For the last few years, downtown's Scott and Co. was the gold standard in Tucson's cocktail scene — particularly if you take recent Best of Tucson® results into account. But, as Frost wrote, nothing gold can stay, and many of the talented folks who've spent time behind their bar have spread out to ply their trade at Tucson's many other fine establishments.
Niklas Morris, a longtime fixture behind the bar at Scott, didn't move far, bounding down the street to 101 E. Pennington St., where he's become the beverage director of Reilly Craft Pizza and Drink. It's there that you'll find him hard at work perfecting recipes, making mixers from scratch and generally regarding his work as much science as it is craft (and certainly not "mixology", he says, noting that mixologists were considered to be the kinds of bartenders that were too busy making drinks to actually speak to their customers).
While Reilly stands to benefit from Morris' largely self-taught expertise behind the bar, it's the freedom to experiment that he's been afforded by Reilly's chef and owner Tyler Fenton that should have Tucson excited. For one, he's spearheading the opening of a new basement bar with later hours than Reilly's standard midnight close, allowing for night owls to get their fix of quality libations until 2 a.m.
Another recent venture is the addition of a handmade bottled soda line to Reilly's menu. It's a project of particular interest to Morris, who seems to have gotten into it as much for the challenge of mastering another aspect of his business as for the opportunity to serve something hand-constructed to any member of the family at any hour of the day.
Tie that into a planned artist series for Reilly's pizza boxes (with such names as Danny Martin and Isaiah Toothtaker tossed around), an idea for including greeting card-style sound chips in those boxes and a desire for hand-machined metal straws to accompany Reilly's drinks (among other ideas), and one can get a sense for the energy that he's bringing to his new gig.
But for those who think that Morris is getting gimmicky for gimmickry's sake, relax: It's all a part of creating a sense of ownership for the customer.
"I'm a firm believer that going out to eat should be treated with the utmost casualty," Morris says. "There's an idea that fine dining is either wonderful or terrible, with no middle ground, and what we're trying to do is emphasize that middle ground."
It's that middle ground, that sense of quality and comfort, that Morris hopes to walk, a place where he can work with a customer "to encourage them to try something and see if they like it, and if they don't, try something else" to find the cocktail they love. It's where he hopes to foster a sense of community by encouraging bartenders to come in and work a guest shift, just to exchange styles and ideas. And it's where he wants to create an environment that's completely open for the community to come together to create something great ... even if it's something as simple as a cool-looking pizza box.