The Return of Arizona’s Original Cocktail: The Statehood

By / Photography By Mike Portt | May 15, 2018
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Many a bartender knows that the secret ingredient to a well-made cocktail is its origin story. And geography plays no small part in such tales of cocktails; great origin stories often are blended right into a drink’s name. Think of the Long Island Iced Tea, the Singapore Sling or the Moscow Mule. Even Manhattan will always have the Manhattan (although it was arguably named for a New York social club, not the borough).

But why has Grand Canyon State been left off the list of cocktail-inspiring climes? Where is the Phoenix cocktail? The Tucson? Or even the Arizona cocktail?

Although you won’t find it on many cocktail menus today, Arizona once did have its own claim to cocktail fame. First appearing in 1910, the Arizona Statehood cocktail is one of the oldest known recipes for a mixed drink born and bred in the American Southwest, predating by decades the Tequila Sunrise and even the iconic Margarita.

Invented at Phoenix’s old Ford Hotel (located roughly where Phoenix’s City Hall now stands at Washington Street and 2nd Avenue) by head bartender Mike O’Leary, the drink featured equal parts rye whiskey and Dubonnet, a fortified wine, along with Angostura bitters, gum syrup and ginger ale, topped with a cherry. Such an ingredient list may not evoke immediate thoughts of the Grand Canyon or the Sonoran Desert, but if you look closely, the Arizona Statehood cocktail turns out to be steeped in state history.

If you’re thinking the Statehood is just a dusty pre-Prohibition cocktail, keep in mind that classics like the Sazerac, the Mojito, even the Old Fashioned itself, date from these early days of America’s cocktail culture. And after a little 21st century tweaking from one of Phoenix’s top bartenders, the cocktail may be ready to join the ranks of Arizonan favorite tipples more than 100 years after its creation.

Although any Arizonan with a head for history knows that Arizona became a state in 1912, not 1910, O’Leary’s drink celebrated one of the first concrete steps Arizona took on the road to statehood. On June 18, 1910, the U.S. Congress concurred and passed what was known locally as the Arizona Statehood Bill. This gave the formal go-ahead to Arizona lawmakers to draft what would eventually become the State Constitution. When news reached Phoenix that the Statehood Bill had been approved, a large whistle blew to commemorate the occasion, giving way to city-wide parties and celebrations. And what better way for Arizonans, and Phoenicians in particular, to celebrate than with their own official statehood cocktail?

Two years and many revisions later, President Taft formally approved Arizona’s Constitution, officially making Arizona the 48th State on February 14, 1912. But all that was in the future. In 1910, the approval to draft a onstitution was reason enough for Arizona to party.

And the Ford Hotel’s bartender, Mike O’Leary, knew how to party. The whistle’s note was still hanging in the air when O’Leary began concocting a constitutional celebratory cocktail; as The Arizona Republic reported on June 19, 1910, “[he was] determined at once to get up something fitting to the occasion.” When O’Leary produced his creation, which he immediately dubbed the Arizona Statehood, the newspaper called it “the latest refreshment.” Al Williams, the owner and operator of the Ford Hotel at the time, saw potential dollar signs in the drink: “It is just like melted gold dripping from a cash register.” And the drink soon found admirers among the bar’s patrons and even rival downtown hoteliers. Garry Schuler, proprietor of the nearby Hotel Adams, located on Central Avenue and Adams Street, rather enigmatically said it tasted “like matrimonial bliss,” The Republic winked. Arguably, however, the best description of the drink came from Lee Landis: “It tastes like Arizona sunshine—like a last stray sunbeam flashing across the desert and tipping with gold the first train out of Phoenix for Buckeye.” Landis’ hyperbole aside, thanks to its blend of ginger ale, rye whiskey and the red-hued Dubonnet, the dark red shade of the Arizona Statehood cocktail did share more than a passing resemblance to the iconic colors of a southwestern sunset.

If you’re interested in making the 1910 Statehood Cocktail at home, all of O’Leary’s original ingredients are readily available today, from Angostura bitters to Dubonnet. O’Leary’s recipe, printed in The Arizona Republic in June 1910, doesn’t mention a specific rye whiskey, and unfortunately none of the few Arizona-based distilleries in production during O’Leary’s time survive to 2018. Shortly following statehood in 1912, Arizona became a dry state in 1915, effectively putting an end to any in-state distilleries—not to mention Mike O’Leary’s career as a bartender. Whether a result of O’Leary’s forced retirement or National Prohibition, which lasted until 1933, knowledge of the Arizona Statehood Cocktail was eventually lost, forgotten by Arizona bartenders and drinkers alike.

O’Leary’s original Arizona Statehood cocktail is a testament to the cocktail culture of early 20th century Phoenix. Joshua James, co-owner and beverage director at the Clever Koi (Two locations: 4236 N. Central Ave. #100 in Phoenix and 384 N. Gilbert Rd. #101 in Gilbert), has brought this drink into the 21st century with a few modern tweaks that might help bring the Statehood back to cocktail menus around the Valley.

Having worked in Phoenix bars for over a decade, James has become one of the Valley’s top mixologists. Today, you can find his skills on display with the Clever Koi’s inventive and award-winning cocktail menu. As the recent winner of the 2018 Last Slinger Standing cocktail competition, James was responsible for bringing the award to Arizona for the first time since 2016. James’ updated version of the Statehood keeps the beautiful and iconic Arizona-red look of the drink with only a few tweaks, both in deference to modern palates and to amp up the Arizona content of its eponymous cocktail. In his version, Lillet Rouge takes the place of the original Dubonnet, helping to preserve that beautiful dark red color of the drink. But James also kicks up the whiskey and bitters content, lessening the cloying sweetness of the 1910 recipe. The 2018 version also has a spicy kick, thanks to a generous helping of Phoenix’s own Iconic Cocktail Company’s Ginga Syrup. Topped with tonic water, it’s a drink best served and sipped (where else?) under a beautiful Arizona sunset.

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