The combination of COVID-19, the New England weather, and my semi-retirement after selling my 21 yr old web development company led Lorri and I to try the cliché snowbird migration to Arizona for the winters of 2021 and 2022 (currently in progress!), in the cities of Tucson, Sedona and Phoenix/Scottsdale.
Corona Disclaimers/Strategies: In the 2021/2022 timeframe when we did these visits there’s unquestionably some calculated risk involved. Clearly the safest route would be to visit NONE Of these places but otherwise we made sure we were masked to the max (KF94 our current fave),, vaxxed to the quadruple max (double boostered as of winter 2022), outside when possible, and booking Blue Plate special hours (i.e. 4-6 pm) whenever possible to avoid the crowds (and win as much uninterrupted face time with the bartenders as we could)!
Throwing back a tipple on a sun soaked patio overseeing the expansive desert in the dead of winter is an undeniable pleasure … but do the cocktails stack up on their own? During our tour of bars in Phoenix (and close neighbor Scottsdale), we found the expected celebrations of agave with great tequila and superb mezcal cocktails but were extremely impressed with the dazzling variety of establishments and daring concoctions that this area had to offer. While most of these places were fairly polished and upscale (with a definite dearth of the fiercely independent soulful cult bars of Manhattan’s lower East side), there’s no question that this area is poised to join the upper tier of American drinking cities (NYC, Chicago, Boston, Charleston and DC, with apologies to the cities we haven’t fully toured yet).
We’ll keep updating this list of the Phoenix/Scottsdale bars we visited, with small blurbs here (and links to more in-depth reviews as we add them!).
Bitter & Twisted – Probably Phoenix’s most well known cocktail haven, B&T can do it all – complicated tiki, razor-sharp classics, inspired spins on trashy guilty pleasures and daring originals, all in an entertaining, spacious facility with personable and well trained staff with a real passion for the craft of cocktail culture. It’s great to see this institution bouncing back nicely from the blows of the pandemic. Full review coming soon!
Undertow – Sure, it’s got a goofy over-the-top multimedia nautical theme (proving that you can have full throttle tiki fun without the troublesome cultural issues) but Undertow’s meticulous cocktail constructions are serious business and their rum selection is the best in the area. Undertow is part of the 3-bar cocktail Mecca known as the Century Grand (Undertow, Grey Hen and Platform 18). Full review coming soon!
Jade Bar – On paper, the Jade Bar should be an overpriced, overrated, overly corporate and overly-dumbed down drink program: luxurious resort/spa, uber-swanky bar, stunning views. Instead, it’s a terrific example of how substantial money combined with a true commitment to cocktail excellence ( kudos to “Bar Chef” and author Christiaan Röllich and his expertly trained staff) and a unicorn-stuffed bourbon list can deliver a superb drinking experience. Full review coming soon!
Beverly on Main – Combining all of the trappings of a dark upscale joint with a hilarious cocktail menu that’s equal parts NSFW bawdiness and skillful precision, Beverly on Main is a highly original approach to classy imbibing. Bonus points for the staff’s grace under extreme pressure! Full review coming soon!
Second Story – Sometimes you just want a sturdy, intimate, professional establishment with personal warmth, knowledge and a broad whiskey selection. No shenanigans, no annoying distractions, just smooth, delicious confidence. Full review coming soon!
36 Below – Still showing its DNA as the former site of Undertow, this worthy successor (hidden below a top notch beer / coffee/cocktail joint) is the speakeasiest of speakeasies in the area. Full review coming soon!
Little Rituals – Down the block from the Bitter & Twisted behemoth, this lovely establishment is its perfect bookend. Sophisticated, charming, with a deep appreciation for cocktail history. Full review coming soon!
Killer Whale Sex Club – You won’t see any Orca orgies here but you will get superbly imagined one-of-a-kind creations in a tongue-in-cheek pseudo-dive. Sure, most of the drinks are pre-batched and there’s vintage erotica plastered all over the walls. Just soak in the vibes of one of the snarkiest bars we’ve ever been to … or close your eyes and pretend you’re in the Vatican of booze. Full review coming soon!
Toca Madera – Most agave-themed bars are hole-in-the-wall temples to mezcal and tequila. This one is a gigantic glittery slice of Vegas club culture in the ritziest shopping complex in Arizona. Of course you’d expect a runway of sucrose-soaked margarita mutants, but surprise! There’s a steely respect for the agave spirits that runs through their gorgeously illustrated cocktail menu and their expansive bottle list. Full review coming soon!
Trevor’s Liquor – Trevor’s is really a liquor store, not a straight up bar but it deserves a mention as the best bottle shop in the state with an expertly curated selection of whiskey, agave, and surprisingly, rum!! We’re talking dozens of private barrel picks – look for Elon, the friendly bearded liquor expert to give you some great sample tastes of their wares. Oh, and they DO have a cool beer/wine setup with inside & outside seating and a fun ever-changing food truck supplying the eats.
The Grey Hen – Lavishly retro, the apothecary-style Grey Hen boasts the best whiskey bar in town: an astonishing cornucopia of exclusive private picks, an impressive collection of rare unicorns and reasonable prices that we can’t believe aren’t typos. But don’t forget the cocktails, rendered enthusiastically with almost-scientific precision and analysis. Another winner from the Century Grand experience. Full review coming soon!
BItters Bar and Food – A bit of a head scratcher. Fantastic drink-centric building, smartly designed cocktail offerings, solid bottle list, nice food bites … all of the right building blocks, but we got dramatically inconsistent results both nights we went there. You can definitely get a good drink here, just know it might take two attempts!
Hula’s Modern Tiki – There are essentially two kinds of tiki bars: The first are passion plays on the wonders of rum where obsessive enthusiasts dive deep into history to inspire their meticulous creations … the second are clubby party-time theme parks where the drinks might have the right names but lacking the blood, sweat and tears it takes to deliver a legitimate tiki drink. Hula’s is the latter – fine for a fun time, just not for awesome tiki.
Buck & Rider – this buzzy bistro is known for the stellar seafood but cocktail junkies will groove on the carefully selected drinks list. You may recognize the cocktails from this restaurant group’s other locations … but given the quality of the recipes and the crisp execution, that’s a good thing!
AZ/88 – Tough to find, but worth it. The space feels like a museum gallery (whiteness and artwork abound) and the cocktail menu is suspiciously long but in the glass AZ/88 really delivers,, whether it’s a guilty pleasure or a solid classic you’re seeking. Full review coming soon!
The Blue Hound – There’s a definite place for large, solid, attractively appointed bars in shopping complexes that do the basics right and take just enough chances to occasionally surprise you. The Blue Hound won’t blow you away with boozy epiphanies but it’ll be a loyal companion when you need a reliable tipple.