From February 13 to 21, the state’s leading libation celebration hits the Valley. Here’s a taste of the fun to come.
Several years ago, when Kim Haasarud was jiggering recipes for one of her eight cocktail books and Ross Simon was concocting Bitter & Twisted Cocktail Parlour, they hatched a crazy idea. Why couldn’t Phoenix have a cocktail festival like spirit-centric NOLA and London? Never mind that Simon was still reassuring Phoenicians that a Negroni isn’t racist. The consultants joined forces with Damon Scott (who’d opened bars and choreographed events), brought on beverage experts Layla Linn and Tony Giordano, and launched Arizona Cocktail Week in 2011. Since then the drink-a-thon, headquartered at the Hotel Valley Ho, has become higher-octane, muddling together the nation’s top bartenders and liquor brand ambassadors. This year, the boozy bash boasts its most exciting lineup yet, with cocktailgating, classes, carnivalesque quaffing and a totally legit bar fight.
How would you describe the spirit of Arizona Cocktail Week?
Ross Simon: Intimate. You’re squeezing lime juice next to Dale DeGroff [founding father of the modern mixology movement]. You don’t get to do that at these larger events. You don’t get to have that personal connection with these great speakers or industry giants.
Kim Haasarud: It’s a warm and friendly environment. We have a strong educational side, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously. It’s cocktails; it’s supposed to be fun. You go to some festivals and you’ve got multiple things happening at the same time. We didn’t want to cannibalize one event over the other. So we took a hard look at structuring our programming so you’re able to see most everything.
When did your love affair with cocktails begin?
Haasarud: I was bartending back in the ’90s when you were using sour mix out of a gun. One of the first cocktails I made was a Funky Cold Medina. Then I had a Hemingway Daiquiri, and I thought, “Wow, that is what a great drink should taste like.” It took off from there. I was one of those geeky bartenders that when someone would say, “Make me a summer cloud on a New York day,” I would be like, “OK.”
Damon Scott: Even as a child I was very infatuated with this world. I’ve worked in every facet of the business, from big nightclubs to restaurants, but the common thread is that for me, cocktails have always been a common denominator between people. All types, all socioeconomic levels – everybody likes a cocktail. It’s a great equalizer.
Simon: I was running a bar in London and I was like, “What can I do next? What can I learn?” So I went to the LAB, which is this tiny cocktail bar in London, and I saw these guys making drinks in a fun, flamboyant, crazy atmosphere. I tried a drink which had fresh passion fruit juice in it, and it was like a lightbulb went off: There’s drinks, and then there’s really great drinks that can really change your day. That was the moment I said, “This is what I want to do.”
Cocktail Carnival (Sat., Feb. 13)
This signature soirée serves up liquor with a lemon twist of creativity. You might find intoxicating cotton candy and caramel corn, or an Alice in Wonderland pop-up pouring “Drink Me” potions. Dozens of bartenders from across the country mix cocktails around the Ho’s OH pool, while brand ambassadors serve high-end spirits in surrounding suites.
Top Bars (Sun., Feb. 14)
Mixologists from the most hallowed cocktail temples in the country make a pilgrimage to the Ho’s ballroom to shake up sublime samples. Last year, the congregation of award-winning bars was led by high priests Dead Rabbit and Employees Only of New York – the second and fourth best bars in the world. “There were 48 different cocktails being served last year, and I don’t think anybody got through all 48,” Scott says. “This year the list is even longer.”
Educational Seminars (Sat., Feb. 13 - Sun., Feb. 14; see website for additional dates and times)
New this year, spirit savants will help imbibers boost their home mixology games, absorb the history of bourbon and bluegrass, hone their tasting skills, and more. “We’ve got so much talent coming,” says Simon, not quite name-dropping the two biggest barons of rum and several maestros of mescal and tequila.
Cocktailgating Festival (Sat., Feb. 13 - Mon., Feb. 15)
The Jack Daniels Experience (a semi-trailer turned distillery and bar), pop-up pubs from Guinness and George Dickel whisky, food trucks and more will all wash up on the Sands parking lot for three days of demos, sampling and games.
Artisanal Market (Mon., Feb. 15)
“It’s akin to a farmers’ market, but all beverage-centric,” Haasarud says. Visitors can sample spirits, chat with distillers, and peruse locally made cocktail-companion products like artisanal salts and sugars.
Last Slinger Standing (Mon., Feb. 15)
March Madness meets Iron Chef with a shot of The X Factor in this fast-paced smackdown between chapters of the United States Bartenders’ Guild. “You’re only as good as the last drink you make for this panel of amazing judges,” says Simon, who’s emceeing the bar fight at The Yard in Tempe. “There’s gonna be tears; there’s gonna be screams of joy.”
Storytelling Dinner (Sun., Feb. 14)
Celebrants at this Valentine’s Day charity event will sit under the stars on the Valley Ho rooftop, dining on a four-course, cocktail-paired meal from a mixologist and four local chefs who’ll tell cocktail tales. Proceeds go to Careers through the Culinary Arts Program, which prepares underserved students for the hospitality industry.
After Presidents’ Day weekend, Cocktail Week makes a splash at scores of restaurants Valleywide. Look for cocktail dinners and $10 “Paint the Town Red” deals that might include a cocktail and a bite or two mini-libations. The event culminates with a Last Call party in Tucson.
This year, Arizona Cocktail Week debuts an app that will help you create a schedule and compile a list of your favorite spirits as you sample them. Also keep an eye out on social media and ACW’s calendar for last-minute Random Acts of Cocktail Kindness (RACK events) like “Bloody Marys in suite 116 from 1 to 2 p.m.!”
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