Underground Craft

Niklas Morris is opening a new cocktail bar in Reilly’s basement

Heather Hoch

First and foremost, Niklas Morris wants you to know his new bar isn't a speakeasy, despite its somewhat hard-to-find entrance behind Reilly Craft Pizza. In fact, the outspoken bartender refers to the term speakeasy in its common modern usage as "a bullshit Disneyland garbage word."

For Morris, cocktails shouldn't be a niche. Since cocktails are an American invention initially enjoyed by every type of person before Prohibition hit, he seeks to take the craft cocktail movement off its pedestal and bring it to everyone, whether that means giving a fraternity dude his first Old Fashioned or pandering to the vodka cranberry crowd.

"I'm not trying to make anyone jump through hoops and tell them they're wrong," he says. "It's all about talking to the customer and educating them. Besides, I don't hate the idea of a shot of Fireball."

However, that doesn't mean Morris isn't planning some pretty wild things for his new basement bar underneath Reilly, which he named Tough Luck Club.

"There's this misconception that Tucson doesn't like nice things," Morris says. "Everyone likes nice things—that's why they're nice."

One of the best examples of Tough Luck Club's tongue-and-cheek treatment of the industry, while still being committed to making inventive drinks, is the White Guilt. Named as a play on the fact that most in the industry disparage vodka (a white spirit), the White Guilt is a cedar-smoked vodka Old Fashioned that's flash aged and then charcoal filtered to remove impurities. Even the bitters in this complex cocktail are clarified using a centrifuge.

Morris also readily offers that he has a bottle of Pappy van Winkle, a spirit that seems to be the Moby Dick of whiskey snobbery nowadays, and he plans to use it in an equally frivolous way.

"I'm not concerned about making sure the drinks are perfect," Morris says. "I know they are."

If confidence is key as a bartender, Morris has it in spades. Really, he says it's about having fun and seizing the opportunity in those instances to be high concept, while still providing more accessible, familiar options for newcomers. After all, Morris estimates that once the bar is fully built and furnished, he'll be able to serve 50 to 60 customers at a time—a pretty impressive crowd for a craft bar, but he sees his new spot as a "middle ground between volume and craft."

"I don't want to be the best bar. I want everyone in town to have great cocktails," he says. "I'd rather be the coolest bar or the funniest bar or the most fun bar."

To that point, Morris says one well in his bar will be open to any bartender in town who wants to come in on a night and work a guest shift. He hopes the talent behind the stick in this town transcends place-based bartending and is more about the bartenders themselves.

In terms of drinks, Morris says each new edition of his cocktail menu at Tough Luck Club will come printed in a zine that he and his "dreamy team" staff compile. Morris seeks to make his drinks an "open source craft" and he encourages guests to take the zines home, along with his drink recipes.

"The magic happens when we're behind the bar," he says. "But when it comes to deciding what goes on the menu, normally whoever wins at Settlers of Catan gets to put their drink on."

The name itself—Tough Luck Club—is both a play on the fact that Reilly's basement used to be a mortuary and an homage to New York's Turf Club. As a guy who grew up on National Lampoon and MAD Magazine, Morris says he's really trying not to take the whole thing too seriously and that means ditching that vest and bowtie look that has almost become the bartender's uniform in recent years.

Instead, he usually wears a hoodie, some old punk T-shirt, and proudly displays his tattoos. One serves as a reminder for him behind the bar, saying simply: "vodka not too sweet."

If you're wondering, and this should come as no surprise, Morris also doesn't like the term mixologist. According to him, it was a pejorative term coined by a journalist in the early days of cocktails to describe someone behind the bar that was so concerned with the composition of the drink that they didn't actually bartend. He, like many in his field now, prefer the term bartender, which alludes to the act of both making drinks and being willing and able to have a conversation.

"You just have to be nice and communicate," he says. "The bartender is the one who shows you what you like to drink."

If you're ready for your own White Guilt or you just want Morris to guide you to your new go-to cocktail, Tough Luck Club's grand opening will be on New Year's Eve in Reilly Craft Pizza's basement located at 101 E. Pennington St.