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In Downtown Tucson, It’s Cocktail Time

Yes, you can get a margarita, but you can also indulge in an artisan mescal or a modernized mai tai.

You might have the impression that cocktail hour in downtown Tucson means a margarita to go with your enchiladas. While we have that going for us here as well (check out El Charro, established in 1922, for great food and equally great margaritas), the revitalization of downtown that came with the arrival of the streetcar also brought a group of super-talented mixologists working bars in our urban core.

Hotel Congress probably beat their peers in the artisan cocktail bunch, offering Indian Ice Waters from their lobby bar while most places were still slinging beer in bottles and whiskey and cokes. Congress is a bar for everyone, comfortable to the Tucsonan or the visitor, so if you’d like something simple, they’ve got it, but if you’re feeling more adventurous, dig into their “book of drinks,” including the award-winning “Ghost Orchid,” with citrus vodka, creme de violette, ginger flavors and a beautiful flower as a garnish.

Down Congress Street and a right turn down Scott Street is Scott and Co., next door to its sister (and highly recommended) restaurant 47 Scott. Scott and Co. aims to give downtown audiences a taste of speakeasy culture with their expert bartenders (speaking of expertise, basically every head bartender downtown did a stint at Scott and Co.) and their takes on the history of alcoholic beverages. Their newest menu offers 47 cocktails at $10 a piece (and worth every penny) from drinks pre-dating the Civil War (like the mojito) to late 20th century drinks, including the tiki favorite, the corpse reviver. Most history lessons you might get as adults are dull, but Scott and Co’s look at the evolution of the cocktail is a lot of fun.

The revitalization of downtown that came with the arrival of the streetcar also brought a group of super-talented mixologists working bars in our urban core.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg: Penca extends its perspective on Mexico City’s cuisine to its cocktail menu, offering agave tasting flights, the fermented pineapple beverage tepache and a great collection of cocktails including the “Sonoran Gimlet.” Whereas the standard gimlet mixes gin and lime juice, Penca’s southwestern take starts with the agave distillate bacanora and adds a house-made lime cordial.

At R Bar, an off-shoot of the widely successful venue, the Rialto Theatre, located in one of the nicer alleys you’ll ever visit, a great beer and wine selection anchors a menu with cocktails sorted by “light,” “dark,” and “sour” varieties. The “Rialtor” is the best drink named after a concert venue’s dinosaur mascot, with ginger-infused vodka, cardamom, lime, and ginger beer. However, it might be hard to pass up the “Man on a Bearskin Rug,” a fascinating visual and also a drink from the “dark” category with aged apple brandy and homemade grenadine.

And that’s not all: Reilly has a bar (Tough Luck Club) in its former mortuary basement offering a super-hip take on cocktail culture, James Beard-award winner and downtown Tucson dining pioneer Janos Wilder has a bar at Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails that matches the quality of his worldly and adventurous menu, Playground’s fun beverages match its fun nightclub atmosphere, and legendary restaurant Cafe Poca Cosa serves some amazing sangria and - yes - even margaritas.

Which brings us full-circle (and that’s without even getting into your craft beer options). Tucson’s a great place to enjoy a well-made drink. What more could you ask for than that?

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