If you’re a golfer who likes a drink – and is there any other kind? – then pack your bags and your clubs and head for Phoenix in the winter. Not only is the Arizona capital famed for its sunny climate (296 sunny days a year) and its golf courses (almost 250 of them), but its bar scene is currently thriving too, and there’s a Scotsman to thank for it.
Ross Simon was one of the founders of Arizona Cocktail Week, and his cocktail lounge with the wonderful name of Bitter and Twisted is one of the shining examples of the cocktail renaissance in Phoenix. The Speakeasy-style bar is right downtown and has an unusual claim to fame: it’s the only bar in the USA to be housed in a former prohibition office. The Luhrs Building was the first 10-storey building in Arizona, and was the home of the Arizona Prohibition Office. Now its ground floor is home to Bitter and Twisted, a classy collection of Scotch whiskies, and a bartender with a Scottish accent.
Simon only opened the bar in 2014, although it had been ten years in the planning. In the great Scottish tradition of engineers and inventors, Simon designed the bar himself. Originally from South Lanarkshire, he went to the Glasgow College of Building and Printing. This was naturally great training for a life spent hanging out in bars, although in Ross Simon’s case it was behind the bar, not in front of it. So how did he get from Glasgow to Phoenix?
‘It’s a long swim,’ he jokes, ‘and a long story! After college in Glasgow I went to London and began working in bars.’
One of those bars was the famous LAB Bar (London Academy of Bartenders), where Simon moved up through the ranks to become Head Bartender.
‘From London, all my bartending friends went to Vegas and New York,’ he says. ‘I love Vegas but I think if I lived there I’d hate it because it would lose some of its magic. Phoenix was on my radar but back then there were very few decent cocktail bars here.’
‘Back then’ was about ten years ago and Simon, like many others, fell in love with the desert landscape of Arizona, and stayed. The result is that he now owns and runs his own bar, but he is emphatic that he is still a bartender and not a mixologist.
‘To me, being a bartender means offering hospitality and conversation to people, not just an ability to make fancy cocktails. And I regard the people who come into the bar as guests, not customers.’
And are many of those guests from Scotland?
‘More than I expected, that’s for sure. A few of the Scottish gents behind the Caledonian Society of Arizona drop in from time to time, and it’s always a pleasure when a Scottish visitor to Phoenix pops into the bar and I get to catch up on the latest from the auld country. I try and get back to Scotland every few years.’
Behind the bar are gins from Islay and Edinburgh, and naturally a good array of Scottish whiskies.
‘I picked out a small selection of Scotches for the bar,’ he says, ‘but I’ve a couple of shining examples from each region. I do love my Aberlour A’Bunadh just as a great sipper, and I’ve got a couple bottles left of the original award-winning Black Bottle blended whisky from the Burn Stewart Distillers for Islay or blend lovers.
‘We love making all types of cocktails with Scotch and using fresh ingredients that just blend beautifully with them like ginger, honey or vanilla. Being in Arizona you mostly want something a little more refreshing, so something tall with lots of crushed ice, passion fruit, lime and a touch of Campari works tremendously well with the Scotch too.’
Since Ross opened Bitter and Twisted the bar has won various awards including Best Cocktail Bar, Best Cocktail Menu and, for Ross himself, Master Mixologist 2015.
Another bar that’s equally awarded and equally innovative is The Last Drop at the historic Hermosa Inn in Phoenix’s Paradise Valley. Bartender Travis Nass is another Arizona immigrant, though from Colorado rather than South Lanarkshire.
Best Cocktail Program 2014 is just one of the awards hanging behind Travis’s bar, and he has also been inducted into the Arizona Culinary Hall of Fame. So what’s he doing that’s so special?
‘Nothing,’ he says modestly, for despite his often flamboyant appearance Travis is a thoughtful and quietly-spoken man. ‘I don’t think there’s anything I can do with cocktails that hasn’t been done before. We use fresh ingredients, local produce bought from local vendors, seasonal produce. We use as much as we can from the hotel’s own organic garden, like the raspberries from our garden in our Raspberry Mule Mocktail.’
The Raspberry Mule was voted Best Mocktail in Phoenix.
‘We only have a small bar so my aim is to have the best collection of spirits in the smallest number of bottles. Our motto here is that we give you the best-tasting ingredients we can, whether we produce it or buy it,’ says Travis, who lives and breathes cocktails.
‘I don’t have hobbies so, when I’m not making cocktails, I’m at home reading about them, drinking them, experimenting with them.’
But he does get to travel, and thinks the Phoenix cocktail scene is as good as anywhere in the USA right now.
‘I’m lucky enough to be able to travel a lot with my work,’ says Nass, ‘and I can honestly say I haven’t seen anything anywhere the way it’s going on here. The Phoenix cocktail scene is going through a great time. It was a slow build for a while because of the economy but in the last four years or so people have really been getting on board with craft cocktails.’
One of Travis’s own signature – and best – cocktails, is one he created called El Ultimo.
‘For me,’ he says, ‘El Ultimo is the desert in a glass. It smells like the desert after a rainstorm. I use the Mexican spirit, sotol, which comes from Chihuahua. It’s less well-known than tequila, which comes from Jalisco, or mezcal, which comes mainly from Oaxaca. Instead of using the blue agave, as they do for tequila, or the maguey, which is another agave they use for mezcal, sotol is made from the desert spoon cactus. Ultimo has a bit of a tobacco taste to it as well. We also use our own chipotle spirit in El Ultimo. I make my own chipotle vodka as well.
‘Our most popular drinks are the Hermosa Mule and the Mezcal Mango Madness. Something you see more of in Phoenix is spicy drinks. The Mezcal Mango Madness has a bright red Fresno chili in it, which not only adds to the taste it looks good too. The Spiced Fig is another of my favourites. That’s Yamazaki 12-year-old whiskey, ancho reyes, fig-infused balsamic vinegar, and garnished with grapefruit.’
I ask Travis to recommend some of the best bars in Phoenix, and he rattles off a bunch of names from dive bars to swish resort bars (see list). Naturally it includes Bitter and Twisted. You can’t keep a good Scotsman down, and of course Ross Simon has other plans now that his cocktail lounge is off the ground.
‘I have my eye on the building next door,’ he says. ‘It features in the opening credits of Psycho. I want to open a bar there and call it Hitchcock’s.’
WHERE TO STAY
Travel Distilled stayed at the wonderful Hermosa Inn.
PHOENIX’S BEST BARS
As recommended by Travis Nass
Breadfruit boasts the best rum collection in Arizona, including rums from Jamaica, Antigua, Guatemala, Guyana, Venezuela, Martinique, Nicaragua… and even Tennessee.
Citizen Public House
The Citizen has been making barrel-aged cocktails for several years, and favorites include a much-praised Sea Salt Barrel-Aged Negroni and the Fernet-chu Picchu, which includes barrel-aged Pisco Portón.
The restaurant fuses Italian, Mexican and American Southwest cuisine, and as well as their old-time cocktails they have innovative creations like the One (Upon a) Time which combines pisco pineapple cordial, hand-infused Lillet, and coca leaves – and is limited to one per customer per visit.
The Gladly has Negronis on tap, does a Thai Margarita, and has over 230 whiskies at the bar.
jade bar at The Sanctuary Resort
Has one of the best views of any bar in Phoenix.
‘Shady’s is a bit of a dive bar but they make a decent cocktail. It’s a good place to go if you don’t feel like being fancy,’ says Travis Nass.
Here cocktails are numbered rather than named. Shout for a 19 and you’ll get Thai tea-infused rum, Smith & Cross Navy Strength Rum, house almond orgeat syrup, and fresh lime. Not bad for a neighborhood bar.