I was in lovely (but cold!) Boulder, Colorado for only a few hours the other day but I was happy my meetings were downtown, and very near a couple of fine drinking establishments. I took advantage.
At lunch, my companion and I went in search of some food and wandered down Pearl Street, where we got some decent coffee that morning. We were hungry and impatient and stepped into the first place whose menu looked appealing. We were seated by a friendly young woman in a big, comfy booth. The menu said “West End Tavern.”
I had a decent veggie burger and a beer, and my friend, who had been a bit under the weather ordered a ‘Tom’s Hot Toddy’, nicely made with Bulleit bourbon, honey, lemon, hot water, cinnamon and star anise (I enjoyed a quaff). We had work to do over lunch but I was distracted by the expansive bourbon list– some 62 varieties, plus 4 single-barrel bourbons selected and bottled only for West End. I vowed to come back and enjoy one after work that eve.
After the afternoon meeting, a conference call, and a brief appearance at a nearby 25th anniversary benefit house party for Rainforest Action Network, I made my way through the snow (yeah, did I mention that?) back to Pearl St., and pulled up a seat at the bar. Since the menu began with a list of bourbon cocktails, I decided to wait on a tumbler of special bourbon and start with one of the joint’s specialty concoctions, a ‘Blueberry Lace’.
The cheery (and pretty) bartender returned with a drink made with fresh blueberries and basil muddled with agave nectar and fine-strained into a rocks glass filled up with the West End’s single barrel Eagle Rare 10-year bourbon, and topped with a splash of soda. It was refreshing and interesting, with the fruit and herb and sugar all rather subtle notes to the bourbon– not what I was expecting, but glad for it.
After a bit, I went back to the first drink I noticed, at the top of the list, ‘The Ron Burgundy’. The description says, ‘”kick the vermouth in the side with a pair of steel toe boots” and that is what we do!’ I love a Manhattan and this was made – according to the menu – with their single barrel Elmer T. Lee bourbon, Leopold’s cherry liqueur, Angostura bitters and a house-made bourbon-soaked cherry. I ordered one and began my appraisal.
It was smooth and delicious and a little boring. As I sipped it, the bartender, perhaps sensing my cocktail geekiness, brought the bottles of the whiskey and cherry liqueur for my sampling. I had never tasted Michigan’s Leopold Brothers cherry liquor but, damn! Lovely balance of tart and sweet– not the kind of thing I would normally sip but a delicious dessert drink and my mom would love it poured over some ice cream. And Buffalo Trace’s Elmer T. Lee single barrel was lovely. I just finished a bottle that my friend Kevin brought to a cocktail party and this was an interesting variation– a smooth, subtle, easy-drinking whiskey, with classic vanilla and caramel and a hint of spiciness tempered by oak and and a long warm finish.
I thanked the bartender and told her I found The Ron Burgundy very tasty but slightly unsatisfying. I don’t have the kind of intelligent palate to be sure what would make the difference without experimenting, but I thought it could use a flamed orange or lemon twist instead of the cherry, as enjoyable as that was at the end of the drink. Or maybe some Fee Bothers whiskey barrel-aged bitters with the pronounced cinnamon notes to highlight the cherry liqueur. As-is, it fell a little flat.
The bartender listened graciously, if a bit impatiently, and I had the impression it wasn’t her recipe. Nonetheless, it turned out she was the bar manager with the awesome name of Sage Swink. By then, I had realized that this place was one of the handful of ‘Big Red F‘ restaurants in Boulder, a small restaurant group known for artistry and care in the kitchen as well as behind the bar. Another of the places is the Happy Noodle House, around the corner, and its Bitter Bar.
I told Sage I had heard great things about the Bitter Bar (well, read them on the interwebs) and I’d been meaning to check it out. She told me “those guys over there are awesome” and encouraged me to go. I had less than two hours before I had to begin my journey to the Denver airport and home so I paid my tab and headed out to the Bitter Bar, home of acclaimed mixologist James Lee, as well as Mark Stoddard, one-third of the Team USA who brought home the Gold last month from the 42Below Cocktail World Cup in New Zealand.
Coming (very) soon– a peek at Boulder’s Bitter Bar. Cheers.