This holiday season, there are multiple reasons to raise a glass, or several. Amidst the emergence of Vail’s craft cocktail scene, mixologist master James Lee has temporarily landed here to share his love of ski town living and libations.
“I’ve decided to be a ‘ski bum’ for the first time in my life, and spend the winter here in beautiful Vail, Colorado,” Lee said.
Lee is the former beverage director of the Big Red F Restaurant Group in Boulder/Denver and current founder-partner at The Bitter Bar in Boulder. Among his numerous accomplishments, Lee was named Playboy’s A-List “Top Ten Best Mixologists in the Country” in 2009, the same year that he finished second place at the Absolut Vodka National Cocktail Competition in Las Vegas.
In 2012, Lee was awarded and coined the “Godfather of Cocktails” by EATER Denver.
His seasonal stint in Vail this year will fill an interim period within Lee’s next endeavor: opening a “cocktail centric” restaurant in Austin, Texas, with his best friend from college who is based there. The restaurant space will not be ready until June at the earliest, leaving a solid six months open for Lee to live in his small Vail condo while enjoying the full experience of mountain work and play.
“My goals here in Vail are to have a great time skiing this season, stay healthy, meet local restaurant/industry people,” he said. “And maybe, just maybe, plant a seed to open a small local’s bar here in the Vail Valley sooner than later.”
Living like a local
Although Lee will surely be making a number of cameo appearances at other bars around town, he has taken a position leading the bar program at Bol. Although his schedule is likely to vary, Lee said he will be working four to five nights a week and will have a presence at the bar almost every night.
Donovan Sornig, bar manager at Mountain Standard, said he met Lee through the Colorado Bartenders’ Guild. Sornig said it’s nice to have a well-respected figure in the industry joining Vail’s bar community.
“It’s just exciting to have a good bartender come up,” he said. “The food has already been here in Vail, but we are progressively trying to create this cocktail culture up here.”
Sornig explained how among a number of other restaurants in Vail — including Kelly Liken, Larkspur, Sweet Basil and Bol — Mountain Standard has also been focused on forward thinking with every element of culinary creation.
“More and more, bars are moving with the food trend,” he said. “Food and beverage are so often used in the same sentence, so why not bring a little more food into our beverage?”
Tools of the trade
Lee has been bartending for more than 25 years. He said he started during his college days in North Carolina but that his true restaurant career didn’t really open up until he moved to Boulder in 1998.
“I started at Zolo Grill, where I truly learned how to master the nuances of tequila and the art of making a classic margarita — using only the highest and finest ingredients of fresh lime juice, 100 percent agave tequila and no artificial sugar or syrup,” he said.
Although he gained a tremendous knowledge of spirits and the art of bartending in his 14-year career as beverage director for the Big Red F Restaurant Group, Lee said it was two mentors, Jim Meehan from New York City and Francesco Lafranconi from Las Vegas, who helped him to sharpen his skills.
“Meehan showed me the art of cocktails and the technique, and Lafranconi introduced me to the art of being a ‘professional’ as a barman behind the stick, which includes having your own bar tools, product knowledge, proper attire, good communication with guests and, lastly, all about having passion and honor for your trade,” he said.
A guest’s experience is the most important piece of the business, Lee said, explaining how that is what he looks forward to the most with his spirit creations.
“Raising the level of awareness to my guests’ experience is the key inspiration to my job,” he said. “Thus coming up with uncompromising cocktails, as well as having the finest and freshest ingredients, is vital.”