This article was originally published in December 2019. COVID-related restrictions may affect some of the opening times and offerings of these venues, so check in advance of a visit.
Blessed with great weather and equally impressive scenery, Scottsdale anchors the “Valley of the Sun,” a sprawling jigsaw puzzle of Arizona municipalities including Tempe, Phoenix, Cave Creek, Paradise Valley, Mesa, and more. The region’s heart and soul is Old Town Scottsdale, a walkable neighborhood full of restaurants, bars, shops, and Old West flair that is also home to one of baseball’s top spring training facilities. Along with the adjacent Fashion Square mall area, it forms the regional downtown.
Radiating out from this center in every direction is an impressive array of large resort hotels, including many that cater to golf, a key driver of tourism. Scottsdale is among the top warm-weather golf destinations in the world and the epicenter of the stunning course style known as desert golf. With many of its courses carved from the Sonoran Desert, this style minimizes the use of turf and maximizes the natural surroundings in the course design. There are multiple 36-hole facilities of note, several of which have been ranked in the nation’s Top 100 You Can Play by Golf Magazine and Golf Digest.
But there are also plenty of cultural attractions, spectator sports, and other outdoor activities, especially hiking and cycling, which are wildly popular thanks to the climate and gorgeous Sonoran Desert scenery. For a rather sizable metropolis (over 184 square miles), navigation is fast and easy along modern highways that handle all but the peak rush hour with ease. Even the longest-looking rides on the map are usually no more than 20 minutes. Ride-sharing services are plentiful and inexpensive and might be both cheaper and preferable to car rentals. The city has been on the rise in recent years, and as Scottsdale’s population has soared, so has its slate of great places to eat and drink, and most recently, distilleries.
Sky Harbor airport is south of Scottsdale, and nearby is SanTan Spirits, the furthest flung must-visit destination from downtown Scottsdale; make it your stop upon arrival. Located in Chandler, just south of Tempe, SanTan started out making beer and is wildly beloved by locals, and is now Arizona’s largest independent brewery and distillery. Tours ($15) include samplings of beers, sprits, and specialty cocktails. SanTan makes three core Sacred Stave whiskeys, including a single malt of 100% U.S.-grown malted barley, bottled at both standard and cask strength; Arizona rye, a 95% rye formulation; and Arizona bourbon. All are aged in oak and then finished in some unusual wine barrels, including madeira, mourvèdre, and others. Look for limited-edition single-cask bottlings at the on-site retail shop.
SanTan also has a popular brewpub outpost in historic downtown Chandler. Specialty burgers, pizza, creative sandwiches, and a mix of Southwestern and pub standards make a great stop for lunch. The pub’s brewery produces small-batch and experimental beers sold only here on tap. It also serve the company’s spirits, and the weekday happy hour (3-6 p.m.) is especially popular. SanTan recently opened the Spirit House on the backside ground level of the building, a more upscale bar and eatery with a wood-heavy interior, focusing on its whiskeys, gins, and vodkas, alongside charcuterie plates and fancier European-style open-faced sandwiches. The signature whiskey cocktail is a rye Manhattan. SanTan also has a bar and restaurant within Sky Harbor airport, but don’t wait to souvenir shop, as there are no bottle sales.
En route to Old Town Scottsdale you have the chance to visit three of the city’s four key cultural attractions. The Desert Botanical Garden is on your way, next to the Phoenix Zoo, and features five self-guided loop trails, between one-tenth and one-third of a mile long, showcasing flora of the Sonoran Desert. The Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (SMoCA) and Scottsdale’s Museum of the American West are close to each other on the edge of Old Town.
Check into the W Scottsdale hotel, the best choice in the walking area of Old Town, as you will not want to miss a stroll around the neighborhood. Fresh off a 2019 renovation of all rooms, it boasts a very popular Vegas-style outdoor pool patio, WET, as well as a lounge-style nightclub with a DJ and craft cocktails, the Living Room. It is a youthful, high-energy hotel that is still luxurious enough to earn four diamonds from AAA. Grab a loaner bike, which makes a convenient way to explore the downtown
Make a dinner reservation at The Mission, Old Town’s highly acclaimed modern Latin favorite, combining flavors of Spain, Mexico, and South and Central America in an upscale setting with indoor and outdoor seating. The Mission is famous for its table-side guacamole presentation, and other options range from duck mole tacos to a take on paella, with rock shrimp, chorizo, clams, and Spanish bomba rice. The signature whiskey cocktail is the Briar Rose (Bulleit bourbon, hibiscus syrup, hibiscus bitters, and ginger beer) but the Mission is better known for its tequila and mezcal selection, as well as specialty Margaritas, from cucumber jalapeño to blood orange, and tequila tasting flights.
After dinner, take a short stroll to Kazimierz Wine & Whiskey Bar, known locally as the Kaz Bar, which opened in 2001 as the first speakeasy-style bar in Old Town. It has more than 200 whiskies from the U.S., Canada, Scotland, Ireland, and Japan, with numerous tasting flights offered. It’s a funky spot with a jazz club feel and eclectic decor, from beaded curtains to stained glass windows, with lots of couches, upholstered and leather furniture, and live music many weekend nights. If you want to stay out later, it’s a short ride to Straight Up, the “secret” whiskey bar in the Hotel Adeline just north of Fashion Square. It has more than 100 labels including Elijah Craig 23 year old, Glenfiddich 26 year old, and Laphroaig 25 year old, plus a signature Old Fashioned made with brown sugar simple syrup, and more offbeat whisky cocktails, like a Yamamoto Sour made with Japanese whisky and yuzu syrup. Look for the phone booth and enter through the hidden door using the password “Old Fashioned” (although, honestly, they aren’t sticklers about entry).
When you start your day with a workout you feel good about it all day long, and few are more rewarding than a hike up Camelback Mountain with sweeping views of the entire Phoenix/Scottsdale area from the 2,704 feet summit. Arizona’s most famous peak offers two trails to suit your ambition: Echo Canyon, shorter but steeper and a real workout (1.2 miles each way), or the more relaxing Cholla (1.4 miles).
Today, start by heading south of Old Town to Tempe to visit the two notable distilleries, just across the river and very close to Arizona State University. Arizona Distillery Co. just built a new facility right on campus, combining its distillery with a full bar, restaurant, and outdoor patio. The original distillery had just a single tasting table, but owner Jon Eagan reasoned, “With the liberal laws here in Arizona, I figured why just do a tasting room when we can have a full-blown cocktail bar?” It occupies a 1946 brick corner building with an Old West look. The bar and restaurant are backed by the production facility, offering in-depth tours that show the whiskey-making process from grain to fermentation, distillation, and finally barrel aging, followed by a tasting of three spirits.
Eagan’s products include Copper City bourbon, Humphrey’s malt whiskey, Park rye, and the very special signature Desert Durum wheat whiskey. “We are the only place in the world doing this,” he says. “It is Arizona’s first grain-to-bottle whiskey, and we use desert durum, which only grows here and is prized by Italian pasta producers.” A 5 year old version of Desert Durum is available only at the distillery ($100).
Also in Tempe is Adventurous Stills, as grassroots a distillery as you will find. Two of the three owners were auto mechanics, and they’ve taken the unusual step of constructing their own stills—and just about everything else. “We’re self-funded, no debt, no investors, and we’ve saved a lot by doing things by hand and from scratch,” says co-founder Chase Estrin. “We’re good at welding, so we bought two sheets of copper and learned how to pound it into a dome shape, and that’s how we made our first two stills. Our 500-gallon mash tun started life as a compressed air tank.” On Fridays and Saturdays they offer tours every hour on the hour, always by one of the owners.
The adventure-loving owners make rum, gin, vodka, and a tequila-inspired agave spirit available only here, but their passion is clearly whiskey. Fossil Creek whiskey, Lost Dutchman rye, and Peralta bourbon are their mainstay products, but they constantly try new recipes and offer a special limited release every quarter. “Every time you visit us at the tasting room we’re likely to have something new,” Estrin says. Adventurous Stills recently sold out of a mesquite-aged whiskey; the distillery has also done a red, white, and blue corn bourbon and a wheated whiskey, and flew though a 100% blue corn batch that proved so popular it may become a permanent addition. Soon to be bottled is a 51% quinoa whiskey. The tasting room signature drink is a Whiskey Smash: whiskey, lemon, mint, and simple syrup. “We use our Fossil Creek, which has a campfire smokiness to it, sort of halfway between bourbon and scotch,” Estrin explains.
For lunch, swing into the Tempe branch of Culinary Dropout (one of several locations in Arizona and Texas), in the heart of the city’s Farmer Arts District. This farm-to-table American gastropub is known for elevated comfort food, like killer fried chicken drizzled with honey, 36-hour pork ribs, and its signature pretzel bites with provolone fondue. Try the southwest-infused whiskey cocktail, Pistols at Dawn, with Bulleit bourbon, Ancho Reyes chile liqueur, ginger, agave, and a splash of cabernet. The restaurant also has a long list of Arizona craft beers and frequently features live music.
On your way back through Scottsdale, do not miss Taliesin West, one of the city’s marquee cultural attractions. Formerly the winter home of famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright, it is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation and the School of Architecture at Taliesin. Five different levels of scheduled tours range from 45 minutes to a 3-hour Behind the Scenes version. All routinely sell out, so book in advance online.
Whether for a visit or an overnight stay, single malt fans will be at home at The Westin Kierland Resort & Spa, a Scottish-themed golf resort in the foothills of the McDowell Mountains in North Scottsdale, adjacent to Kierland Commons & Scottsdale Quarter, an upscale open-air pedestrian shopping and dining village. The full-service resort has a standout spa, a mini-waterpark, and a 27-hole golf course complete with bagpipers. You can even rent a kilt to play in.
Among the highlights for spirits fans are two whisky-centered venues. Waltz & Weiser Whiskey Bar & Cantina is a Western saloon experience inspired by Arizona’s mining history, featuring whiskies from Canada, Scotland, and the U.S. Bourbon “Special Selections” include Old Rip Van Winkle (10 and 12 year old) and a private-cask bottling of Knob Creek. The Scotch Library is a more formal bar dedicated to Scottish libations, with more than 325 selections. Every Friday it hosts “An Evening of Scotches,” a guided tasting of three featured whiskies ($55).
If time allows, consider a stop first at Century Grand, a 1920s-style bar and Art Deco homage to the Golden Age of rail travel, complete with a refurbished Pullman bar car. It is located just over the city line in east Phoenix, and the claim to fame is the state’s largest whisky list, with over 500 selections, including nearly 100 private-barrel picks.
For dinner, it’s a 30-minute trek to the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess, the grand dame of the city’s golf resorts and home to Bourbon Steak by James Beard Award-winning celebrity chef Michael Mina. It features world-class steak, including imported real Japanese wagyu beef, great seafood, and, as the name suggests, a deep bourbon list along with a good selection of Japanese whiskies. For a more modest price, you can partake in the superb bar menu with gourmet takes on burgers. Another renowned celebrity chef, Richard Sandoval, famed for his Latin flavors, operates Toro Latin Restaurant & Rum Bar—with more than 150 selections—at the Princess’s golf clubhouse next door.
Distilleries, Breweries & Cider
Bars & Restaurants
Bourbon Steak 7575 E. Princess Dr.
Century Grand 3626 E. Indian School Rd., Phoenix
Culinary Dropout 149 S. Farmer Ave., Tempe
Kazimierz Wine & Whiskey Bar 7137 E. Stetson Dr.
The Mission (Old Town location) 3815 N. Brown Ave.
SanTan Brewpub and SanTan Spirit House
8 S. San Marcos Place, Chandler
The Scotch Library 6902 E. Greenway Pkwy.
Toro Latin Restaurant & Rum Bar
7575 E. Princess Dr.
Waltz & Weiser Whiskey Bar & Cantina
6902 E. Greenway Pkwy.
Desert Botanical Garden 1201 N. Galvin Pkwy., Phoenix
Scottsdale’s Museum of the American West 3830 N. Marshall Way
Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art 7374 E. Second St.
Taliesin West 12621 N. Frank Lloyd Wright Blvd.
Highly Ranked 36-Hole Facilities
Grayhawk Golf Club 8620 E. Thompson Peak Pkwy.
Talking Stick Golf Club 9998 E. Talking Stick Way
TPC Scottsdale 17020 N. Hayden Rd.
Troon North Golf Club 10320 E. Dynamite Blvd.
We-Ko-Pa Golf Club 18200 E. WeKoPa Way, Fort McDowell