

Vieux Carré

1 oz. High West Double Rye Whiskey
1 oz. Laird’s Apple Brandy
1 oz. Carpano Antiqua Formula
½ oz. Benedictine
2 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters
2 dashes Angostura Bitters

Stir. Serve with a twist of orange peel.