12 mixologists raising the bar for Arizona cocktail culture

Above: Annex Cocktail Lounge in Flagstaff. Lifestyle | 19 Sep |

While Arizona’s culinary scene has been earning national acclaim steadily for the past decade, its mixology scene is only now getting its due. This past summer, Little Rituals was named the No. 4 hotel bar in the nation at Tales of the Cocktail, and Bitter & Twisted Cocktail Parlour won a spot among North America’s Best Bars by 50 Best, both nationally recognized outfits that until recently did not have Arizona mixologists on its radar.


READ ALSO: Ranking Arizona: Top 10 best places to live for 2022


So, why now?

The local talent has never been stronger. Here is a look at some of the masters of mixology changing the game as it relates to beverage programs statewide:

Aaron DeFeo, Little Rituals                                           

This list must start with DeFeo, who migrated north from Tucson to join forces with Bitter & Twisted founder Ross Simon on Little Rituals, a stylish reimagining of the traditional hotel bar concept in downtown Phoenix. Previously Casino Del Sol Resort’s resident property mixologist, DeFeo ran the beverage program for more than six years until leaving at the end of 2017. Renowned for his imaginative use of natural and locally sourced ingredients, DeFeo’s cocktails have earned him multiple local and national accolades, including the 2014 and 2017 World Margarita Championship. He is also a two-time national finalist for GQ’s Most Imaginative Bartender Competition and is a past winner of the Arizona Restaurant Association’s “Mixologist of the Year.” Little Rituals is located on the fourth floor of the combination Residence Inn/Courtyard by Marriott Phoenix Downtown, yet it a wholly independent entity with a menu of cocktail creations that reads like a combination encyclopedia-comic book. 

Information: www.littleritualsbar.com

Mikey Morales

Mikey Morales, Tarbell’s

Mikey Morales – best-known behind the bar as spirit doctor Mikey Moe – began his journey into the food and beverage industry as a chef and is graduate of the Art Institute of Phoenix’s culinary curriculum. At culinary school and immediately after in the kitchen at T.Cooks at the Royal Palms Resort and Spa, Morales learned the art of crafting unique flavor profiles and became passionate about this aspect of the culinary world, but mixology became a new interest for him. The passion led Morales to lead Sportsman’s Fine Wines & Spirits for years before being hired to reimagine the bar program at Tarbell’s in 2013. Now nearly a decade into his dream job, Morales kicks up classics while dreaming up wild and whimsical cocktail events for diners, ranging from bourbon cocktail pairing dinners to decades dinners with new twists on classics from the past 100 years.

Information: www.tarbells.com

Christopher Marshburn, Bourbon & Bones and B&B Cocktail Lounge

General manager, beverage director and sommelier Christopher Marshburn began working in the restaurant industry when he just 12 years old. Though a busser back then, today he not only leads the cocktail program at Bourbon & Bones Chophouse and is working to complete both his Advanced Sommelier and Certified Specialist of Spirits designations, but he recently opened B&B Cocktail Lounge, an extension and wholly separate space from the Chophouse with nearly three dozen cocktail options as well as more than two dozen bottled beers, rare whiskey and bourbon selections from around the globe, 11 different whiskey flights and more than 100 wines by the glass and bottle.

Information: www.bourbonandbones.com

Matt Allen, The Maggiore Group

After serving as the beverage specialist for Westin Kierland Resort & Spa, where he oversaw cocktail programs for the resort’s seven signature dining and beverage spaces – Nellie Cashman’s, Deseo, Brittlebush Bar & Grill, The Scotch Library, The Rim Lobby Lounge, Waltz & Weiser Whiskey Bar and Cantina and J. Swilling’s Pool Bar & Grill – Matt Allen joined The Maggiore Group in 2021 to take on the combination Sicilian-Italian-American beverage program for The Sicilian Butcher locations statewide. The work led him to partner with chef-owner Joey Maggiore to dream up the over-the-top (and proud of it!) program at the brand’s newest concept, The Mexicano. Allen’s recipes are bold by design, matching the crazy assortment of vessels in which they come, including a margarita served in an actual mini piñata.

Information: www.maggioregroup.com

Nick Williams joined Tinderbox Kitchen and Annex Cocktail Lounge in Flagstaff in 2013.

Nick Willams, THAT Place Projects

Nick Williams joined Tinderbox Kitchen and Annex Cocktail Lounge in Flagstaff in 2013 as a barback with almost no experience. With the help of mentors – not to mention the restaurants’ investment in local and exotic spirits, fresh juices, house-made bitters and aromatic – Williams star rose quickly. BY 2017, he not only took on the role of beverage director for the brands, but he bought into ownership of parents company, THAT Place projects. Today an award-winning spirit slinger, Williams continues to shock and awe guests at both Tinderbox and Annex, but he also develops the menus for sister concepts Tourist Home All Day Café, Corn & Flour and the newly launched Teatro, one of the company’s most ambitious projects yet.

Information: www.thatplaceprojects.com

Josh Loza, Hilton Sedona Resort at Bell Rock

Celebrated for his smoked and aromatic cocktails, Josh Loza is the creative force behind Hilton Sedona’s popular bar program. Loza was born and raised in the Verde Valley, and enjoys working closely with nearby small farms, local breweries and wineries to enhance Sedona’s emerging culinary scene. He has spent the past five years behind the bar at ShadowRock Tap + Table transforming seasonal sips into an

adventure rooted in locally inspired recipes and unique pairings. His playful approach to copper, citrus, herbs and spices brings a fresh perspective to Sedona’s bar scene, and beyond.

Information: www.hiltonsedona.com

Brent Karlicek

Brent Karlicek, Upward Projects

Always busy behind the bar, Brent Karlicek oversees the beverage programs at Postino Wine Café, Joyride Taco House, Federal Pizza, Windsor and Churn. With 24 locations spanning five states, Karlicek curates bespoke, seasonal beverage programs for each location, masterfully blending wine, beer and spirit offerings on menus anchored in beauty and balance.  A lifelong oenophile and certified Advanced Sommelier, Karlicek honed his passion for wines while working summers in California’s wine country before moving to Arizona and helping launch the Postino brand into the stratosphere. Karlicek’s approach to beverage menus is always “finding the perfect line,” the line that embraces approachable but always looks for excitement.

Information:  www.upwardprojects.com

Nicholas Padua, The Americano

Hawaiian native Nicholas Padua had two ah-ha moments early in his career, both involving things behind the bar. First, when applying to be a server at Spago by Wolfgang Puck at the Four Seasons Wailea when he was 24, though he had years of experience, he was only hired as a busser when he could not explain the different between a pinot grigio and chardonnay. Determined to rise in the ranks, he threw himself into the study of all things spirited, earning that server role in less than two months. The second happened one night after work, when the manager invited him to enjoy a food and wine pairing, which blew his mind. Over the next 15 years, buoyed by those flavors, Padua worked a host of positions at the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess, Tarbell’s Tavern, Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale in wine and cocktails. In 2019, Padua joined The Americano, and in 2020 earned the role of beverage director, where he and his team are churning out an ever-changing menu of balanced beauties.

Information:  www.theamericanorestaurant.com

Joshua James, Born & Raised

Native to North Central Phoenix, Joshua James was compelled by an opportunity to be creative during his tenure with Karl Kopp at AZ/88. While mastering the art of the classic cocktail he understood that restaurants were more than just a place to grab a quick bite-they were an opportunity to engage. As bar manager of The Parlor Pizzeria, James had built one of the most ground-breaking beverage programs in Phoenix before launching Born & Raised Hospitality. Today, the brand includes Clever Koi, Across the Pond, Clever Ramen and Fellow Osteria, and though an owner, James is still behind the bar developing the innovative programs for each.

Information: www.fellowosteria.com 

Nicolas Perez, Atria

A Phoenix native who’s also lived in Northern Arizona on and off for years, Nicolas Perez proudly served six years in the U.S. Army before starting his culinary career as a humble ‘sandwich boy’ for Chris Bianco at Pizzeria Bianco before becoming a server at Binkley’s. Moving behind the bar, Perez poured drinks at the Hotel Valley Ho before shifting to The House Brassiere, where he first met Chef Rochelle Daniel. When she moved up to Flagstaff to launch Atria, he jumped at the chance to curate its cocktail program using local, seasonal and even foraged ingredients, such as a pine-infused spirit made with pinecones plucked from Perez’s front yard.

Information: www.atriarestaurant.com

Adam Downey, Keeler Hospitality Group

In 2021, Adam Downey moved across the country to join Keeler Hospitality Group, digging in immediately to re-imagine the cocktail programs at both Keeler’s Neighborhood Steakhouse and Liberty Station. With him, Downey brought a wealth of experience in trends, ingredients, and recipe development from Four Seasons Hualalai, Four Seasons Denver, Four Seasons Washington, D.C. The Breakers in Palm Beach and even the Michael Mina Group. Never one to keep with the status quo, he pushes the boundaries of even his own imagination by finding complementing flavor profiles in a wide array of ingredients. How creative is he? Using peanut butter and jelly as inspiration, Downey marries peanut butter fat-washed bourbon with a pinot noir cordial and then serves it in a class with a graham cracker-dusted rim.

Information: www.keelerssteakhouse.com

Keith Castro, Thirsty Lion Gastropub

Keith Castro is a 30-year veteran of the bar business! When he joined the Thirsty Lion brand in 2009 to help create its cocktail program from the ground up, he had already led programs at more than 20 venues nationwide, Portland City Grill, Henry’s 12th St. Tavern, Manzana Rotisserie Grill, Portland Steak & Chophouse, and Billy Heartbeats. Over the past 13 years, he has grown right along with the business and the cocktail community as well, today infusing his menus with the perfect combination of updated classics, approachable casual cocktails, seasonal inspirations and even a few avant garde options.

Information: www.thirstyliongastropub.com

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