A guy walks into a bar. “I don’t have a usual,” he says. “Impress me.” And so the gauntlet is down for bartenders to abandon traditional menus in favor of cocktails of their own design.
At Billy’s Restaurant in Lionshead, Bob McKown doesn’t flinch, instantly producing a handful of fresh mint from a friend’s garden in West Vail. A little muddling, shaking, and garnishing later, and voilà! McKown delivers a vivid strawberry mojito that pairs lime and mint in a Cuban dance of sorts that’s downright effervescent.
Not to be outdone, Kenny Windey, certified master mixologist at Juniper in Edwards for nearly a decade, whips up a spiced pear martini that will warm the stuffers out of your stockings, its combination of ginger, cinnamon, and nutmeg evoking Grandma’s bustling, aroma-filled holiday kitchen.
Specialists like McKown and Windey, both veteran participants in Taste of Vail’s wildly popular mix-off competitions, craft drinks as visually exciting as they are flavorful. These guys complement superpremium spirits with their own specialty ingredients, such as exotic juices, fruit purées, infusions, and garnishes.
“People now ask for all kinds of things,” McKown says. “You’ve got to be prepared.”
There was a time when your average bartender cringed at making a frozen daiquiri or other labor-intensive drink on a busy night. Some barkeeps still do. But a different generation has taken the helm behind the bar. Far from the old-school ski bums who bartended just to support a ski habit, this new crop of shakers and pourers makes bartending a career, investing in specialized education and embracing the job as a long-term plan. For them, the prospect of experimenting with ingredients tantalizes just as it does a chef looking to create a new dish.
Over at Bol at Solaris, Donovan Sornig relishes the challenge of mixing off-menu. A pair of patrons asks for drinks “in season,” but when talk turns to preferred alcohol, Sornig pronounces, “I’m not going to give you an option” and then hurries to the bar, wheels spinning on how best to use fresh ingredients.
He returns with a blueberry lavender collins colorful enough to have been minted by Willy Wonka himself. It employs a vodka infused with lavender from a nearby farm, lending it a crispness fitting for the cool Colorado evening. He muddles vodka-soaked blueberries into the drink for color and a hint of sweetness that doesn’t overpower. The sparkling concoction is so subtle it cleanses the palate like a bottle of Perrier.
“We enjoy food so much; why can’t we enjoy beverages?” he asks rhetorically before referring his guests to another talented bar chef, Marisha Thiele at Frost in the Sebastian. Thiele, too, takes up the challenge, mixing a pineapple- and jalapeño-infused tequila in a saucy margarita with a kick, a drinkable salsa that demands a meal to match its flavor. On the sweeter side, she mixes up Frost’s house-made, berry-infused vodka with Frangelico and fresh-squeezed lime, shakes the results, then adds a splash of ginger beer. She christens it the Ginger Pixie Stick on the spot, and it flows down like an adult version of the childhood favorite.
Over in Beaver Creek, Wisconsin native Eddie Ahmad blends drinks to match the mood. The nerve center of the Pines Lodge for sixteen years, Ahmad insists the holidays call for a hot coffee drink. He dazzles with his Chocolate Swan, expertly layering espresso and chocolatey dairy cream liqueur with whipped cream and chocolate sprinkles. It’s the perfect fuel for heading back over the river and through the woods on a cold winter’s eve.
And it’s one more example of a trend worth savoring. These days in the Vail Valley, cocktail aficionados should expect a drink with no less éclat than their meal.
Home Fires: mix like the masters—by using their recipes
Spiced Pear Martini
- 2 oz. Grey Goose La Poire vodka
- ½ oz. Domaine de Canton
- ¼ oz. Sailor Jerry spiced rum
Combine ingredients in a mixing glass or shaker. Shake with ice, strain into a martini glass, and garnish with a maraschino cherry.
Juniper Restaurant, Edwards
- 4 oz. hot espresso
- 2 oz. hot water
- 1½ oz. Coole Swan Superior Dairy Cream Liqueur
Combine in a heavy mug. Top with whipped cream and garnish with chocolate sprinkles.
Pines Lodge, Beaver Creek