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Zolo Grill bar manager Brian Julsen whips up a specialty cocktail made with fresh grapefruit juice. (photo courtesy Zolo Grill)

Expand your imbibing experience

By Charmaine Ortega Getz

You like pickles, you like martinis, so the idea of changing up your usual go-to cocktail entices you to try that Pickletini on the bar menu. Alas, it turns out the drink is, well, kind of icky.

How does one expand the imbibing experience without wasting money on a disappointing novelty? Here are a few tips from the pros.

The best time to try unknown cocktails is at the beginning of a bar’s happy hour on a workday evening. Take a seat close to the bartenders that’s also close to their ears. “If you aren’t too familiar with spirits and cocktails, tell us and we will do our best to teach you,” says Dan Maguire, bar manager at The Bitter Bar. “Not everyone is well-versed in booze, but that’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

Making the perfect pour at The Bitter Bar. (photo by James Lee)
Making the perfect pour at The Bitter Bar. (photo by James Lee)

A good place to start is to consider what tastes you prefer. “If you usually drink wine or beer, what kinds?” asks Jorden McBiles, assistant general manager and bar manager at Eureka! Just as you might pick a chardonnay over a merlot or a lager over a porter, a bartender can steer you toward a cocktail that would best match your preferences.

“Not sure about liquor, but you like fresh salad? We’ve got a cocktail that’s like a garden in a glass,” says Matty Schelling, bar manager at The No Name Bar, which also offers a seasonal pumpkin-pie martini for those with a sweet tooth.

Bartenders can also help you out with cocktail nuances. “Does it make a difference if the tequila is blanco, reposado or añejo—and why? We can tell you,” says Brian Julsen, bar manager at Zolo Grill. “Or what to substitute if you like our Michoacán hot chocolate but don’t like the blackberry liqueur in it.”

If you want to pair food with your cocktail, Alec Schuler, proprietor/chef at Arugula, offers this tip: “Do a little meditation with the drink first—sniff it, sip it, savor it. That’ll give you an idea of what might taste great with it. For instance, if the drink has a whiskey’s smoky-sweet flavor, it’ll go well with anything that has barbecue sauce.” He suggests inquiring about cocktails with ingredients that come from the same regional traditions as the restaurant’s cuisine. “They’re going to play well together.”

Above: Sit at the bar if you want to learn valuable tips from a seasoned bartender, like these patrons at Arugula. PHOTOs: (photo of Arugula patrons by Randolph Josse)
Above: Sit at the bar if you want to learn valuable tips from a seasoned bartender, like these patrons at Arugula. PHOTOs: (photo of Arugula patrons by Randolph Josse)

Mix It Up at Home

Making exotic cocktails at home is fun, and it shouldn’t be daunting either. “There are plenty of how-to books about classic and new cocktails,” says Simon Vazquez, assistant general manager and beverage director for Wild Standard. “You can even go online and take courses at Bar Smarts.” (www.barsmarts.com)

Schelling suggests looking for recipes with three or four ingredients, tops. “Some of our greatest cocktails came out of the Prohibition era, when there weren’t many supplies available,” he says. Use only fresh juices and measure everything—“don’t eyeball it!” As for equipment, Schelling suggests a muddler, a strainer, a shaker and couple of jiggers.

“The Arugula” is made with Sipsmith gin, fresh muddled arugula, tonic, fresh rosemary, simple syrup and fresh lemon. (photo by Randolph Josse)
“The Arugula” is made with Sipsmith gin, fresh muddled arugula, tonic, fresh rosemary, simple syrup and fresh lemon. (photo by Randolph Josse)

And no need to go overboard on pricey ingredients. “Don’t break the bank on a whiskey that you plan to mix into a cocktail,” Maguire says. “Cocktails were invented because spirits at the time were so unpalatable, you had to mix them with other ingredients just so you could drink them.” Plenty of reasonably priced spirits are available that play well in drinks, he says.

Homemade cocktails impress guests, but don’t spend time laboring over them, McBiles suggests. “Let’s say you’re expecting a few guests and you’d like to offer them a classic Old Fashioned. If you make the traditional drink, there are a bunch of steps that take way too long.” Instead, he suggests making a citrus-infused grenadine ahead of time that will keep for two weeks in the refrigerator. “Then all you’ll need to add is the whiskey or bourbon, and the bitters.” McBiles’s recipe? Mix ½ cup each pomegranate juice and sugar, and the zest of two oranges. Simmer the mixture in a saucepan for 7-8 minutes, then cool, strain and refrigerate.

It’ll beat that expensive Pickletini any day of the week.


Lovely Libations

When you’re in the mood for a unique cocktail, try these refreshingly different concoctions.

The Bitter Bar Tonic: Contains cinchona bark, ginger, lemongrass, agave, cinnamon, and the zest and juice of lemons, limes and oranges. Can be nonalcoholic or mixed with spirits. Served at The Bitter Bar, 835 Walnut St., 303-442-3050.

Cucumber Basil Cocktail: Hendrick’s gin, dry vermouth, chopped fresh cucumber and basil, with a cucumber garnish. Served at The No Name Bar, 1325 Broadway (blank door next to Cosmo’s Pizza on University Hill), no phone.

The Feisty Italian: Feisty Spirits rye whiskey, Contratto vermouth, Contratto bitters and simple syrup made with Earl Grey tea leaves. Served at Arugula, 2785 Iris Ave., 303-443-1365.

The Frida Kahlo: Tequila blanco, Horchata rice milk, Mezcal, cinnamon, simple syrup and lime juice. Served at Wild Standard, 1043 Pearl St., 720-638-4800.

Holy Smokes: Bourbon, maple syrup and chocolate bitters infused with hickory smoke. Served at Eureka!, 1048 Pearl St., 720-259-3636.

Michoacán Hot Chocolate: Hot chocolate, Espolón reposado tequila, Leopold Brothers Rocky Mountain blackberry liqueur, Ancho Reyes chile liqueur. Served at Zolo Grill, 2525 Arapahoe Ave., 303-449-0444.


Charmaine Ortega Getz is the author of Weird Colorado: Your Travel Guide to Colorado’s Local Legends & Best Kept Secrets.