It seems the past week in Phoenix craft cocktailing has been consumed with word of Ross Simon's new bar, Bitter & Twisted. We don't see that changing anytime soon, either. The venture, largely a labor of love and determination, is about 10 years in the making. The cocktail menu is literally a book that is available for purchase. It can be overwhelming at first, but maybe this place is exactly what Phoenix needs.
It's difficult to know where to start talking about all the ways Bitter & Twisted distinguishes itself from other bars in town. Do you talk about the specialty ice system or do you go back to the water-filtration system that ensures only pure mineral water makes its way into water glasses and the ice itself?
It's probably best to go back to Scotland, where Simon grew up and got his start as a busboy, then barista, then bartender. Simon later moved to London to bar-back in the city's famous three-story Lab Bar. After working there, he decided he wanted to start his own cocktail bar stateside. He knew he didn't want to open in New York or L.A., as both scenes already had experienced a resurgence of cocktail culture.
While helping to start up both Arizona Cocktail Week and Phoenix's chapter of the U.S. Bartenders' Guild, Simon had his sights set on the Luhrs Building for about five years, though he originally planned to open in the building's basement.
Now Simon has his "world class cocktail bar" in a prime street-level portion of the Luhrs Building, which was once home to the Prohibition office in the 1920s and now houses one of the Valley's only bars that can sell bottles of booze (but not cocktails yet) to go. However, it's all definitely been a process.
"People say when you're doing a project like this that 100 doors will shut in your face," Simon says. "I think I had near 1,000."
His commitment, perseverance, and a clear business plan was such those hurdles didn't stop him from opening the bar he always wanted. From sous vide infused vodkas to the handmade lime cordial a la Rose's sweet lime syrup, Simon also shows playfulness and an inventive, almost scientific, approach to mixology. Having a giant liquor selection isn't his goal, rather, he hopes to make the most out of a more limited list that will be complimented by fresh ingredients.
For gear heads, the bar is fully-customized and state-of-the-art--basically a geeky bartender's dream. Outfitted with CO2 wands that can carbonate any cocktail and multiple wells and freezers to keep the different types of ice and glassware separated, the equipment is all serious business.
For customers, though, Simon offers both "world-focused" cocktails and small plates.
"Most bars in town are just a great bar inside of a restaurant," he explains. "Bitter and Twisted is a bar that happens to have great food."
The food, executed by chef Bob Tam, includes some stellar charred cuttlefish over glass noodles and the bar's take on chips, which come loaded with horseradish crema, smoked red pepper sauce, salsa verde, avocado, and twisted chili sauce. Tam's love of Asian street food shines through, though he says he also wanted the menu to be comforting, but with a twist.
"I wanted to make sure each drink and each dish were a home run," Simon says.
That in itself is a feat when you consider that the cocktail menu alone is 24 pages. While Simon ensures his bar is capable of mixing up pretty much any cocktail you can call out, his menu is designed with care to guide drinkers to the cocktail that best suits them at the time.
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With a color-coded scatterplot to help decipher every cocktail's ingredients and an illustration of the glass that corresponds with any given drink, the menu, which could be very overwhelming in size, is more manageable. However, even that extensive menu will change annually, while being complimented by feature boards to show off limited-time specialty drinks.
While Simon's goal is to create a neighborhood bar, capable of doing high volume while ensuring craft quality, he candidly admits when asked that he thinks this bar is going to be the bar the gets Phoenix's oft-snubbed bar scene recognized, maybe even earning a win from Tales of the Cocktail's Spirited Awards.
"It's amazing what's happening in Phoenix right now," he says. "I am humbled to be a part of it."