Drinking is easy. Finding the right bar, not so easy. We’re here to help. As a public service to all of you thirsty explorers, every week we highlight the best bars in America and tell you what makes them so damn great. This week we’ve got a bar that will make first-time visitors wonder what the heck is going on in there.
NAME: Tough Luck Club
LOCATION: Downtown Tucson, Arizona
ON THE JUKEBOX: Molotov, Merle Haggard, Sturgill Simpson
WHAT TO ORDER (NEWBIES): ‘Buch Don’t Kill My Vibe cocktail: tequila, mezcal, hibiscus flower syrup, lime juice and kombucha tea
WHAT TO ORDER (REGULARS): If I Had A Boat cocktail: Dimmi Liquore di Milano, pisco, apricot liqueur, lemon juice, cucumber syrup and orange bitters
WHY WE LOVE IT: According to the sign behind the bar at Tough Luck Club, if you ain’t partying, you’re loitering. That’s why you’ll spot just as many people pounding Jägermeister shots in this underground Tucson, Arizona, bar as people sipping on Jäger-Aperol highballs (the delightful Boy, Don’t You Look Nice!). The bar somehow has the feel of both a dive and a speakeasy.
“More than anything else, we’re just a place for people to gather and have a good time,” co-bar manager Stephen Ott says. “Tucson as a whole is a really casual city. The people who are looking for hardcore cocktails don’t necessarily feel the need to have them in a venue that’s pretending to be something that it’s not.”
Tough Luck Club is unmarked, located downstairs from the popular Reilly Craft Pizza. Before the restaurant took up this building, it was a funeral home, and the basement, where Tough Luck Club is, was where the embalming was done. (Tough luck, indeed.) When building the bar, the team wanted it to feature high-minded cocktails, but resemble the loud, fun bars that most people like to drink at. That’s not to say Tough Luck Club hasn’t gotten a couple of bad Yelp reviews for being so cavalierly casual. “One review said our bouncer was dressed better than us,” co-bar manager Jon Holcombe says, laughing. “And they were right.”
The cocktail menu, which changes every three months, looks like a punk rock ’zine: It’s packed with pen illustrations drawn by local artists, plus recipes for all of the super original drinks on the menu. Take the Let My Homies Go, for instance. Below its illustration you’ll find its contents: 1½ ounces apple brandy, ½ ounce ruby port, ½ ounce walnut liqueur, ½ ounce cinnamon syrup and a parsley leaf garnish. “People should be able to make our drinks at home if they want to,” Ott says. “We’re not trying to be secretive about what we do.”
In this college town, shots go over very well, so Tough Luck Club has a game dice to encourage consumption. People pay $6, roll the six-sided dice, and whichever number it lands on determines the shot of booze—anything from tequila to Montenegro—that they get. In addition to not being afraid of shots, Tough Luck Club isn’t afraid of party tricks. For example you can add a “buzz button” to any cocktail for $1. What’s a buzz button, you ask? It’s the inside of a flower called the Szechuan button, which numbs your tongue when you eat it. “The sensation is like putting a battery in your mouth,” Ott says. “It’s an intense experience.” Because the flower affects your palate, it changes the way drinks taste, making acids taste sweeter and giving the bar its own kind of buzz.
“We want to be a place for anybody,” Ott says. “If you want to have a carefully made $14 cocktail or have a conversation about the spirits behind the bar, we will be happy to do that for you. Or if you want to come in and take some shots and drink beer with your buddies, that’s cool too. We’re a venue for both of those things. We like it that way.”
Alyson Sheppard is the resident hangover specialist at Playboy.com. She stole a menu at Tough Luck Club. Find her on Twitter: @amshep