‘The cocktail renaissance’ in the Vail Valley | VailDaily.com

‘The cocktail renaissance’ in the Vail Valley

Kelly Brinkerhoff
Daily Correspondent
Vail, CO Colorado
HL Cocktail Seminar 2 DT 1-30-10

VAIL VALLEY, Colorado – When it comes to carefully crafted cocktails, bar chefs will tell you business has never been better.

“High-end, hand-crafted cocktails with fresh ingredients and artisan spirits and liqueurs is probably the single most important development in the industry and one of the factors that has elevated the bartending profession in the last five years,” says Steven Olson, wine and spirits consultant to Bon Appetit Magazine, and co-founder of BAR (Beverage Alcohol Resource, an organization committed to the education of bartenders).

While a shot and a beer will always have its niche, Olson says the industry has made great strides over the past few years.

“Now people expect handmade cocktails and they expect a knowledge of the craft,” he said.

And more than just a passing fad, Olson calls the trend a movement that will continue to become more mainstream.

Growing a cocktail culture

The current popularity of culinary cocktails is directly linked to our nation’s growing interest in food. From the Food Network to home chefs to the trend in eating locally grown food, the surge in popularity for the culinary arts is “the single most important factor driving the cocktail renaissance,” says Olson, who also founded the Web site http://www.akawinegeek.com.

The cocktail movement, however, would not be where it is today without bartenders and mixologists – also known as bar chefs.

Bryan Dayton, bar manager at Frasca in Boulder and president of the Colorado chapter of the Bartender’s Guild, agrees.

“At the Colorado Bartender’s Guild we strive to raise the professionalism of our craft and the quality of the cocktail experience. The Guild has helped grow the cocktail culture in Colorado,” Dayton says.

This is what Olson has been working towards for the 30 years he’s been in the business.

“Bartending is a serious profession now and we’re working more with some of the great chefs of the world,” Olson says.

That’s because more and more, bartenders think like chefs, Olson says.

“Just like a chef enhances the ingredients he’s working with, we create a well-balanced cocktail, starting from the aromatics in the spirit we’re working with so you taste the complexity of the spirit and not the alcohol,” he said.

This was the theme of Olson’s apres ski cocktail seminar, held at the Osprey in Beaver Creek on Saturday as part of the Bon Appetit Master Chef Classic.

Olson used four spirits during the workshop: Tanqueray Ten gin, Don Julio tequila, Bulleit Bourbon and Zacapa Rum.

The first cocktail he demonstrated was his “Deconstructed Tom Nichol,” made with Tanqueray Ten, which has aromatics that range from lemon and grapefruit, to pine and floral notes.

“We enhance the flavors already present in the spirit by using fresh grapefruit juice, lemon juice, and orange juice mixed with chamomile honey syrup,” Olson says.

Bourbon is America’s only indigenous spirit. One of Olson’s favorite drinks is the “Bourbon Smash,” which evolved from the traditional Mint Julep and is made from Bulleit Bourbon, an artisan bourbon from Kentucky.

The key to making this drink is fresh mint and clear, very cold ice.

“Don’t underestimate the importance of ice,” Olson says. “The wrong type of ice can ruin a drink.”

For this drink, use a tin shaker and “shake it until your hand gets so cold you can’t hold it anymore – then you know you’re done and the bourbon is properly diluted,” he said.

And you can forget bottled lemon juice or those little cans of pineapple juice. A real bar chef wouldn’t think of it.

“One of the trends right now is using classic cocktail recipes and making them original with fresh ingredients,” says Dayton, who assisted Olson at Saturday’s seminar.

The La Solera, made with Zacapa Rum, is a good example of this trend.

Made at high altitude in Guatemala, Zacapa Rum has a “very sophisticated palate of sherry notes, almonds and fruit tones, such as dates and raisins,” Dayton says. “The La Solera is a bit of a take off on the classic Old Fashioned or Manhattan. We used a Spanish sherry, which has a terrior of orange essence, and used it like a fortified wine or Vermouth to really bring the rum to life.”

Osprey’s Executive Chef Michael Wilganowski served a a chocolate Pot de Creme alongside the La Solera for the workshop’s sweet finale.

No doubt, it was a winning combination.

Freelance writer Kelly Brinkerhoff lives in Edwards with her husband and son. E-mail comments about this story to cschnell@vaildaily.com.

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