The 27-seat bar is the first thing that greets you as you enter Citizen Public House, one of downtown Scottsdale’s most innovative restaurants. And their boundry-pushing cocktail program rebukes the notion that restaurant bars need only serve as a convenient place to wait for a table. In fact, bar hospitality is in the restaurant’s DNA—the leveled-off, A-frame roof is a remnant from the building’s prior life as a Trader Vic’s from 1962 until 1990.
As you sidle up to the counter, one bartender meets you at your seat, while another whips up one of their signature cocktails—the Mezcacillin, perhaps, a Mexican take on the iconic Penicillin that swaps scotch for smoky mezcal combined with a tart ginger shrub and sweetened by a house-smoked agave syrup.
Chef-owner Bernie Kantak is known for an East-meets-West approach to flavors, due in part to his family’s Hungarian roots. He put Scottsdale dining on the map 20 years ago as head chef at Cowboy Ciao, just around the corner.
“With “Mad Men” at its height… people longed
to transport themselves to Don Draper’s
Old Fashioned-drenched world.”
With Citizen, the cocktail would not travel east or west, but back in time. Kantak had a specific bar vision in mind when he opened the restaurant in 2011: an American speakeasy that serves the classics. With “Mad Men” at its height, inspiring progressive bartenders and mixologists across the country, people longed to transport themselves to Don Draper’s Old Fashioned-drenched world. Citizen is still keeping guests on their toes with inspired twists on the classics.
Who could blame you for ordering the Golden Delicious, a cocktail made with rum, local CaskWerks Distilling Co. Apple Pie Liqueur, nutty orgeat (a syrup made from almonds and orange flower water, and a tiki staple), lime juice, and grapefruit peel? And that’s just a tease of Citizen’s craft cocktail goodness.
“We have classic drinks on the menu that are still fantastic,” says lead bartender Eric Wilson, who is steeped in the restaurant’s standards from his first day behind the bar five years ago. “But we like to be creative and throw our own riff on them. That’s always been the style here.”
That’s why the classics, both strictly and creatively interpreted, have always been a constant on the bar menu at Citizen Public House. Take the pre-Prohibition era Clover Club made with gin, raspberry, lemon, lime, egg white—only Citizen uses a vegan emulsifier called aquafaba instead.
“We create plenty of things on our own, plenty of cocktails that aren’t classics,” says Wilson, speaking to the frequent collaboration between the kitchen and the bar when chasing new flavor profiles. Sometimes this means seeking out less common, Old World ingredients like Old Tom Gin, a sweeter and maltier ancestor of the juniper-laced spirit we know today, which gets mixed with bitter a bitter orange aperitif, basil, and fresh grapefruit juice.
For a drink called the Socialite, Wilson employs a cranberry shrub, but instead of using tart and raw berries, he bakes them instead, caramelizing the sugars in the fruit and teasing out a pie-like flavor. He combines it with honeydew melon vodka, and sweetens the drink with orange oleo saccharum, a relic of punch making in which citrus peels are allowed to sit with sugar until the oils are extracted, resulting in a fragrant and floral syrup.
“It’s all about creativity. That’s what we’re looking for: To put a unique twist on the approach of craft cocktails,” he says.
This intentional mix of the familiar and the classic cocktail cannon sees that new customers get hooked, but also keeps those Citizen diehards entertained and ready for more.