As recently as a decade ago, opening a cocktail bar in Phoenix was a tough sell. Just ask Ross Simon, who tried to do just that starting in 2005, only to hear that the idea was too complicated.
The co-owner of Bitter & Twisted Cocktail Parlour and Little Rituals and co-founder of Arizona Cocktail Weekend didn’t take no for an answer. He’s considered by many to be a trailblazer of the local cocktail scene, which is now consistently recognized as among the best in the country and the world.
“What’s impacted Arizona’s cocktail culture the most has been the creation and the long standing tenure of Arizona Cocktail Week,” said Jason Asher of Barter & Shake — the company behind Sunny’s Lounge and Century Grand, which was named best cocktail bar in the U.S. at the July 2023 Spirited Awards. “It is the most pivotal thing that Ross introduced to Phoenix. It’s his brainchild and he’s the one who’s carried that torch burning brightly for years. That’s been a catalyst for a lot of recognition and change as it’s the one thing that brings in the right people and the talent we need to see in this town.”
Phoenix’s cocktail scene is no stranger to national attention. In addition to the Century Grand Tails of the Cocktail win, earlier this year Bitter & Twisted received two top 10 in the U.S. nominations from Tales of the Cocktail, as did a new Cambodia-inspired bar named KHLA. Bartenders from relative newcomer Garden bar and from Platform 18 were named among the 10 most innovative in the country.
But it all started with Simon opening an unlikely bar in an unlikely downtown area that wasn’t known for it’s nightlife.
“It wasn’t luck or circumstance,” said Simon, who came to Phoenix with a plan.
Bringing the cocktail renaissance to Phoenix
Originally from Scotland, Simon moved to London in 1999 and worked at London Academy of Bartenders, also called LAB cocktail bar, from 2000 to 2005.
“They were really pushing the boundaries of what a cocktail bar was,” Simon said, explaining that LAB was using fresh fruit and purees at a time when no one else was going beyond mixes.
According to Delcan McGurk, the former director of bars at Savoy and current vice president of the United Kingdom Bartenders Guild, independent craft cocktail bars like LAB began cropping up in London in the 1990s. Prior to that, good bars were associated with restaurants or hotels.
“Back then, bartenders didn’t open bars, but with the opening of Milk & Honey and LAB, things started to change. These were bartender-owned bars and I’d travel from Leeds to see the bars and their high profile bartenders,” said McGurk, adding that to work at LAB, a bartender had to know hundreds of cocktails by heart, be fast and know how to put on a show. “One of those was Ross and he really stood out.”
One of the reasons, he said, was Simon’s thick Scottish accent.
“What Ross offered was this huge presence,” McGurk said. “I traveled to London for two bartenders and one of them was Ross. These were the front men who put the bar on the map.”
Simon arrived in Phoenix with the intention of opening a bar in 2005, at the beginning of what The Oxford Companion to Spirits and Cocktails calls the cocktail renaissance, a period spanning 2004 to 2019, during which classic American drinks and sophisticated cocktails reappeared on menus with a touch of modern creativity.
The same source points to three elements that catalyzed this renaissance: the culinary revolution of 1970s, which eventually led to gourmet consumers favoring fresh ingredients over processed foods; the rise of craft beer industry, which created a competition among brewers and gave permission to customers to demand better quality products across the board and the internet, which allowed people to share recipes and ideas.
Old-Fashioneds and Manhattans began to replace Long Island Iced Teas and Mudslides as bartenders began to treat their craft with a chef-like approach, many referring to themselves as “mixologists” and opening bars where they could put creativity and quality front and center.
Whereas most craft bartenders moved to bigger American cities, like New York, Las Vegas or San Francisco to open bars, Simon decided to move to Phoenix because it wasn’t as saturated with bars.
“I was either smart or a complete idiot,” he said, adding that he was drawn to the city’s design history from adobe style to Frank LLoyd Wright and glimmers of modern design within hotels and restaurants.
“I just really loved Phoenix. I thought there was great attention to detail and aesthetics, but it didn’t really have a cocktail culture at that time,” he said. “That’s what I wanted to come here and change.” For example, he remembered Drift Tiki Bar in Old Town Scottsdale having elaborate engravings on the door handle, but no fresh lime. Experiences like that made him realized how much room there was to improving cocktail and cocktail bars.
“Ross was way ahead of the curve,” said Kim Haasarud, owner of Garden Bar PHX and former national president of the United States Bartenders’ Guild. “Ross was a part of reviving the cocktail scene and paving the way for the cocktail culture in Arizona. When he came here, he literally had no money. It takes some balls to want to open something that nobody understood and to have such perseverance.”
Phoenix wasn’t ready for a cocktail renaissance when Simon arrived
“When I moved here, I knocked on the door of a 1,000 investors,” he said. “But every one of them found the idea too complicated.”
Simon had to take a step back and “establish the culture” before he could get a penny.
He cofounded the Phoenix Chapter of the United States Bartender’s Guild, an organization with the goal of “uniting and elevating the bar industry through education, community, and advocacy.” He also founded Arizona Cocktail Weekend as a way to bring industry people and cocktail enthusiasts together. The first event debuted in 2012.
He ran the event and worked as Brand Ambassador for Sagatiba, helping to educate bartenders and clientele, all the while further developing a business plan for a re-envisioned London cocktail bar. “But I changed it for every venue we looked at,” he laughed.
One of those venues was the Luhrs building.
Simon opened a first-of-its-kind cocktail bar in downtown Phoenix
Established in 1924, the building had housed Arizona’s Prohibition Headquarters, a delightfully ironic twist. And when the opportunity to rent the space presented itself, Simon said it felt like serendipity.
“I loved downtown and I wanted to create a bar that looked like it had been here for decades, but that we just built.”
Owner Rajan Hansji had been one of the initial investors who Simon had pitched in 2005.
Hansji was impressed by his tenacity, and seven years after rejecting his first proposal, he agreed to back him.
“You can’t get discouraged when someone says no,” Simon said.
They worked together to bring Simon’s vision to life, utilizing the architecture of the building, and adding 100-year-old brick from Chicago for the interior along with warm wood touches.
Bitter & Twisted opened in May, 2014.
The name is a double entendre, referring both to a phrase Simon said is popular in Scotland that means being upset at the unfairness of the world, and also as a reference to the bitters and twists of lemon in cocktails.
Bitter & Twisted ushered in the era of the craft cocktail bar in Phoenix
In the tradition of LAB, Simon still requires his bartenders at Bitter & Twisted to know all the cocktails by heart.
According to Simon, there are between 60 to 80 beverages on the menu. He explained the massive menu was a strategic move. Rather than creating a menu for a niche market, the goal was to open up a world of cocktails to both cocktail lovers and people who had no experience with them or had a bad experience in the past.
“We don’t do gimmicks for gimmicks’ sake and we don’t advertise what we do,” Simon said.
Bitter and Twisted is a place where bartenders take drinks seriously, using the best ingredients, filtered water and hand-cut ice, but where guests are invited to take a lighthearted approach and just explore and enjoy the finished product.
“If you want something boozy, we’ve got you,” he said. “If you want something light and refreshing, we’ve got you. If you are into pushing the boundaries, we’ve got something for that.”
What’s in the Book o’ Cocktails at Bitter & Twisted?
The Book o’ Cocktails, as Simon calls the menu, has pages of options divided into sections like the Bitter Hall of Fame, which starts with La Chocolat Sazerac made with rye whiskey, a touch of crème de cacao, Peychaud and Aztec bitters served in an absinthe-rinsed, frozen rocks glass.
From Mixing Under the Influence, the Writer’s Bloc blends Zubrowka vodka, Ramazzotti Aperitivo Rosato and Manzanilla sherry plus vanilla and rhubarb.
Shot O’clock offers options such as Becherovka, an herbal liqueur with clove, cinnamon and ginger that’s crafted using a recipe that dates back to 1794.
If it’s negroni you’re looking for, Bitter & Twisted has an entire section dedicated to them, offering six different variations.
The bar balances offering classic and experimental drinks. But Simon’s signature is a modern classic.
“Porn Star Martini’s spiritual home in the U.S. is Bitter & Twisted,” Simon said. “This drink is very close to my heart.”
Originally created by the late Douglas Ankrah, the drink is a combination of house-infused vanilla Grey Goose vodka with Passoã passion fruit liqueur and fresh passion fruit served with a side of bubbles.
Cocktail prices range from $9 to $16.
In addition to the cocktails, the bar has a large reserve spirit list with rare selections of tequila, vodka, gin and two columns dedicated to whiskey.
Food is also important to Simon, as he’s a proponent of drinking better, not more.
After the pandemic caused hiring challenges, Simon pivoted from running his own kitchen to partnering with local restaurants and pop-ups that have included Gemini Pizza and Breadfruit & Rum Bar.
However, in September, Simon reopened the Bitter & Twisted kitchen, working with Bob Tam, his business partner and former executive chef, to bring back some of the bar’s original offerings, including a dumpling burger and Korean nachos.
Simon may not be ‘changing the world,’ but he’s definitely making Phoenix’s cocktail scene better
Simon has come a long way from serving cocktails at LAB, where he served Declan McGurk, who called him, “pure cocktail royalty.”
“Ross is an icon of London scene and what I love about Ross was he didn’t get lost in the ego of making his own cocktails, but he was a bartender serving the guests. I got nothing short of brilliance in that bar,” said McGurk.
Since opening Bitter & Twisted, he’s gone on to develop menus for Lylo Swim Club and Don Woods’ Say When, opened the much lauded Little Rituals bar and to develop more sustainable cocktail mixes and accessories, such as Stabyl citrus replacement and bamboo straws. And he continues to foster the next generation of mixologists through programs like Arizona Cocktail Weekend.
Despite the challenges over the years, Simon said his bar remains the second most important thing in his life. The first is his wife.
“The best part about owning a bar is seeing the smile we put on people’s faces,” Simon said. “Maybe we are not changing the world, but we are at least making the guests’ day possibly better than when they walked in the door.”
Cheers to that.
Details: 1 W. Jefferson St., Phoenix. 602-340-1924, bitterandtwistedaz.com.
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