For the multitudes that have awaited the second installment of my report from a (very) brief drinking excursion in lovely and then-snowy Boulder, CO– thank you for your patience. My apologies for the inexcusable delay. It’s an inauspicious start to writing here at Mr. Browner-Hamlin’s delicious booze blog (sorry, Matt!). In my defense, I’ve been busy, and even got tossed in jail this past week in Houston. Ouch. But I digress already.
Now, after I left the friendly West End Tavern a couple weeks ago, I went around the corner to The Bitter Bar at Happy Noodle House. It was only a couple blocks away. It was still relatively early but I didn’t have long before I’d need to head for a shuttle bus to take me to the Denver airport.
The Bitter Bar is home to some of the biggest new (and not-so new) names in mixology anywhere between the coasts so as I pulled up a seat at the bar, I decided to put myself in the surely-capable hands of whomever came to help me. Wearing a snappy vest, tie, driver’s cap (I’m not crazy about the hat-behind-the-bar trend myself), and a friendly smile, the bartender came over. I told him I’d be having dinner, that I wanted a pre- and post-dinner cocktail, and that I had to walk out the door in 90 minutes.
I added that I’d been looking forward to visiting to offer my felicitations for having provided a bartender to Team USA, which brought home the gold from the ‘42 Below World Cocktail Competition‘. The bartender, Michael Cerretani, humbly told me that it was fellow bartender Mark Stoddard who’d made the joint proud, and that he wasn’t working that evening. However, he told me, I should really meet James Lee, the bar manager, and chief mixologist for all six Big Red F restaurants, including the West End Tavern.
He brought James over and introduced me like I was some cocktail big shot – as if – and I told James the same thing; dinner and a cocktail before and after. Ninety short minutes before I had to run. Cheerful and polite, James asked me a couple probing questions about what I liked. The details escape me but I told him I liked whiskey and gin, bitter more than sweet. He nodded and went to work.
A few minutes later, James presented me a handsome plum-colored drink in a rocks glass with a single rectangular log of ice. James stood by expectantly as I took a sip. Damn, it was delicious; just what the doctor ordered. I found it to be a textbook example of a complex cocktail with a perfect, artful balance of dry, sweet, bitter, and sour. Wow.
He had assembled the drink at the rail perpendicular to mine so I couldn’t see the precise goings-on, but he told me it was a ‘Sun Also Rises,’ made with Bitter Bar single-barrel (ri)1 rye whiskey, Sloe gin (I think it was Plymouth but I didn’t write it down), fresh lemon juice, a dash of agave, and an absinthe rinse.
Just before writing this, I looked around for a recipe and found a reference to a ‘Sun Also Rises’ cocktail from Charles Joly at Chicago’s ‘The Drawing Room‘ that includes sloe gin, absinthe, lemon juice and sugar, so I gotta think I was either sampling James Lee’s version of an obscure classic, or that either Lee or Joly’s is a pastiche of the other’s original (anyone know?). Anyway, I didn’t pester James for the exact proportions, but I’m looking forward to playing with it and enjoying this delightful cocktail at home.
The house (ri)1 gave it a spice that the tangy sweetness of the sloe gin built upon, rounded out with the sweet and sour of lemon and agave. I tasted the anise of the absinthe only in the finish, with a smokiness in the back of my throat. The strong whiskey-based ‘Sun Also Rises’ cocktail perfectly suited my palate and mood, and what I told Lee I was looking for. Seventh heaven so far! Hot damn, I relished it.
For dinner, I ordered the Steamed Vegetable Moneybag with spring peas, crispy yams, crispy tofu, and a “micro salad.” I’m a vegetarian (don’t hate) so my options were a bit limited, but it was actually damn good. I was craving some fresh good veggies but wanted something hearty enough to absorb some of the booze. It wasn’t cheap but it hit the spot.
As I ate and relaxed at the bar, bartenders James Lee (on twitter here) and Michael Cerretani were both very affable and kind enough to get geeky with me about cocktails, spirits, bartenders and tippling trends. James told me about sourcing single-barrel whiskies and sharing tips with tenders from Portland to New York.
After polishing off my meal and a few tall glasses of cold water, I was ready for my after-dinner drink. I enjoy a Negroni or a post-dinner Old Fashioned or maybe some Amaro on ice, but I haven’t come across many true, artful digestif-style cocktails. I challenged James to make me one.
Once again assembled as I watched over his shoulder, James presented me with a cocktail served up in a unique crystal coupe glass – according to Michael, James collects vintage glassware. At that point in my evening, my phone (and camera) was long past put away, and I failed to take good notes. But I’ll tell you that at my first sip, I knew that James outdid himself. It was a unique, mellow, delectable drink, made with Small’s gin, Italian Amaro CioCiaro liquer, ‘Agwa Bolivia’ coca leaf liquer, a splash of Maraschino liquer, with an orange twist.
Michael had introduced me to Small’s Gin, a very interesting American artisanal gin distilled by Tad Seestedt of Ransom Cellars near Portland, with a very aromatic nose and a strong taste of cardamom and other botanical notes in place of straight-forward juniper. I read a review at drinkspirits.com in which the writer complained that the strong cardamom flavor was absolutely overpowering and he couldn’t imagine how to mix it into anything palatable. But it seems to me that James Lee figured it out – and nailed it – with this outrageously delicious, bitter, earthy, multidimensional cocktail.
As I mentioned, I didn’t take good notes and frankly, my palate isn’t educated enough to provide a worthy description of the literally fascinating combination of flavors Lee balanced in this drink, but I remember tasting anise, almond, cinnamon, and spearmint. It had an herbal nose reminiscent of Angostura (gentian?), with the tasty orange oils effervescing on top.
I’d never tried the ‘Agwa‘ Bolivian coca leaf liquer, which I had been hearing about for a bit. I’m usually eager to try new spirits and liquers but also skeptical of heavy-handed marketing and silly trends. The stuff has been marketed as an “energy liquer” with the subtle implication that you’ll catch a cocaine buzz, and it does contain natural source of caffeine guarana, as well as ginseng and green tea. I’m not sure how much ‘Agwa’ was in the cocktail I enjoyed, but I was awake and alert all the way to Denver and onto the plane home. I’m eager to try it on its own.
I asked James the name for this impressive concoction and he said he’d just invented the drink, and it was as yet without a moniker. “Well, c’mon, my man– that was great. It needs a name!” I told him. “It’s mostly Italian.” (the Amaro dominated, and the splash of Maraschino sweetness seemed to tie the thing together) “so…?”
“Okay,” James relented. “How about Ciao Bella.” Indeed. Hello beautiful!
My visit to the Bitter Bar was very brief but immensely enjoyable. With the tag-line “Volstead be damned,” these guys are earnest about their imbibing and about sharing the best with the folks on the other side of the stick. But as it says in the house rules, “we take our cocktails seriously, but not ourselves.” I found this to be gratifyingly true.
By the time I stumbled towards my shuttle bus, I had a good buzz, as much from the friendly conversation as the artful and delectable drinks. I was struck by how open and easy-going the place was. In order to enjoy such cocktail artistry in New York, one must too often contend with a restrictive door policy, a long wait, and rude or at least condescending bartenders. The one cocktail place in New York I’ve been with a similar open atmosphere and nice, helpful people is The Summit Bar in Alphabet City. Maybe I’ll pay a visit to that joint again soon for a comparison and a write-up here.
Or maybe, for my next post, I should visit a place I can pan to make up for the obscene praise I’ve heaped upon the Bitter Bar. But what can I say? It was a delight beginning to end. Maybe I’d find something to pick on if I’d had more than an hour and a half? I look forward to returning to find out.