A Bartender’s Story: Thirsty Camel’s Robert Porter

Life behind the bar is evolving faster than ever. These days, working along the “spirit” line requires more than academy certification and a nice plastic frame. For spritely talent yearning for a breakout, the task calls for a nerd-like dedication and a youthful curiosity beyond the basicsit’s what separates the functional from the fantastic.

Phoenix’s own blossoming fraternity of star bar talent is maturing. Once a small brotherhood of mostly luxury resort expats with a wide-eyed hunger for what’s next, the city’s mixology community has diversified. This graduated crop of local influencers planted the seeds we’re seeing sprout today: the mentorship of younger talent, launching destination-worthy watering holes of their own, and dusting off years of cocktail mediocrity in the corporate world with big-brand consulting gigs at local distributors. Now, a new freshman class is focusing into view.

Enter Robert Porter, currently helping steer the bar team at the Phoenician Resort in Scottsdale’s signature cocktail lounge—and part-time sunset cinema—The Thirsty Camel. An Illinois native, once an eager student of graphic design, Porter has since been tapping into his barman bona fides.

Robert Porter (courtesy Phoenician Resort; photographer Jenelle Bonifield at FoodandLifestyles.com)
Robert Porter at the Thirsty Camel (courtesy: Phoenician Resort; photographer Jenelle Bonifield, http://www.foodandlifestyles.com)

“I started bartending on the side while working in graphic design,” Porter says. “But I quickly fell in love with bartending—it opened my eyes to a whole new world. I loved the creative side, the measuring, the varieties of spirits.”

Before landing at The Thirsty Camel, Porter sharpened his resume, and his palate, at trophy drinking spots like the short-lived (and already sentimental) relaunch of Trader Vic’s at Hotel Valley Ho in the mid-aughts, Sanctuary on Camelback Resort’s own golden incubator of local bar talent Jade Bar, and the buzzy speakeasy-lite concept Second Story Liquor Bar in downtown Scottsdale, among many other places.

“I consider myself a teacher of cocktails,” Porter expands, particularly referring to his deep hospitality experience working at some of the city’s top hotels and resorts. “From hotel guests to locals, I love encouraging people to try new things or try some of their favorite drinks made in new ways.”

When it comes to constructing that perfect cocktail, Porter’s style falls under the umbrella of simplicity and balance. “I prefer to stick with one spirit, making it shine and build from there,” he explains. “I want guests to be able to source everything they’re drinking from their grocery store’s produce section, using fresh juices, herbs, even vegetables.”

This year’s winner of Local First Arizona’s Devour Phoenix Bartending Competition, the energetic annual cocktail event leading up to the seminal food festival by the same name each spring, Porter is humbly making a name for himself within the local pool by sticking to his own style. His winning cocktail at the competition, named the Opal Sour, riffs on the classic Whiskey Sour, using Tucson’s own whiskey-like Three Wells Distilling’s oak-aged Sonora Copper, a spirit produced from the juice of prickly pears, as well as opal basil, honey vinegar, just-squeezed lemon juice, and other adds. It’s a drink that represents both Porter’s ethos for balance and freshness as it does his adopted home of Arizona.

“I do believe Phoenix is a hot spot for craft cocktails,” Porter says. “Some of the world’s best bartenders are here, some of whom can compete with the best in the country. We are on the cusp of taking off and I’m happy to be part of everything.”

What does Porter like to drink when he’s off the clock? “I’m a big bourbon on the rocks type of guy, but I also love spirits like Campari, Fernet and Chartreuse. I love all of the aromatics, and I love slightly bitter flavors,” he ponders.

“I think curiosity makes you a better bartender.”

Porter's Opal Sour (courtesy: Phoenician Resort)
Porter’s Opal Sour (courtesy: Phoenician Resort)

Robert Porter’s Opal Sour

  • 2 oz. Three Wells’ Sonora Copper
  • 1 oz. fresh-squeezed lemon juice
  • .5 oz. honey vinegar
  • 1 oz. simple syrup
  • 1 egg white
  • 4 leaves dark opal basil (traditional basil will suffice)
  • Pinch orange zest

Incorporate all ingredients into cocktail shaker, shake vigorously, double strain, and pour over ice into Meyer lemon rimmed highball glass. Garnish with added sprig of dark opal basil and cheers.

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