TALES OF THE ASPEN COCKTAIL BEHIND EVERY BOOZY BEVERAGE IS A STORY …
August 3, 2017
Universally understood, only one word is necessary to spark celebration: Of the end of a workday, the beginning of a night out, or simply toast to family, friends, fun, health, and good fortune. Aspen—hands down the partiest mountain town in Colorado, we think—has long gone pro. Proof positive: the colorful array of original cocktails that honor Aspen's cool, quirky nature, shaken and stirred by creative bartenders who keep our whistles wet, year after year. Cheers, my dears!
J-Bar at Hotel Jerome
As many of you know, the famed Aspen Crud was conceived as a means to help hard-working miners evade Prohibition laws at the historic J-Bar, downgraded to a soda fountain during those years (1920-1933).
"They'd spike your milkshake with a bottle of bourbon they had hidden in the wall of the bar," says former lead bartender Ryan Sterling. "The 10th Mountain Division guys, when training for the war, would come here with the miners and enjoy an Aspen Crud, long after Prohibition ended."
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Today's version: two ounces of Jim Beam in a 14-ounce glass of whipped vanilla ice cream and milk. "Traditionally it was much more than that," Sterling clarifies. "It was a hard day in the mine—you didn't want a milkshake, you wanted six ounces of Jim Beam!"
Except it wasn't called Jim Beam yet back then: The spirit was rebranded in 1933 for James B. Beam, who rebuilt the company post-Prohibition.
PUERTO DE ASPEN
Jimmy's Bodega / Jimmy's: An American Restaurant
"The original cocktail at Dead Rabbit NYC is a mezcal-based drink called the Port of New York," says proprietor Jimmy Yeager, who created the pink Puerto de Aspen with Jimmy's bar manager Chris Kelner and sommelier Greg Van Wagner. "Our main change is using tequila and adding Ancho Reyes Chile Liqueur to get the spicy, smoky overtones."
Solerno Blood Orange Liqueur and fresh watermelon juice sweeten the bottled beverage, served over Jimmy's signature BFICs (big f—kin ice cubes). Yeager introduced the bottled cocktail program upon opening Bodega in June 2014. So successful it was that the formula was soon adopted at Jimmy's, too.
"With so little time to prepare the Bodega I wanted to still offer an exciting cocktail program but not have to train a bunch of new bartenders to make complex cocktails and be distracted by such complexity instead of paying attention to our guests," Yeager explains. "Bottled cocktails ensure consistency and quality by having them all made in advance to our specifications."
Those who call it a cop out, think again: Waitstaff are able to self-serve, eliminating delays in getting drinks on the double.
St. Regis Aspen Resort
Fun fact: the vodka-and-tomato-juice cocktail that preceded the Bloody Mary was imported from Paris to the first St. Regis Resort in New York City circa 1934. Concerned that guests might take offense at the moniker, barkeep Fernand Petiot renamed it the "Red Snapper." Today, every St. Regis property around the globe claims its own signature spin: Osaka's Shogun Mary blends gin, yuzu, soy, and wasabi in a martini glass; Mexico City's Sangrita Maria is made with mezcal and puréed chiles. Aspen's Downhill Snapper (1992) is inspired by Colorado's change of seasons. According to "The Bloody Mary" hardbound St. Regis recipe book, "The subtle coolness of dill evokes winter; basil and refreshing citrus are redolent of bright summer days." Thankfully, that's about as weird as it gets.
WEIRD NIGHTS HAPPEN
"We've all been there before," says former senior bartender Alex Ervin, introducing his exquisitely refreshing cucumber-vodka cocktail. "The night starts off normal enough: Meet up with a few friends for some drinks, seems chill. Then someone shows up with a bunch of weed gummies and mushrooms. A few hours later you're howling at the moon and entertaining all sorts of debauchery. Some friends go missing, not to be seen until the following day … weird nights happen in Aspen."
It only sounds vaguely ominous; basil, lemon, St. Germain elderflower liqueur, and soda water keep the drink light. Which may make them go down a bit too fast. Next stop: weirdness.
CANARY IN THE MINE
Steakhouse No. 316
Bird is the word at Steakhouse No. 316—even though this instant classic created by main bartender Karen Miller a few summers ago cedes menu billing to newer creations. Miller prepares her "deconstructed grapefruit" in a Collins glass from a blend of house-infused lemongrass vodka, St. Germain, Peychaud's Bitters, and her own fizzy limonata. The beverage is bright and buzzy, just like its inspiration.
"(Miners) would throw a canary in the mine to make sure it wasn't gaseous," Miller explains. "If the canary came out, it was safe to go down into the mine; if not, they didn't."
THE MINER'S LIGHT
Drama reigns at Chefs Club: Spirits director Matt Corbin's latest creation is delivered via glowing-red lantern, harking to Aspen's rich prospecting history. A spinoff of Corbin's popular Gypsy Smoke cocktail, the Miner's Light stirs together Woody Creek Distillers rye, Carpano Antica sweet vermouth, Amaro Lucano, and black-walnut bitters; the glass arrives inside a lantern full of smoke thanks to cola-soaked maple and aspen-bark chips combined with rough-ground spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, coriander, clove).
"The first thing we do when we taste a cocktail is smell it," Corbin says. "So when you allow part of that cocktail to come out and go to the guests…it pulls them in, and creates an experience for everyone at the table or bar."
Thirsty? Chefs Club hosts the Edible Communities Good Spirits National Tour when it hits Aspen on August 10 (see sidebar, below).
element 47 at The Little Nell
Seeing is believing when it comes to the Margarita 47 at The Little Nell's element 47—both drink and restaurant named for the atomic number of silver. Made to order tableside on a custom-built cart since 2015, the frosty, silky, $47 concoction comprises top-shelf Roca Patrón, Grand Marnier, fresh lime, and an essential ingredient: liquid nitrogen.
"It's pretty boozy because it's four ounces of alcohol," says bar manager Ricardo Leyvas, who maintains a serene, blender-free establishment. "When you use liquid nitrogen, the flavors concentrate. You have to stir very slowly to create tiny frozen ice crystals. To make four at a time, you're stirring for, like, 10 minutes! It's a workout."
The dazzling finale: edible silver flakes, scattered over top like snow.
ASPEN ESPRESSO MARTINI
Campo de Fiori
"While I'd love to present a new cocktail from our carefully crafted, trend-pushing, seasonally changing cocktail list—preferably one with cold-processed watermelon juice and organic, small-batch cucumber vodka house-infused with local mint and lime, which happens to be named after an Aspen summer—I cannot," says Campo de Fiori's Laura Betti (pictured at left). "The cocktail most synonymous with Aspen is unarguably the Campo Espresso Martini. Locals and tourists alike have been returning for this top-secret, seven-ingredient masterpiece for over a decade."
The icing: "We can whip one up in the amount of time most restaurants brew a shot of espresso."
Betti proves it—in a whirlwind 20 seconds. Poured to the brim of a pre-frozen martini glass, the foamy, cappuccino-colored quaff is sprinkled with a hypnotic swirl of espresso dust.
"Some nights we'll make 100," adds bar manager Chris Carmichael. So really, he reiterates, no need to apologize in advance when ordering one.
Grey Lady Aspen
Someone convinced Woody Creek Distillers to create Escobar-branded vodka? Only in Aspen! The namesake mule at Grey Lady also includes Gosling's ginger beer, a splash of fresh lime, and a shake of Angostura bitters, the latter liquid creating the effect of a foggy morning on Nantucket, where the bar owners claim roots (or, perhaps, hazy recollection of a late night underground?). Bonus: A chewy garnish of candied ginger to take the edge off.
The Red Onion
While all 17 specialty cocktails at the Red Onion are named after Aspen Mountain trails—the joint is our OG ski-bum bar since 1892, after all—the Corkscrew Manhattan is bartender Pat Sewell's favorite. Fitting, since the watering hole stocks a whopping 260 whiskeys.
"We keep Woody Creek Distillers rye in this barrel, which gives a nice oaky flavor," Sewell says, pointing to a mini cask perched behind him, looker's right. Part-owner and general manager Brad Smith believes the vessel came from a Kentucky cooperage, where the Red Onion logo was added. Recalling a luscious powder day, the modern Corkscrew Manhattan is juiced up with Solerno Blood Orange Liqueur.
"Skiing," Smith concludes of the cocktail theme, "that is why we all came and why we all stay here."
Call it a born winner: Created by then-bartender Lev Hofmann, Rustique Bistro's Aspen Fresh won the Aspen Cocktail Classic in 2005. The original recipe calls for rarely-in-season lemon cucumbers, muddled, plus Pearl Pomegranate vodka, fresh lime, and POM Wonderful pomegranate juice, shaken and served up in a martini glass.
"It's like an Aspen spa—cucumbers on your eyes and all," says Rustique owner Rob Ittner, adding that they were writing food recipes using POM Wonderful for Aspen owners Lynda and Stewart Resnick at the time. "We were thinking of calling it 'The Aspen Spa'; rules of the Classic back then (required) the name to have 'Aspen' in it."
In a way, Rustique was defending the champion title; sister operation, Range Restaurant, won the 2004 Cocktail Classic with bartender Ben Sands's Aspen Sugar Daddy (vodka, triple sec, Amarula cream liqueur, pomegranate juice, fresh lime, sugared rim). That recipe was featured in the 2005 Food & Wine Cocktails book and earned national press.
"A producer saw it on a plane into Aspen and casted him on 'The Bachelorette' TV show as a result," Ittner adds. "Ben lasted a few episodes but did not find love on that show."
Gwyn's High Alpine
Champagne + vodka + Blood Orange San Pellegrino + ice = Fancy Ryan, a popular mountain sipper named for beloved Snowmass patron Ryan Williams.
"He used to spend a lot of time at the High Alpine Bar," says manager Whitney Gordon, Gwyn's daughter. "Originally he'd come in and drink Grey Goose and Blood Orange San Pellegrino. One day (bartender) Aly (Romanus) told him he needed to be fancier, and added Champagne. The name, Fancy Ryan, stuck. Those who knew him ordered it when he was with them and it became a tribute after he passed away from cancer a few years ago. No garnish. We generally do them in plastic (cups) so they can go out to the deck."
GARDEN OF ASPEN
Leave it to locals to turn wholesome green juice into a hedonistic wake-up call: The Garden of Aspen doses a rocks glass of fresh-pressed fruits and veggies (spinach, cucumber, apple, carrot, ginger, lemon) with a healthy pour of Breckenridge Distillery vodka. Aspen Kitchen general manager Marc Ellert-Beck's intention was pure, first offering the lush elixir sans alcohol. That lasted about a minute.
"Adding vodka has turned out to be the more popular version," quips Ellert-Beck, who suggests Ketel One Citroen in a twist. "Not quite the Garden of Eden but the Garden of Aspen."
COOPER STREET COLLINS
House-made ginger beer elevates the Cooper Street Collins, notes John Borie, pouring live from the second-floor lounge at bb's. The longtime local bartender, musician, emcee, and man about town boosts his frothy gin cocktail's sweet-spice quotient with Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur.
"It's a new, refreshing drink for the dog days of summer," Borie says. Meanwhile, "I've been on the menu here three years."
When Alexis Kendall opened the bar at Bosq last June, she couldn't resist naming a cocktail in homage to Aspen's most cherished exotic species. Spotted: Cougar Juice, a pale-pink, sweet-sour blend of Hangar One vodka, TYKU cucumber sake, and a juicy threesome (watermelon, cucumber, lemon). Capture this beast at least once. Grrrrr.
Home Team BBQ
So delectable that it enjoys a special box on the menu, the frozen Game Changer tames fiery spice with Southern charm. Boasting two kinds of rum, OJ, pineapple juice, cream of coconut, and a dash of fresh nutmeg, the frosty beverage from Home Team outposts in Charleston, S.C., is a brain-freezing reminder that Aspen was overdue for authentic 'cue.
La Crêperie du Village
Since sun worshippers without private-pool access will lament Sky's falling for the next 300-plus days and counting, perhaps it's time to crown La Piscine as Aspen's nouveau-chic cocktail in memoriam. This traditional French pastime ("swimming pool" en français) drops a fistful of ice into a glass of rosé. Sure, La Piscine may lack spirit, but it quenches thirst better than straight rosé—already a favorite patio-pounder year-round.
THE BLIND ARMADILLO
Batch at Roaring Fork Beer Company, Carbondale
Sure, it may seem a stretch regarding this story's Aspen-inspired protocol—Roaring Fork Beer Company (RFBC) owners Chase Engel and wife, Aly Sanguily, recently opened Batch on Main Street in Carbondale. However, The Blind Armadillo, named for Engels's family ranch in Texas, leads the pack toward the valley's latest trend: beer cocktails.
"We don't have wine or hard alcohol yet," admits Sanguily, a self-proclaimed tequila-or-wine imbiber. "It makes you feel like you have a cocktail—not just a beer."
The Armadillo combines syrups made exclusively by Carbondale Soda Company—Szechuan peppercorn, pineapple, and serrano chile—with RFBC Freestone Extra Pale Ale over ice. The result: sparkly citrus nuances with a tongue-numbing (eventually) kick. "A little something extra" is the Aspen way, anyway—even in Carbondale.
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