As Boulder County distillers and bartenders expand their horizons to include an increasing number of ethnic spirits and concoctions, we, the drinking public, benefit from the fantastic array of cocktails that have joined the ranks of the old standards. Creative combinations, as well as classics with new twists, are set to reward the imbiber willing to stray a bit from the beaten path. Some special cocktails you could approximate yourself, but getting the ingredients—from organic fruit juices and lesser-known classic liqueurs to dwindling inventory of one-off distillations that aren’t available in stores—is challenging at best. For the true connoisseur, seeking out the growing number of artisanal distillers and mixologists along the Front Range is worth the journey. Whether they’re kicking up an old standard with high-quality ingredients and one-of-a-kind spirits from their personal stashes or flying off in a completely new direction, catching a buzz has never been so fun or flavorful. Here’s a beginner’s guide to what drinks inspired by faraway lands and liquors are to be had here at Boulder County’s doorstep.
Blue Agave @ Roundhouse Spirits
You won’t find tequila at the Roundhouse Spirits tasting room on Western Avenue—you’ll find something better. Ted Palmer and partner Alastair Brogan are serving up what’s left from the blue agave spirit he distilled three years ago and parked in American White Oak barrels (with a #3 char) to age. It was during the Mexican agave shortage, but Palmer was able to lay his hands on the good stuff. While the agave syrup came from Mexico, it was fermented, distilled and aged here in Boulder, so it can’t be called tequila. Regardless, the result is a bold and complex, yet delicately flavorful, spirit missing the raw, high-octane burn found in most of the cheap imported stuff.
The smooth, warming, faintly smoky, Roundhouse agave spirit is a great candidate for sipping straight. Its aromatic floral hints and subtle woodiness latch onto the alcoholic heat that gives your nose a tweak as you first approach—it begs to be sipped neat. But if you want something by which to measure all other margaritas, order up a Roundhouse Coin Marg, only available in the tasting room. Two ounces of the agave spirit are mixed with about the same amount of organic lime juice and just enough simple syrup to take the sharp edge off and let the alcohol shine through. The deft combination of tart lime, alcoholic heat and sweetness will place a benchmark on your taste buds to which you will compare all other margs. If that sounds good, don’t wait around; the Roundhouse agave spirit is only available at the tasting room because Palmer says there are only 300 bottles of his blue agave batch left.
Pimm’s Cup @ West End Tavern
While other “top shelf” eateries lean on their horns about locally sourcing their food, this iconic Boulder burger joint actually walks the walk when it comes to their bar. But in addition to the local flavors, The West End also works some mixologistic magic with Old World standards that have all but been forgotten by this side of the pond.
Pimm’s No. 1 Cup is a gin-based liqueur first marketed as a digestif and produced by a London oyster bar owner named Pimm in 1823. It contains a secret mix of herbs, fruits and other liqueurs which give it a deep reddish burgundy hue. On home soil, it’s typically served on the rocks or mixed with lemonade—the English version is clear and effervescent.
The good chaps at the West End have put together their own version that incorporates all of the above. The Pimm’s Cup starts with a muddled fresh cucumber and mint, an ounce of Pimm’s No. 1 which is then topped off with lemonade, a splash of ginger ale to finish and a mint sprig and orange slice for garnish. Served on the rocks, the result is an easy-drinking, refreshing cocktail with tons of citrus and herbal flavors and aromas that isn’t too high in alcohol. And when we say “herbal” do NOT think Jägermeister. Pimm’s is more fruity and herbal (think juniper and coriander) than the medicinal Jägermeister.
Hibiscus Cooler @ Dushanbe Teahouse
When Lenny and Sara Martinelli were putting together the teahouse’s initial menu in 1998, the first drink item on the list was the Hibiscus Cooler. And as other elements of the menu and drink options have come and gone (the selections of sangrias are outstanding), the Hibiscus Cooler has remained. And for good reason.
A muddy deep red to burgundy color, this cooler uses mildly floral hibiscus flowers brewed into a tea as its foundation. Teahouse Bartender Samuel Tallent keeps true to the roots of this chilly concoction saying the base for the mix hasn’t changed in more than 15 years. The aroma on this non-alcoholic drink doesn’t belie the sharp, tangy bite of the tea, which is mellowed with fresh lime juice and a bit of sugar. The whole thing is topped with soda water, giving the mixture a sparkling, bubbly character. This quenching drink is great for a designated driver looking to drive his fellow imbibers wild with jealousy. It’s that good.
The State Flower of Hawaii, the Hibiscus has a long history of use by Chinese herbologists and extract from the flowers is known to act as a natural sunscreen. The flowers and various spices are also boiled, which causes the mixture to generate a lather, which is used as a shampoo and conditioner. But even though you could wash your hair with it and get a nice tan, the Hibiscus is at its best when surrounded by ice and mixed with sugar and lime juice.
Zacapa Pineapple Colada @ Comida
While the romance and novelty of getting four-star food from a truck is somewhat lost in Comida’s restaurants, the overwhelming benefit is in the bar. Smart and varied beers complement the array of flavors and textures found in the food.
Like the food, the mixed drinks are simple yet extraordinary. Fresh ingredients creatively combined make working your way through the cocktail menu as much fun as exploring the food offerings. But as is the case with many top-shelf joints, it’s what’s not on the menu that’s fun. Case in point is Casalino’s own Ron Zacapa Pineapple Colada.
From that rich foundation of aromas and flavors, Casalino adds his own pineapple juice mix—including agave syrup, lemon and orange juices—cinnamon simple syrup and finishing with a splash of fresh lime and a pineapple wedge garnish. The result is not pretty—literally. This colada is a dirty pale amber color with little visual appeal. But once it touches your lips, the beauty of the flavor is undeniable. The punch of complex alcoholic heat from the rich dark rum is tempered by a puckering symphony of citrus fruits. And then, just in time, the cinnamon simple syrup takes its turn on your pallet, lingering politely as the others fade, waiting to be renewed with another sip. There’s only one person, in one place, that can deliver this marvelous concoction, and now you know. Drink up. And pass it on.
The Links cocktail @ Japango
Built with liquors we’d never tasted – like TyKu Soju and a foundation of Japanese Yamazaki 12-year-old single malt whiskey – this cloudy, pale yellow concoction with the lemony aroma has some tart that would pull your puss into a permanent pucker. But thanks to the inclusion of some Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur and the Soju (a 20 percent ABV, smoothly sweet, barley based rice and sweet potato liqueur), what could be a mouth-twisting palate crusher, instead becomes a satisfied smile.
Japango has stocked its bar with that rarest of ingredients: quality people. Regardless of whether you’re a booze noob and aren’t sure of the difference between Scotch and bourbon or you want to know if the 23-year-old Pappy Van Winkle’s is really better than the 15-year-old (and worth the extra coin — it is), the bartenders at Japango have the answer.
Smart, friendly and marinated in their craft, the bartenders – Dexter Hostetter and Michael Lombardo were on hand the night we were there – were happy to deconstruct the components of our cocktail, share the story behind (Dexter’s) Civil War era family bitters recipe and serve up a sample to make a point. As a result, the simple act of stopping by Japango for a drink morphed into an enjoyable, educational and fun evening. If there’s something more a bar can offer, we can’t think of it.
Tropical raspberry tea
You wouldn’t think that an uncommonly delicious, alcohol-free drink would be lurking amid the offerings of a national restaurant chain like TGI Friday’s, but there it is — Tropical Raspberry Tea — right there with a half a dozen other fresh and flavorful offerings.
Pouring outside the box, the Longmont TGI Friday’s has been tweaking its tap offerings to include more than the usual suspects from the national breweries. Present are dark and flavorful draughts from Left Hand, Oskar Blues and Avery, thanks to prodding from bar staff that know their customers have more discerning palates and like supporting the local brewing masters.
And that nod to quality and flavor has infused what would normally be some pretty mundane teas and fruit slushes tucked into a commendably varied cocktail list. The fresh brewed black tea is kicked up considerably with the addition of muddled fresh raspberries and guava purée. This combo gives the drink some body; it’s not thick like a smoothie, but it’s more substantial than straight tea. And to that comes agave sour mix — a concoction of TGI Friday’s that includes agave syrup and fresh lime and lemon juices — which turns this mixture into a bright, tasty, not-too-tart (or sweet) drink that would make any designated driver happy to be the sober one.
Via Toscana is an Italian restaurant gem, hiding in the corner of the Centennial Center strip mall off Louisville’s McCaslin Boulevard. If you’ve never stopped by for dinner, introduce yourself with a visit for happy hour; hands down one of the best deals in Boulder County for price, variety and quality.
In addition to two dozen delicious happy hour food offerings, Via Toscana has a well-curated cellar of 90 bottled beers and a 500-bottle wine list — most from the key growing regions of Italy, with an assortment of offerings from France, South America and elsewhere around the world included for good measure.
But if you’re in the mood for something that will cleanse your palate from a frustrating day at the office, order up a Strawberry-Lime Martini created by co-owner Krista Castellino. This tequila-based martini includes fresh strawberry with strawberry pucker liqueur and fresh-made, in-house margarita mix (Amaretto, Triple-Sec and lime juice). This combo delivers a tart — almost sour — strawberry splash to the tongue that finishes with a mild sweetness and hint of smoky tequila. This and an assortment of olives is Via Toscana’s flavorful way of putting any kind of workday behind you, pronto.