If Tucson is getting a name for its craft cocktails, it’s largely due to the talent of these guys – a group of bartenders that is tribal, close-knit and supportive. Gabby Ferreira and Kaleigh Shufeldt spent time behind bars. Plus: an exclusive look at Tucson’s newest bar, Sidecar, opening this month. Cover photo courtesy of Zocalo Magazine
Just west of the downtown area, tucked inside the courtyard in a whitewashed, Spanish-style building, is Agustin Kitchen. It’s late afternoon and the restaurant and bar – a critics’ darling since chef Ryan Clark took over – is all but empty. Bartenders chop fruits and vegetables, even a ginger root, in preparation for the busy night ahead.
Two men in particular move in concert. Ciaran Wiese and Garrett Steffgen have known each other since their high school days in Tucson. In fact, Garrett helped Ciaran get the job at Agustin after Ciaran moved back here from Portland last year.
“It’s a chill sibling rivalry. It’s definitely not cutthroat,” says Garrett. It’s far from cutthroat, in fact. These young bartenders who, collectively, are making Tucson a go-to place for craft cocktails, are a close-knit and supportive group. There’s healthy competition among these twenty- and early thirtysomethings, but also camaraderie. Not only do these guys know each other, they drink together, visit each other’s bars, and share recipes. This is more than just a scene, it’s a family.
Tucson High School may not have bartending among its elective classes or internships, but it has produced a number of Tucson’s best. Ciaran, Garrett, and Alex Arnold met there, although they were in different years. “Garrett taught me a lot of what I know,” says Alex, enjoying a sandwich after his bartending shift at Wilko. Garrett worked at Wilko before Agustin Kitchen, and helped Alex land his job at Wilko. After traveling and working in New York, Mexico, and Guatemala, Alex “wound up back here,” and doesn’t plan on leaving Tucson anytime soon.
Ciaran has been hitting the cocktail headlines for years, particularly during his time behind the bar at Scott & Co, a tucked-away place on Scott Street in Tucson’s downtown area. The New York Times, CNN and Food and Wine are among those that have featured Ciaran,
who has been tipped as one of the nation’s top ten mixologists to watch. Ciaran got his start in New York. After some time here at Scott & Co, he left for for Portland, Oregon (and this city’s cocktail lovers mourned). But it didn’t last long; he returned to Tucson because he wanted to bring “this kind of bartending” to his hometown. Ciaran is buying a house here, and is making plans to open a bar of his own here downtown. “Tucson’s my hometown, Tucson’s my place,” he says.
Among the people Ciaran has mentored in Tucson is Bryan Eichhorst, the mixologist at Penca. The two used to work together at Scott & Co, where Bryan first learned how to refine his craft. Bryan laughs as he tells of the worst drink he ever made. After he knew how to make everything on the menu, Ciaran gave him one hour to go back to the kitchen and come up with an original drink. “For some reason, I thought potato syrup was a good idea,” says Bryan, at 23 the self-described baby of the group. According to him, his concoction looked and tasted like gravy. While it was not his finest moment, he says that Ciaran still offered encouragement. “He said, ‘Well, you made something on your own’,” says Bryan.
“Everyone’s like a big family,” says David Clark, the vice president of the local chapter of the United States Bartenders Guild and mixologist at Hotel Congress. David has been at Congress for nine years; he also plays saxophone in a local band. The bartending scene is similar to the music scene, says David – full of healthy competition. David is another bartender grad of Tucson High. It was there he first met Aaron DeFeo, president of the USBG’s local chapter and mixologist at PY Steakhouse at Casino del Sol. Aaron used to be the bar manager at Hotel Congress before leaving for the casino; he was poached by mixologist Tony Abou-Gamin, who helped open the cocktail program at the Bellagio in Las Vegas.
But while almost 15 miles separate Aaron from his downtown Tucson peers, he still lives in central Tucson. “Downtown has a special place in my heart,” he says.
Just down the street from Hotel Congress, Erik Evans bartends at Scott & Co. Erik grew up in Tucson and started his bartending career at Bob Dobb’s bar on Sixth Street, where he learned the craft on the job. After Ciaran left for his year in Portland, Erik applied for the job at Scott & Co.
Why do they all love bartending so much? Silly question, really. Says Erik: “You basically get to throw a party every single night.”
David Clark at Hotel Congress loves it when his customers say, “Make me something.” Like many bartenders, he loves to get to know and be tested by his customers. “I enjoy making things based on what people like,” he says.
“Every subset of customers have different preferences,” says Aaron DeFeo, adding that his worst mistake is not correctly reading the crowd. “We know the drink is good, but at the end of the day it’s always about the customer.” His biggest challenge: creating a product that appeals universally.
The term ‘craft cocktail’ was coined to describe drinks with homemade ingredients and high-end liquor. Juices are freshly squeezed, fresh fruits and herbs are abundant, and bottled juices are frowned upon.
Alex says that he and Garrett have a tradition of mixing cocktails out of “whatever is in the house” at the end of the night. “We just make up the most ridiculous cocktails that you can imagine.” He adds: “It’s not about always doing the weirdest, most interesting thing, it’s about making the customer happy. You can make the most interesting, creative cocktails in the world.” But sometimes only a fellow bartender will appreciate the artistry behind it.
Bryan Eichhorst describes his chosen career as a mix of “drinking culture and nerd culture.” The lads spend all day talking about drinks and working with drinks, and they learn everything there is to know about them – just like any other nerd. The cocktails they make aren’t as simple as a gin and tonic; they involve a variety of nuanced flavors, and Tucsonans are said to lap it up – willing to try new tastes and combos.
Interestingly enough, Ciaran was in New York for culinary school when he got into bartending and mixology. Ciaran says he likes creating new recipes but wanted to interact with guests. Bartending was the perfect mix. While Ciaran is a self-described foodie, not all of the bartenders are. They all say, however, that making a good cocktail is a lot like cooking; you have to balance everything.
“I love being attached to a kitchen,” says David, who likes being able to talk to the cooks about different flavors. He says that the culinary aspect really drives the craft cocktail culture.
Much of the craft is trial and error. Aaron often researches cocktails on the Internet and works from there. “I still use the Internet everyday,” he says, perfecting the recipes he finds and forging ahead on his own once he has found something worth trying.
Little black books may have a notorious image, but among our bartenders, they’re crucial. These guys use them to collect recipes and ideas, not phone numbers. Erik’s books – yes, plural – are full of new recipes that he is “playing with.”
Whoever said you shouldn’t mix work with play? For these guys, it’s impossible not to. They’re usually seen drinking at places like Che’s Lounge on 4th Avenue. And their own drink orders are simple: a shot of hard liquor and a beer. ‘I make these wonderful, glorious cocktails, but drink whisky,” says David.
For Bryan, “it’s usually a beer and a cheap shot of whiskey.” “We spend way to much time together,” says Bryan. So it was one recent Monday night, when some of the lads gathered for a bar crawl – sorry, bartender competition – in which they travailed some of Tucson’s nightspots and tried their hand at New Orleans-style cocktails. When 3 Story joined them at the last stop – The Playground on Congress Street – it was a haze of cigarette smoke, the booze was free-flowing, and the banter friendly.
Most of these guys fell into the bartending profession, starting out as barbacks (a bartender’s assistant, or runner) then discovering a passion for the job, and worked their way up the ranks. “Most boys want to be bartenders at some point in their life,” says Ciaran. These lads are happy to be making a decent living out of it.
As for the current trend of calling bartenders mixologists, they take it with a pinch of bar salt. Ciaran says he really doesn’t mind the term. “People who refer to themselves as mixologists tend to take themselves more seriously and there’s less of a service aspect. But I tend bar and provide service. I just happen to like making cocktails.”
Classic and timeless are the themes at Tucson’s newest bar, Sidecar
This month sees the first business partnership for friends and collaborators Ari Shapiro, Page Repp and Rick McLain. Story and photos by Gillian Drummond
For the record, the person behind the bar at Sidecar, the new offering from Tucson entrepreneur Ari Shapiro, will be called a barkeep – not a mixologist. Why? Because the owners’ aim is to eschew all that might be considered trendy or transient for traditional, classic and long-lasting.
“I want this to be more than anything a long-term neighborhood institution and not fly-by-night or trendy. We want this to feel as good in year 10 as it does in year one or year 20. That’s what they are,” says Ari, co-owner of Sidecar with architects Page Repp, Rick McLain and a silent partner.
In coming up with the bar’s concept, design, and menu, the trio – friends and collaborators for a long time (Page and Rick’s architecture firm Repp + McLain designed Ari’s pizza restaurant Falora and coffee shop Sparkroot) kept coming back to the theme of ‘everyman’. They didn’t want it to be exclusive, they wanted its appeal to be wide and at “a very very fair price point”, says Ari.
The bar will feature four draft beers, 16 bottled beers and cocktails. The cocktail menu – designed by Luke Anable, formerly beverage manager at Penca and now at Wilko – will feature craft creations with home-made infusions, syrups and herbs. But Ari says he wants this to be a place for a simple gin and tonic or vodka soda too. “Although they will be good versions of those classic high balls,” says Ari. The bartender will be Beau Hintz, a barista by training.
The signature drink, of course, will be the Sidecar, and there will be three versions: a Prohibition-era Sidecar made with brandy and sour; one made with bourbon instead of brandy; and a beer and whiskey shot. “If you go into certain bars, a Sidecar is a euphemism for a shot on the side,” says Ari.
Sidecar, opening May 15, takes up a corner building of a square of stores at Broadway Village, a historic midtown Tucson shopping center dating back to 1939, and designed by Josias Joesler. As happened with Falora, just a few doors down, Repp + McLain is keeping what it can from the original interior. The interior brick walls have been painted white, the concrete floor patched and re-stained. Lime green leather banquette seating features an oak trim. Single bare bulb filament lights hang down as pendants.
Repp + McLain designed both a leather wall covering and the bar. Page had hides of leather shipped from New York’s Garment District and cut up into squares, then stapled on the front of a floating wall in the bar’s center. The bar itself is poured concrete with a steel ‘butcher block’ top – tubes of steel welded together then topped with a see-through resin. “This has always been something I’ve wanted to do,” says Page.
* Find Sidecar at 139 S. Eastbourne Avenue, in Tucson’s Broadway Village, from May 15.
* Read more about Page Repp in this issue’s My Space feature.