Behind the Bar: Phil Clark of Blue Hound Kitchen and Cocktails
I first met Phil Clark, Blue Hound Kitchen & Cocktails newest lead bartender, at the release party for Blue Hound's exclusive single-barrel reserve Knob Creek bourbon whiskey. I was wowed by the variety of drink pairings he created for this special event, such as this Salt & Spice, made with cardamom-infused Knob Creek, salted thyme syrup, oleo saccharum, lemon and fig. Since then, I've had a chance to explore some of the eleven new cocktails he has added to the menu and in the hands of this skilled talent, Blue Hound is a must-visit for you to experience the same.
A New Jersey native, Phil joined us from the East Coast, having made a name for himself in cocktail competitions, at the James Beard-nominated Mockingbird Hill in Washington, DC, and most recently as bar manager at Brabo in historic Old Town Alexandria,Virginia. What makes his cocktails so impressive? He's described his philosophy as guided by an appreciation for the form and structure of traditional libations, which he then uses as a stepping stone to add seasonal ingredients and implement contemporary techniques for his modern evolutions. I pulled up a seat at Blue Hound's bar last month as he chose some cocktails for me to sample. "These are some of the highlights of the current menu," he said, as he set before me a colorful trio: The JungleBird, Boba Tea, and Black Pepper Pink Melon.
"This is my favorite," Sean Currid, the executive chef who is responsible for Blue Hound's delicious menu, had told me earlier. He was talking about the Black Pepper Pink Melon, and judging from the glasses as I glanced down the bar, it's a guest favorite too. It was as refreshingly delicious as it was beautiful. A black pepper, kosher salt, and sugar rim accented a union of black peppercorn infused-Ketel One vodka, the elderflower sweetness of St. Germain, a wonderfully vibrant and fragrant lime cordial (a lime zest, lime juice and agave reduction made in house), cubes of frozen watermelon, and a sprig of fresh rosemary.
"I wanted to make an alcoholic version of a Boba Tea," Phil explained as he introduced a milky libation in a Hurricane glass with a cluster of black tapioca pearls at its base. "This one turned out really well," he noted, and I happily concurred as I sipped black tea-infused Tito's vodka combined with coconut milk, cinnamon syrup, and Carpano Antica vermouth infused with the warm spices of chai, poured over ice, and scented with a garnish of torched cinnamon sticks, mint sprig, and a a shower of grated nutmeg.
For four years, a cocktail called The Lawless has reigned as most popular, but that has changed since Phil's arrival. In just a few months, the JungleBird has knocked it off its throne. "This one outsells everything, which I never would have thought," said Phil with some surprise. "I thought the Boba Tea would be the biggest seller." It's easy to see why the JungleBird is such a crowd pleaser. It's a lovely cocktail with all the hallmarks of the 1970s tiki drink whose creation is ascribed to a Hilton resort bar in Malaysia, but elevated in the Phil Clark way. His clever homage to the original includes a combination of Grey Goose vodka and Plantation OFTD Overproof rum, brown sugar syrup instead of simple syrup "for more depth," and the traditional Campari via a new route – a coral-hued Campari ice cube.
Likewise, his Grasshopper, a riff on the sweet green cocktail popular as an after-dinner drink in the 1950s, is a sophisticated and contemporary rendition. Made with white crème de menthe, Hendrick's gin, crème de cacao, heavy cream, and soda water, its frothy head is reminiscent of a Ramos Gin Fizz. "It's not neon green, it's not a dessert drink," Phil emphasized. "It’s a nice, light, minty cooler." And perfect for our Arizona weather.
Read on to learn more about Phil, how he toasts his ancestors, and why he loves when a guest orders a Penicillin.
I find inspiration…Honestly, I find inspiration everywhere, especially when it comes to cocktails. Markets, movies, cocktail books, Instagram, international cuisine, podcasts…I try to keep my mind open, and let imagination run its course. Give me a tuba, and I’ll get something out of it.
The best part of working at Blue Hound is…my team. I’ve been incredibly lucky to lead a team that was already professional, talented, and hardworking when I met them. Knowing that I have such a capable staff behind our bar night in and night out frees me up to focus on the larger goals of our program and the direction in which we want to take it.
My favorite spirit is…rum, and ideally El Dorado 15yr old aged rum. In my opinion, a perfect rum for both sipping and mixing.
On a hot summer day, I like a…classic daiquiri. Made properly, dry and crisp, and ice cold, it’s easy to see why, in the days before air conditioning, the daiquiri ruled the sticky summers of the Caribbean.
On a cool winter day…Winter is unquestionably my favorite time of year for beer. The history of spiced ales, meads, stouts, and bocks dates back to Druid celebrations of the winter solstice, when they would brew strong beer with the very best herbs and spices they had to offer in one last celebration before the cold and unforgiving winter ahead. I love reaching back across the centuries to toast my ancestors as I raise a pint each year- my favorite being Troegs Mad Elf, and ale brewed with cherries, honey, and spices.
At the end of my shift…I like a cold, hoppy, East-Coast IPA (Dogfish Head 60 minute IPA is my favorite) and a podcast (Bill Simmons, Sam Harris, or Tim Ferris).
I wish more people would...quit asking me to make recipes off of their phone. Whether it’s somebody else’s proprietary cocktail, or something you googled, it’s not fun. You’re probably not going to be happy with what you get, and I hate not being able to provide you with fulfilling, personalized service. I’d much rather you ask me about the cocktails on the menu, order a dealer’s choice, or say something like “I like Aviations- I’d love something like that.” Put it this way - if you wouldn’t walk into the kitchen with The Joy of Cooking, please don’t show me a recipe that someone scribbled on a cocktail napkin for you.
I love when a guest…orders a classic cocktail - Manhattans, Negronis, Last Words, Mai Tais, Penicillins. There is a whole world of historic and contemporary classics that most true cocktail bars can make for you, and many bartenders have their own subtle variations of these stalwarts. Let us share them with you!
If I wasn’t bartending....professionally, I’d be fighting. I love to train Muay Thai, and I’d love to see what could happen if I dedicated myself full time to that pursuit.