Best Bartender 2023 | Aspen Bingham | Nightlife | Phoenix
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Tirion Boan

When visiting Garden Bar, one of downtown Phoenix's most picturesque and pleasant spots to grab a cocktail, you'll often find Aspen Bingham behind the bar. As she shakes and stirs drinks and chats to customers, her deep level of expertise could be easy to overlook. But a quiet confidence hints that she is quite comfortable at crafting complex cocktails. In February, she was a top 10 finalist for Bombay Sapphire's Most Imaginative Bartender competition, presented by the Tales of the Cocktail Foundation. The contest included 250 bartenders from the U.S. and Canada. For her entry, Bingham married her two passions, mixology and sustainability, to create a drink that represented the heat island effect that traps hot air in large cities like Phoenix. She also spoke on a panel at Tales of the Cocktail discussing food sovereignty and has created cocktails for benefit events such as one that protects bees. Her level of thoughtfulness certainly affects her bartending, where she takes mixology from the art of drink-making to something that is intentional and pushes boundaries, inspiring people to think as they sip.

There's something cool at The Pemberton around every corner. The historic home turned gathering place in Downtown Phoenix has a wealth of bars in trailers, shops in trailers and food stands scattered on the property, plus a few boutiques inside the house. You can shop for crystals at Black Amethyst, sip a cocktail from Baby Boy and grab a slice at Pie-Curious Pizza in one evening. There's plenty of art to look at on the grounds and lots of places to sit. Whether it's our destination for the night or just a good place to start, we always make time for The Pemberton.

Luigi Richie

Growing up in the Midwest, we spent a fair amount of our childhood hanging out in someone's basement. When the nostalgia hits too hard and we need to recapture the feeling of being up to no good in a subterranean rec room, we make a beeline for Arcadia's The Little Woody. The main room of the bar is dark but fairly chic (we love the lit-up bar), but when you explore further, that's when you go back in time. Wood paneling, beer mirrors, velvet paintings of sad clowns, trophies, the exact same floral-print armchair your grandparents had back in 1985 — it's all at The Little Woody, plus games like billiards and Skee-Ball, tasty bar eats and a convivial atmosphere.

It may be the only full-service official bar on a higher education campus in the Valley, but The Pub at Thunderbird still has a lot going on to win this category. For starters, there's no signage in the building's lobby nor in the elevator telling you to go to the fifth floor. And when the doors open, the sounds of enthusiastic mingling and laughter serve as the only directions to this downtown Phoenix watering hole. All of this gives off an unexpected speakeasy vibe. Inside, there's something for everyone with a full bar that features libations from alumni, an impressive food menu that reflects international flair, shuffleboard and a bevy of flatscreens to catch every game. A rooftop bar flaunts the city skyline and the weekly Pub Night on Thursdays is where you can see students and professors hanging out over sips, bites and live music long after the sun goes down. The pub is closed on the weekends but is open to the public — a fact that flies under the radar beyond the boundaries of this campus and neighboring ASU Law School.

Tirion Boan

Do you have a friend who won't stop talking about everything they learned after watching the mixology competition show "Drink Masters" on Netflix? This is the bar for that friend. The cocktail's sparse descriptions read almost like a grocery list. Cool Your Jets is a mix of cantaloupe, vanilla Greek yogurt, green tea, mint, agricole and Grey Goose. Yet, after being clarified, the arrestingly clear, golden-hued cocktail that arrives, with a single oversized ice cube balancing a shard of vanilla meringue, is both maddeningly simple and complex. For all of the time and technique that goes into each sip, there's a welcome lack of pretentiousness at Pour Bastards. The bar staff is as stoked to pour you a beer or help you pick a natural wine as they are to walk through their cocktail crafting process. There's even a book you can peruse to see all that went into your tipple. Upon realizing the sheer work that goes into each drink, the bar's name seems quite apropos, but we're grateful the team invested the time.

Jeff Zaruba

Metro Phoenix is home to some great views, and occasionally, some truly astounding sunsets. In our opinion, the bold hues of an evening sky are best enjoyed with a cocktail in hand, preferably at Skysill Rooftop Lounge, the bar atop The Westin Tempe near Mill Avenue. Skysill serves mostly elevated bar food (think a lobster corn dog and chicken-and-waffle sliders), plus fun cocktails along with a full bar. We recommend the Sky's the Limit, a sweet, fruity mix of Hanson's organic vodka, blue curacao, pineapple, guava and lime. Skysill hosts events like pool parties and DJ nights, but honestly, we like being there best on a quiet evening when the clink of glasses and the faint sounds of the city below are the only accompaniments of another perfect Arizona sunset.

Benjamin Leatherman

Entering Valley Bar through a back alley and down a deep flight of stairs adds a sense of intrigue and excitement to every trip to this hotspot, whether to meet a friend for a well-crafted cocktail, catch a band, partake in a trivia match or see a group of storytellers entertain a crowd. The Music Hall is the side of the bar where live music, dance parties and performance events happen. It is intimate, holding about 250 people, and when fans fill the room to see a favorite band, it ups that cozy vibe, squeezing everyone together in a sonic fervor that intensifies the entire experience. A mobile telling the story of notorious Phoenix murderer Winnie Ruth Judd anchors the main part of the bar called the Rose Room, which also holds a pool table, Skee-Ball and a few intimate booths. Next time you're looking for a fun night out at a bar, we recommend you head underground.

Tirion Boan

You spot the sidestreet with the single red light shining above a descending staircase and a queue of people and think the mystery of how to enter this downtown Gilbert speakeasy is solved. But that's not actually when the puzzle of how to get into The White Rabbit begins. It starts sooner as knowledge of the monthly password — available on the website — is non-negotiable to even earn a place in line. One of the must-stops in the Heritage District nightlife scene, The White Rabbit speakeasy requires a bit of a hunt down a dark path and an apparent dead end at a bookcase. Once you figure out that the bookcase is a well-disguised door and how to open it, your journey is rewarded with a Victorian era-inspired space that's dark and elegant with an atmosphere that makes you feel like you've discovered a secret VIP club you may not qualify to be in. A sophisticated handcrafted cocktail menu boasts high-end spirits, private labels made exclusively for the bar and original concoctions crafted with house-made mixers and syrups. An exclusive to-go cocktail menu is available should you want to take a taste home.

Speakeasies are where you can feel like you're a part of something special, and Gin and Reel certainly exudes that cool factor when you walk down the stairs and enter a room that feels like you're visiting another era. It's definitely a small space, but comfortable in all the ways that matter. Here's the secret: To gain entry, approach the barista at Stir Coffee (the storefront for the speakeasy) and grab the password to sample the drinks. The cocktails are fun and have interesting flavor profiles. We're partial to the Dream of You, a mix of Tito's, yuzu Japanese liquor, limoncello, lemon, simple syrup and lavender water. Other highlights include the Royal Rascal and the Fit as a Fiddle. Cocktails can be paired with charcuterie boards, pizza or dessert, and or for those who want to ease up on the liquor, wine and beer are also available. On a weekend night, expect the place to be busy, so get your name on the list fast. You can linger during the busy nights, but after two hours at the speakeasy, you'll have to head out and give someone else a turn.

Barter & Shake Cocktail Entertainment

There's not much we can say about Platform 18 that its avalanche of accolades hasn't already expressed. The most recent, and perhaps most important recognition came this summer, when the Tales of the Cocktail Foundation awarded Platform 18 the title of Best U.S. Cocktail Bar at its 17th annual Spirited Awards. One of the concepts (along with UnderTow and Grey Hen Rx) inside the Century Grand space, Platform 18 is a 1920s Pullman train car-inspired craft cocktail bar. Once you're inside the carriage you can find a seat at the bar or at one of the low tables. Screen projections in front of the "windows" make you feel like you're actually traveling by train, which is cool, but you're here for the cocktails, which are intricate, inventive, pricey and unforgettable. We already knew that Barter & Shake, the team behind the concepts in Century Grand, were doing some of the best cocktail work in town. Now, the rest of the country knows it, too.

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