SNOWMASS VILLAGE - It was the third night since the Apres Ski Cocktail Classic made its commencement at the Westin in Snowmass, and at this point the majority was already five or more drinks in. Now it was time for a lucky few to make their way downstairs to the Snowmass Kitchen for an exclusive pairing dinner, where Chef Ronnie Sanchez and four of the country's top mixologists were preparing one of the most anticipated menus yet.
The private dining room sat only 24 guests among three tables. Guests were greeted at the door with a pre-dinner cocktail-a highball of freshly shaken juice and liquor poured over a couple cubes, garnished with a pick of Luxardo cherries. Mixologists Tony Abou Ganim, Steve Olson and Charlotte Voisey mingled with guests, thanking everyone for coming as they touched glasses in the air and toasted the evening's celebration.
Around 8:30 everyone had taken a seat as Iron Chef of America winner, author and renowned mixologist Tony Abou-Ganim introduced the first-course cocktail: "The Wizard," taken from his book, "The Modern Mixologist" and made up of Reyka vodka, yellow chartreuse, dry vermouth and orange bitters.
"I was given the menu first," he said. "From there it's my job to choose a drink to complement the flavors and accentuate the dish."
Also known as Aperitif, or a drink served before dinner to stimulate the appetite, "The Wizard," as he described offers small notes of chartreuse that works to bring out the lemon verbena served with Sanchez's seared scallops with seafood nage in the first course.
"Vodka so often gets lost in the drink," he said. "This cocktail is meant to celebrate the liquor and make it the star of the show."
Second in line was Charlotte Voisey, who mixed up a martini of Hendricks gin, fresh mandarin, strawberry, pineapple, citrus and arugula to be paired with a salad tossed in a juniper-grape vinaigrette and topped with Muscovy duck breast and a poached egg.
In the third course, where a slow roasted rack of elk was served over smoked fingerlings, toasted ancho and demi glace, Steve Olson stirred up a dangerous concoction of small batch bourbon and single village mescal with sweet vermouth, chocolate mole and orange bitters over one large cube.
"A lot of people think cocktail and food pairing is some kind of modern, new world idea," said Olson, recalling how matching cocktails with food is about as original and innovative as sticking an olive in a martini or a celery stick in a bloody mary.
"For centuries cocktails and booze have been served side by side, it's just a matter of interpreting it in a textural way," he said.
Finally, to bring the evening's dinner to its proper conclusion, event director and mixologist Kim Hassarud complemented a spiced tres leches cake with a single- barrel bourbon topped with organic coffee, hand-whipped cream and grated nutmeg.
"With the cocktail pairing dinner we were hoping to bring more awareness to a concept that has been around for centuries," said Hassarud. "You see a lot of wine pairing dinners out there, but for cocktails, with a world of ingredients that cleanse the palette every time, we knew we could bring something special to the table."
In the end, special was everything and more, as friends and strangers talked and laughed between one another with flushed faces, relishing in the tastes and flavors they enjoyed throughout the night and anticipating an opportunity to experience the Apres Ski Cocktail Classic for a second time next year.