The latest bar from Ross Simon, the “cocktailian” behind the celebrated downtown bars Bitter & Twisted and Little Rituals, Don Woods is located atop the new Rise Hotel in central Phoenix. You can spot it from the parking lot, through the shady awnings and sunny misters, but it takes some work to figure out how to find your way up. When you do locate the elevator, you travel four floors from this world of hot streets and daily news and workaday grind and into another: a leather-boothed, wood-paneled, indoor-outdoor enclave that feels like some dream of midcentury Phoenix rooftop bars past.
A top Phoenix cocktail talent for the better part of a decade, Simon recently partnered on a third project, Lylo Swim Club, a pool bar across the way from Don Woods and part of the same boutique hotel compound. What Lylo is to a swank pool lounge, Don Woods is to a ‘60s-into-‘70s hangout in the sky.
“[It's] a different drink style,” Simon explains of what the bar offers. “A different ambiance to sitting next to the pool, but very complementary.”
Don Woods bears many recurring Simon signatures: helpfully illustrated menus, balanced cocktails, and a touch of his “whimsical as fuck” approach (though it's a bit muted next to the aggressively new drinks at Little Rituals and Bitter & Twisted). There are also micro-signatures, including Simon’s cold-as-a-polar-wind martini and his proclivity for Fords Gin. You slide into a seat, watch as bartenders add lemon sorbet and “magic foam” to frosty drinks, and peek at that enticing menu, which is divided into four categories — classics, remixes, highballs, and spritzes — and lists about 20 specialty cocktails in all.
The spritzes especially are worth a deep dive.
Spritzes are simple drinks. A wine or vermouth. Some bubbles. Maybe some liqueur. Perfected in Italy, the spritz has seen a recent resurgence in the U.S., especially the Aperol spritz. Though so many of the hundreds of liqueurs in Italy and beyond lend themselves to spritzes, our local spritz creativity has been pretty limited.
Not at Don Woods. “Everyone loves a traditional Aperol spritz,” Simon says. “But is that all we can do? No.”
At least two of his spritzes are gems (and maybe more… I haven’t downed them all… yet!). There's the Sicilian, which aligns two liqueurs — vermouth and a Prosecco — to launch you through pleasantly dry red-fruit flavors before a quick, rising, unexpected twirl through candy-adjacent notes, the late roller-coaster move propelled by vanilla. That sounds kind of insane. But this is an insanely good spritz.
Gem number two is the Espana, which travels a completely different vector. This drink is botanical, tropical, and fizzy, resulting in a clean, refreshing cocktail, the target all spritzes aim to bullseye.
Beyond spritzes, highballs are also good drinking. Try the Lime Leaf, a tall gin drink about as summery as the teal pool out the window. Somehow, it's balanced yet perhaps the limiest thing I’ve ever tasted.
Though Simon isn’t involved in day-to-day operations at Don Woods, he’s excited about the bar's future. He envisions a cigar selection so that people can smoke on part of the rooftop. In the eerily imaginative sunset and twilight hours, you can behold a 270-degree view of our desert metropolis, from Camelback to the mushrooming towns sprawling endlessly west.
“It’s a nice little addition to what we do,” Simon says of the place. “I think it’s something very unique for people staying at the hotel as well as the residents nearby.”
To be sure, Don Woods is another quality bar, another cool spot doing things beyond mere craft cocktails, or even mere inventive cocktails. It’s serving well-made original cocktails. Such bars are becoming so common around town that the addition of a new one might not feel revelatory — but some are more vibrant than others, and each new keeper is worth celebrating.
Don Woods' Say When (inside the Rise Uptown Hotel)
400 West Camelback Road, 480-536-8998.
Thursday to Sunday 4 p.m. to midnight; closed Monday to Wednesday.