Downtown Tucson Dominates Bartenders’ Guild Awards

December 19, 2016

by Eric Swedlund

You can be just like this fine squad of hep cats getting their drink on at the award-winning Club Congress!

You too can be just like this fine squad of hep cats getting their award-winning drink on at Club Congress!

Downtown Tucson nightclubs led the way in the 2016 awards from Tucson’s chapter of the United States Bartenders’ Guild, with a century-old local institution and two exciting newcomers among the top winners.

Voted on by industry peers, the Tucson USBG awards honor the best in bartending and bars, highlighting the growth in craft cocktails and craft beer that have played a role in Downtown’s ongoing revitalization.

Club Congress took the Bar of the Year honors, while Keith Caywood, a fixture at the hotel’s lobby bar, won for Best High Volume Bartender.

Opened in 2015, Japanese restaurant Obon earned two awards as well: Best Restaurant Bar and Bartender of the Year for Matt Martinez.

The Independent Distillery, a fellow 2015 newcomer to Downtown, won for Best Cocktail Bar and Best Cocktail Bartender for Tyler Dunn.

Also Downtown, The Playground received the Community Leader award, while bartender Kiva Strand of 47 Scott was named Rookie of the Year.

Fourth Avenue claimed several winners as well: Che’s Lounge, named Neighborhood Bar of the Year; Che’s bartender Donovan White, named Best Neighborhood Bartender; Bison Witches, named College Bar of the Year. Nearby Tap & Bottle won Beer/Wine Bar of the Year, while Dragoon IPA won Local Product of the Year.

Aaron DeFeo, Casino Del Sol Resort Mixologist and President of USBG Tucson, won the inaugural Mentorship award.

Planning for the Tucson USBG chapter began in 2009, DeFeo says, when there were only 16 local chapters in the United States.

“Craft cocktails were just starting to become en vogue and Tucson was behind the curve, but we also had some really talented people here,” DeFeo says. “By getting a chapter of the Bartenders Guild here, we knew we could enhance that culture and bring a little bit of a spotlight to Tucson.”

When the chapter received national recognition five years ago, Tucson became the 27th locale for the USBG, which now claims 55 chapters. As Tucson’s dining scene began to earn more national recognition, culminating with the city’s designation last year as a UNESCO World City of Gastronomy, the craft beverage component became more noticed as well.

“People in general in the food scene are coming around to realize the bar is just as an important part of the dining experience as the kitchen,” DeFeo says. “The way the bar provides that great experience is through bartenders who are well-trained and know what they’re doing. In order to execute craft cocktails and truly provide that same level of culinary experience that chefs do, bartenders have to have a desire to learn and have a passion for what they do.”

The USBG provides its members educational opportunities on a monthly basis, travel and leadership opportunities, networking connections both locally and nationally, and for bartenders, the chance to join competitions and improve their skills.

“The best bartenders are highly self motivated to learn as much as possible, as chefs are in a lot of ways. They have a sense of wanting to push boundaries and try new things and they get excited when something works,” DeFeo says.