“Phoenix belongs in the conversation as one of America’s great cocktail landscapes” reads the menu at Little Rituals cocktail bar, and it’s a sentiment I fully embrace. It’s also a belief that this destination-worthy spot illustrates to its guests via its world-class libations and the talented drink artists who make up its team.
Little Rituals, which opened about three months ago, is the brainchild of two of Arizona’s most notable and award-winning luminaries in the state’s beverage scene, Ross Simon, co-owner of Bitter and Twisted Cocktail Parlour (an interview here) and Aaron Defeo, who most recently worked his magic as property mixologist for Tucson’s Casino del Sol. Tucked away on the fourth floor of the downtown Residence Inn/Courtyard by Marriott, Little Rituals is open 4 pm to 2 a.m. seven days a week, and co-owner Aaron can be found behind the stick on Monday nights, “it’s good to keep myself sharp,” he shares.
Guests who pull up a comfortable bar stool will find a menu celebrating the little rituals that go into creating superlative craft cocktails - from handmade infusions and tinctures, to house aperitifs and liqueurs. The techniques employed span age-old practices and the use of state-of-the-art beverage equipment. This same thoughtfulness and care extends to the hospitality mission and environmentally-conscious efforts described in its Welcome to your Third Place (after home and work) message.
The menu encompasses a collection of 30 cocktails, including seasonal rotations, along with beer and wine. Off-menu creations, of course, abound, such as at the hand of Chanel Godwin McMacken, co-founder of beverage industry podcast Barbeez and 2019 winner of the prestigious Last Slinger Standing competition as part of Arizona’s annual Cocktail Weekend. My request for something amaro-based resulted in her wonderful version of an Amaro Sour, an expertly-balanced modern riff on a beloved classic.
It was the perfect introductory cocktail to savor as Aaron DeFeo walked me through the vibrant, creative menu.
Each cocktail is colorfully illustrated and displayed as a snapshot. “We decided on a photo album style,” explained Aaron. “We’ve built an atmosphere where we’re creating memories for our guests, and what better place to preserve memories than the old ritual of putting things into a photo album.”
“These are what we call our Daily Rituals, things that we think people could drink every day,” continued Aaron as he pointed to the first page of cocktails.
Guests can start with a House Shot (or Becherovka, a Czech herbal liqueur that I was introduced to at Bitter & Twisted), a Siroco Spritz with an aperitivo of white port and tonic made in-house, the Session Martini accented with olive oil-washed Plymouth gin and a briny pop of saline, or a Classic Espresso made with local cold brew, vodka, an Australian cold brew coffee liqueur, and demerara sugar gum syrup. “We have this on tap,” explained Aaron, “and use one of only two of these special nitro machines that charges up with ambient nitrogen.”
You'll also find a sophisticated take on the traditional beer-and-a-shot-of-whiskey duo known as the Boilermaker. At Little Rituals, you can choose from two versions, including one served with a shot of an addictive housemade liqueur underlining the guava and passion fruit notes of Modern Times Fruitlands tropical gose. “We make our own passion fruit and Montelobos mezcal liqueur to pair with this sour beer,” said Aaron. “The theory is to try it two ways. You can try alternating sips, or drop it directly into your beer. I suggest both. Take a sip first, and then when you try it together, you’ll see why they pair so well.” It’s a brilliant partnership.
“Our Delicious Rituals are more of our shaken citrus section with some unusual drinks you won’t see anywhere else. Our Daiqurry made with rum, yellow Chatreuse, and curry is very cool, and I don’t imagine you’ve ever have red currants in your cocktail,” Aaron said as he described the Redcurrant Fix with Tanqueray Malacca gin (a more citrus forward, less botanical style of gin), Cocchi Rosa (an Italian aperitivo made with Piemonte red wine), yuzu (an Asian citrus), pink peppercorns, and housemade red currant cordial.
Cooling Rituals are described as “year-round beverages to battle the eternal summer of the Sonoran Desert,” and Aaron urged me to try the Triple Bitter, made with a trio of bitters - Campari, Martini & Rossi Bitter, Cardamaro (an Italian digestivo infused with cardoon and blessed thistle) - lemon soda, housemade Creole bitters, and an airy cap of sea salt foam.
“You really should have it since you like bitter drinks. It takes the concept of the Americano and Negroni, stretching them into this bitter-forward sipper that’s very refreshing.”
“The Disco Quebrado is mezcal-based. We use a kaffir lime-infused mezcal, Dolin blanc vermouth, celery cordial, lime and sparkling water. It’s served tall, Collins style.”
“This is our stirred and silky page,” continued Aaron. “One of our top sellers is the Urban Anxiety, a sort of Negroni-style cachaça and Cynar drink; people love it. The Cask of Amontillado is our sherry-forward cocktail, and Northern Horde is made with ingredients you probably haven’t seen too often, like aquavit, and it has a kümmel liqueur we make with maple syrup, caraway and cumin in the traditional German preparation.”
“We call these our Indulgent Rituals, made with ingredients like egg white and aromatic foam, with a big tiki drink like the Cartographer, and the Country Bumpkin, a rich version of a flip using fig-infused bourbon and brown butter syup.”
“You have to have the Coupette Colada. It’s made with our coconut sorbet and really balanced because of the prosecco, which adds a light, airy quality. It’s similar to a Ramos Gin Fizz in the way it builds itself and is one of the best Pina Coladas you’ll ever have in your life.” He was absolutely right.
“These are our larger-format Shared Rituals for groups of three or four people. We have Bubbles and Fries, Punch, a really good bourbon Milk Punch, and Palomas; our individual Palomas are fantastic too. The Punch is pretty popular because the way it comes out is in an absinthe fountain lit up with a big ice block.”
Innovative, superlative cocktails call for a lounge menu to match, and with the genius mind of chef Bob Tam at work (prior interview here), guests won’t be disappointed in this arena either. You’ll find a global menu designed for grazing and sharing, from Hurricane Umami Fries, a mound of steak fries strewn with garlic, sliced serrano peppers, furikake, shichimi and pecorino umami salt, to the Millionaire’s Bacon Board, featuring slabs of sweet-and-savory candied shoulder bacon served with grilled Noble Bread and unconventional yet delicious accoutrements of peanut butter mousse, strawberry basil jam, bananas Foster, Nutella, pickled grapes and smoked blue cheese.
“The wings are awesome, the carbonara lo mein is amazing, and you definitely need to get the French dip, it’s a must-have,” said Aaron. Thus, we feasted on crispy Caramel Claypot Wings glazed in black pepper caramel, garnished with pickled chiles, and served in a clay pot with buttery toast triangles, and the inspired Carbonara Lo Mein starring egg noodles draped in a creamy sauce flecked with Sichuan peppercorns, and topped with a fried egg, scallions, and crispy speck.
The Pho French Dip brought a tender brisket sandwich layered with fresh Asian herbs, Swiss cheese, Kewpie mayo, housemade hoisin and Sriracha aioli on a bolillo accompanied by a fantastic pho broth for dipping. A fan of secret off-menu items? Grab some friends and share the Disco Fries. Little Rituals takes the Hurricane Umami Fries and loads them up with gravy made from the pho broth, a ladle of Sichuan cream sauce, brisket, pickled chiles, and a drizzle of Sriricha aioli.
And save room for dessert: If you’ve ever treated yourself to Lauren Klein’s boozy Spirited Cupcakes at Bitter and Twisted, you already know what a gifted dessert talent she is. At Little Rituals, order Ross Pudding (“Ross absolutely adores rice pudding,” shared Lauren, “and the name was actually an auto correct on my phone”), which on my visit was enhanced with rum-soaked raisins. Her What Pie? is an indulgent version of Milk Bar’s famous Crack Pie accompanied by amaretto whipped cream. “I’ve tweaked the crust a bit to make it more buttery and the filling is a bit denser. It’s salty and ooey-gooey. You’re not quite sure why you keep going back for another bite, and then it’s gone.”
I highly suggest ending with one of my favorite cocktails of the night called the Country Bumpkin. It was the perfect finale cocktail (and especially nice with the rice pudding!), a rich and nutty union of fig-infused bourbon, muscat, sherry, walnut liqueur, and brown butter syrup shaken with a whole egg.
Future plans include custom neon lights installed in window panes to mark the establishment from afar. “When people get out of the game, they’ll absolutely see it,” commented Aaron. There’s also a DJ booth “for when it gets consistently busier on Fridays and Saturdays, or maybe we’ll have DJs play on off nights like Sundays.” Currently, prime hours are 8 to 10 pm on weekends and Little Rituals has implemented a waitlist Yelp app on busy nights. Customers can sign in before they arrive, keep tabs on the wait time, and be texted while enjoying drinks in the hotel’s lobby bar or next door at Bitter & Twisted.
I LOVED everything about Little Rituals - the sophisticated and relaxing atmosphere, engaging service, inventive food menu, and outstanding, stellar cocktails - and can’t wait to return regularly. In fact, I’m headed back next week to explore more of the menu.
Little Rituals is located downtown on the fourth floor of Residence Inn/Courtyard by Marriott at 132 S Central Ave 4th Floor, Phoenix, AZ 85004. It is open 4 pm to 2 a.m. every day (note: closed on Easter Sunday) and offers a daily Aperitivo Hour from to 4 to 6 pm with a rotating menu of featured beer, wine and cocktails.
I was extended a complimentary media invitation as an introduction to Little Rituals.