Ruth Tobias is a Denver-based food and beverage writer. Since beginning her career in Boston, she has contributed to a wide range of publications, including Sommelier Journal, Mutineer, Denver Magazine, The Boston Phoenix, ZagatSurvey, Culinate, Chow, and the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food & Drink in America.

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Tonic: A DIY Project To Spice Up Your Cocktails Image

The difference between homemade and commercial tonic is startlingly obvious at a glance: The DIY variety looks almost like cola in the glass rather than club soda, and the flavor follows suit, being richer and spicier.

That was our experience with the tonic at James Lee’s craft-cocktail lounge The Bitter Bar in Boulder, Colo., anyway, and it was sufficiently eye-opening for us to get the scoop from bar manager Dustin Johnson. He explained that “the more commercial products use a quinine extract, and that’s why they can be clear. Ours is reddish-brown because we use ground cinchona bark. Some customers are surprised by the color, until they find out that it’s actually more natural for a tonic to look that way.”

They may or may not be equally surprised that the stuff mixes just as well with brown spirits as clear ones. “We really enjoy it with rye whiskey,” Johnson said, because “the caramel and vanilla flavors of the rye lend themselves well to its own flavors. Bourbon works in a similar fashion — we used to serve a cocktail called the BLT, which stands for bourbon, lemon and tonic. The added citrus made it really crisp and refreshing.”

Johnson’s standard recipe tonic requires a 5-gallon Cornelius keg, which is easy enough to find through home-brewing supply shops. But if you’re not prepared to make that kind of investment, Johnson also has a small-batch stovetop recipe at the ready. Cinchona bark can be purchased online, for instance at Healthy Village, or you may find it at your local apothecary.

Keg Tonic

Prep Time: 1½ to 2 hours

Cook Time: 45 minutes

Total Time: 8½ to 9 hours

Yield: 5 gallons

Ingredients

16 cups water

12 cups light agave syrup

6 ounces ground cinchona bark

9 ounces citric acid

Juice and zest of 8 lemons

Juice and zest of 8 oranges

Juice and zest of 8 limes

8 stalks lemongrass, roughly chopped

4 large pieces ginger root, roughly chopped

1½ ounces ground cinnamon

Special equipment:

Cornelius keg

Hotel pan

Directions

1. Put all ingredients into a very large nonreactive pot and bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer for 45 minutes, stirring regularly to make sure everything is dissolved.

2. Strain the mixture through a colander, then filter the strained liquid through a cheesecloth into a deep hotel pan with a perforated top for about 6 hours or overnight. This will yield 2 to 2½ gallons of syrup.

3. Mix 1½ gallons of syrup (refrigerating the remainder in plastic or glass for future use) with 3½ gallons water in your Cornelius keg. Force-carbonate for 48 hours.

Stovetop Tonic

Prep Time: 1 to 1½ hours

Cook Time: 40 minutes

Total Time: 5 to 6 hours

Yield: About 1 quart

Ingredients

4 cups water

3 cups light agave syrup

3 tablespoons ground cinchona bark

4 tablespoons citric acid

Juice and zest of 2 lemons

Juice and zest of 2 oranges

Juice and zest of 2 limes

2 stalks lemongrass, roughly chopped

1 ginger root, roughly chopped

1 tablespoon ground cinnamon

Soda water

Directions

1. Put all ingredients into a medium-sized nonreactive pot and bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer for about 40 minutes, stirring regularly to make sure everything is dissolved.

2. Strain the mixture through a colander, then filter the strained liquid through a cheesecloth into a heatproof container for 3-4 hours.

3. Funnel the resulting syrup into a large glass bottle, cover tightly and store in the refrigerator for up to several weeks. When ready to use, mix 1 ounce of syrup with about 3 ounces of soda water.

Main photo: A cocktail made with homemade tonic. Credit: Dustin Johnson

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Move Over, New Orleans. Denver Has The ‘It’ Dessert Image

Of the American cities traditionally associated with cake — New Orleans with its King Cake, St. Louis with its gooey butter cake, Boston with its misnamed cream pie — Denver has never rated particular mention. But when that changes — and it will — it will be thanks to native daughter Heather Alcott and her extraordinary efforts to bring Baumkuchen to the U.S.

Though Baumkuchen has ancient roots and a long history in Europe, the concentrically layered cake has become a phenomenon in Japan in recent years. That’s where Alcott discovered it a few years ago, on a visit while living in Singapore, and immediately “fell in love,” she recalled.

Bringing Baumkuchen to U.S. proves to be no easy task

“It’s cooked on a rotisserie, so it isn’t fried, yet it has this doughnut-type texture. … I went back to the hotel and started doing some research that evening,” she said. Upon learning “everyone has had a hand in this cake — the Romans, the Germans, the Romanians — I thought, ‘This is something pretty special.’ And I knew I wanted to be the first person in the country” to offer the commercial Japanese version.

She became just that in February 2013, when she opened Glaze: The Baum Cake Shoppe — the name by which the online-retail business is still known, though the brick-and-mortar eatery is now a sushi-and-dessert lounge called Glaze by Sasa, in partnership with local Japanese eatery Sushi Sasa. Centered around the Red Dragon, her nickname for the 2,200-pound, custom-built oven outfitted with six spits, Alcott’s success has captured the attention of national media, including NPR. But the sheer lengths she went to to realize her dream make for a story in themselves.

Consider that the seemingly straightforward first step, signing a contract with the oven manufacturer, took more than two years. Even learning the name of the family-run company took some legwork, Alcott said. To this day she prefers to maintain its anonymity, and her first overture, by email in English, resulted in a flat refusal.

A Baumkuchen cake. Credit: Adam Larkey Photography

A Baumkuchen cake. Credit: Adam Larkey Photography

“I got a one-line response that said, ‘Thank you for your interest, but not right now. We’ve got a lot of growth already, and we’re just not ready for the USA.’ ” So she hired a translator and tried again, this time in Japanese. Clearly, her gesture was appreciated, as the team continued to respond, but there were “a good eight months of going back and forth” before a meeting was agreed to, and a year after the initial contact before it finally occurred.

“I took my husband with me to Japan,” Alcott explained, “because he has business experience there; he knows their style. First you go out for drinks and see if you even like each other. They hired a translator, and we could tell there was something there, so — many sakes later — we arranged for me to show them my business plan the next day.”

The result? “They ended up rejecting me. They didn’t understand Denver at all.” But they asked her to come back in a couple of months; by that point, they’d done some research on the market. “This time, they said, ‘Why not New York or San Francisco or Seattle?’ I said, ‘You have to trust me with this.’ They could see it in my face; I loved this product. But Denver is my home; I had to make it work here.”

Still, another no. Alcott admits that if she’d been living in the States, she’d have given up at this point. But because she was “on their back doorstep in Singapore,” she pushed onward — and finally, the company president agreed to build the oven.

“I’ve since been told that the Japanese reject you three times before they accept you,” she said, laughing.

Getting the Baumkuchenmeister seal of approval

The second step was for Alcott and her pastry chef to go through the certification process, training with the manufacturer’s Baumkuchenmeister and not only learning the recipes but adapting them for use in a high-altitude American kitchen. That meant more international flights, more translators and months of ingredient adjustments as Alcott began her search for the perfect organic cultured butter, matcha (green-tea powder) and so on.

“They flew over here to test and weigh my eggs! They had to be fresh and just the right size — not too large, not too small. I had to fly over my almond flour, cake flour, sugars. It probably looked like we were shipping cocaine,” Alcott joked.

But every little detail made a difference: “If the batter’s too runny or too thick, it won’t stay on the spit.” In the midst of all this, she received a call from the president: “They said, ‘The oven just isn’t perfect enough. We have to take it all apart and start over.’ ”

Heather Alcott has nicknamed her Baumkuchen oven the Red Dragon. Credit: Adam Larkey Photography

Heather Alcott has nicknamed her Baumkuchen oven the Red Dragon. Credit: Adam Larkey Photography

Eventually, of course, that darned oven did arrive in Denver. “I actually hugged it before it got on the boat from Japan,” Alcott said. Once it was installed behind glass in her Congress Park space, “the president, his top engineer and his top chef all flew out to turn it on for the first time,” per a contractual agreement. “We all cheered.”

It’s hard to believe that the drop-dead gorgeous, luscious-but-refined Baumkuchen cakes Glaze now turns out are infused with such blood, sweat and tears. Each takes 24 hours to make; the pastry chefs shoot for 21 layers, but the final tally can depend on everything from the base flavor (“the chocolate is so fluffy, it sometimes has to be pulled earlier”) to local weather conditions.

They also experiment with new flavors, such as orange and pumpkin. Surprisingly, “the Japanese are so supportive; they love the innovation,” Alcott said. “We have become the test kitchen for Baumkuchen in this country.”

While we Denverites are lucky to have them, you can purchase Glaze’s products too. But don’t hold your breath for a brick-and-mortar outpost anytime soon. As Alcott put it, “I take this opportunity I’ve been given day by day.”

Main photo: Baumkuchen is cooked on a rotisserie. Credit: Adam Larkey Photography

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Eating In Italy? 6 Tips To Find Fabulous Authentic Food Image

I am not an expert on Italy. Though I’ve studied the cuisine in-depth for many years and visited more times than I can count, I’ve never lived there, and my grasp of the language (despite a full load of coursework in college molti anni fa, many years ago) is middling. That is not a disclaimer; rather, it’s exactly what qualifies me to write this article.

You see, the wonderful lesson I’ve learned is that you really don’t need to stock up on guidebooks or do exhaustive research or even speak much Italian to eat exceedingly well in Italy, though a basic culinary lexicon certainly helps. All you have to do is pack a pair of good walking shoes — and be prepared to unpack a few truisms. Here are a few I’ve taken to heart, with some amendments, through the years.

1. Look past the obvious, it’s not far

The maxim that best, most “authentic” dining is off the beaten tourist path has its merits, but the implication is that you must go some prescribed distance, say, deep into residential areas, to find the gems. That’s not necessarily so. Let’s take Venice as an example. Yes, the overwhelming odds are that in any of the large-scale restaurants along the Grand Canal or in Piazza San Marco, you’re paying for bells and whistles — picturesque views, live music, relatively elegant service — rather than a memorable meal made from fresh local ingredients.

But in the magical maze that is Venice, getting off the beaten path is often simply a matter of turning a corner to find yourself on a calle (street) or in a corte (courtyard) that’s either refreshingly quiet or filled with locals going about their business. I recently discovered a remarkable osteria — a veritable sanctuary of superb cicchetti (essentially bar snacks) and some of the best seafood I’ve ever had, from classics like sarde in saor to creations like spaghetti with fresh tuna, mushrooms and strawberries — not by dint of its virtually unmarked entrance right on the jam-packed Ruga Vecchia San Giovanni, but rather by turning onto the seemingly empty alley behind it only to find a few tables around its back door lined with Italian-speaking patrons digging into plates of what looked like (and was) perfectly fried calamari. Which brings me to the next lesson:

2. Less is more when it comes to advertising

The claim that the less a restaurant advertises itself, especially in English, the better is largely true. Elaborate displays of ingredients, florid greetings from waiters stationed at the entrance and/or prominent signs reading “Menu turistico” (tourist menu) or “No frozen food!” are generally bad omens, for the obvious reason that the best eateries needn’t resort to such promotional ploys. They survive on genuine word of mouth, just as they do here.

3. To eat like an Italian in Italy, look at menus through their eyes

Relatedly, beware of menus that are translated into several languages, offer a broad range of dishes and/or contain pictures. This rule’s also true. If you’ve come to eat as Italians eat, look for kitchens that cater to them, not to foreigners who haven’t done their homework.

4. A little research goes a long way

On that note: Do your homework. I promised earlier that you don’t have to embark on a comprehensive research project, and I meant it. But if you spend even 30 minutes online with the aim of getting to know a given region’s specialty dishes, you’ll have the rudiments of an education that perusing menus will only reinforce once you’ve arrived at your destination.

I specify a regional rather than a national search because historically, Italian cuisine has not been a monolithic entity but rather has varied greatly from the Alpine northwest to the Mediterranean coast to the bread basket of the southeast.

The same goes for wine. In a country with thousands of native grape varieties unheard of on our shores, it’s far more fun in my view to take a chance on a hyper-local discovery than to go with what you know, even if what you happen to know is world-class. You can have Champagne or even Barolo at home anytime, but you can’t drink, say, Pignoletto frizzante outside of Emilia-Romagna. (Of course, if you’re in Piedmont, by all means sip Barolo to your heart’s content.)

5. Know a tavola from a trattoria

Be aware that there are various classes of establishments and adjust your expectations accordingly. The word bar has a different connotation in Italy than it does here. A bar in Italy is open all day for coffee, spremuta (fresh-squeezed juice) and booze, plus pastries, sandwiches and snacks, and features counter or minimal table service (or, more usually, a combination of both). A tavola calda (“hot table”) is set up in the style of an American cafeteria. Think of the osteria (spelled hostaria around Venice) as a tavern and the trattoria as a bistro, while the ristorante is the fanciest class of eatery. And finally, there’s the enoteca, which tends to be a hybrid between a wine shop and a wine bar.

None of these classifications concern quality; you could have some of the best food of your life in a tavola calda, followed by an overpriced bummer of a meal at a ristorante. The point is that you should consider what sort of experience you’re looking for, and then follow the guidelines above.

6. The best gelato may not look it

Gelaterias are a bit of a crapshoot, so proceed with caution. The labels nostra produzione, produzione propria (“our production”) or artigianale used to be guarantees of excellence. In my view, that’s no longer true — no surprise given how the concept of artisanship has been hijacked here in the States. Which leaves color as the best indicator: If the hues in the bins are garish, artificial flavoring is likely the culprit. Gelato shouldn’t be too fluffy, either. I hate to put it this way, but the less appealing it looks on display, the better it’s likely to be.

Of course there are exceptions to every rule. But the above have consistently worked for me — and the more you follow them, the more attuned you become to the nuances therein. In short, travel to Italy often, wander lots and trust your instincts.

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Charcuterie For Dessert? Try Chocolate Salami Image

A couple of months ago, I attended a lavish charcuterie-centric feast at Denver Italian fixture Panzano; think spiced jagerwurst and beet-green pierogi; cotechino over lentils with pickled mustard seeds and rye-beer jam; and so on. But the dish that really stuck with me was meatless. In fact, it was dessert.

For the dinner, held in honor of Brian Polcyn, the Michigan-based chef and co-author (with Michael Ruhlman) of “Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing” and “Salumi: The Craft of Italian Dry Curing,” Panzano chef Elise Wiggins says, “I knew we could be edgy and do a dessert that contained meat of some type. But I think most people want a dessert to taste like dessert. So I decided to pull out an old recipe that I learned 20-something years ago. Chocolate salami has been made in Italy for a long time; my pastry chef Amy Sayles and I just decided to take the presentation a little further” by wrapping it like sausage.

As for storage, she adds, “It will last weeks in your fridge if it’s sealed where no other smells can get into it — the enemy is other food.”

Panzano’s Chocolate Salami

Makes 6 logs

Ingredients

⅓ cup slivered almonds

⅓ cup crushed, shelled pistachios

3 ounces unsalted butter at room temperature

12 ounces dark chocolate

½ teaspoon salt

¼ cup amaretto or black coffee

1 teaspoon orange zest

1 teaspoon almond extract

⅓ cup dried cherries

1 cup crushed amaretti cookies (Italian macaroons; can substitute other cookies that crumble)

1 cup powdered sugar

2 tablespoons cocoa powder

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 350 F.

2. Spread almonds and pistachios on a baking sheet and bake for 10 to 15 minutes, until golden.

3. In a double boiler, melt the butter, dark chocolate and salt.

4. Once the chocolate mixture is melted, stir in the amaretto (or coffee), orange zest and almond extract. Once all the ingredients have been thoroughly incorporated, stir in the browned almonds and pistachios, the dried cherries and the crushed cookies.

5. Scrape the chocolate mixture into a clean bowl, cover and refrigerate for 1 to 2 hours, until firm but still moldable.

6. Divide the mixture into six equal parts and place each on a medium-sized piece of plastic wrap.

7. With your hands, roll each piece into a log approximately ¾ inch in diameter; twist the ends to give a salami shape.

8. Once all the pieces are rolled, place the logs into the refrigerator until firm, about 2 hours.

9. Remove the plastic once set. Mix together the powdered sugar and cocoa powder.

10. Roll the logs in the sugar and powder mixture to coat thoroughly, using a sushi mat to get the rustic lines if so desired.

11. Wrap one end of the salami with butcher, parchment or wax paper and tie off with butcher string; cut excess paper off. Slice and enjoy!

Top photo: Chocolate salami. Credit: John Imbergamo

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Great American Festival Finds: 9 Craft Beers You Shouldn’t Miss Image

Entering the Great American Beer Festival with a plan of attack is like going to Eataly with a three-item shopping list: Good luck sticking to it. This year, the exhibition hall at the Colorado Convention Center in downtown Denver was packed with more than 600 brewers showcasing more than 3,100 products. Though my editor and I had discussed the recent resurgence of true Pilsners, I realized the second I walked in the door that I could no more limit myself to crisp Bohemian- and German-style lagers than I could pass up white truffles because I need button mushrooms.

Yet a general focus on lighter, low-to-moderate-alcohol styles was not only doable, but prudent if I hoped to leave the festival in one piece. Beyond that, I asked myself, which samples would cut through the palate fatigue with enough panache to warrant further investigation? Now that the fog has cleared, I stand by the following list in all its arbitrariness.

Cambridge Brewing Co. Shadows and Light

At 10% alcohol by volume, this was an exception to my rule of sticking to more sessionable beers. Described as a “Maderized and Blended Experimental Very Old Ale,” it presents a mesmerizing port-like profile, showing raisins, baking spices and a touch of soy sauce. As brewmaster Will Meyers explains, “Shadows and Light was inspired by the techniques of oxidation and exposure to sunlight as well as extremes of heat and cold. All of these are things you are specifically instructed not to do when brewing beer (or wine, sake, cider, etc.) because ordinarily they’d destroy it, and yet beverages such as Madeira, sherry and Banyuls, not to mention some spirits, are treated in this specific way. I decided to find out if I could incorporate these techniques successfully — and after eight years of considerable effort, I was lucky enough to have achieved my goals.”

Sadly, only those within commuting distance of Kendall Square in Cambridge, Mass., will have opportunity to try it; first released in May of this year, it will be tapped just once more, at the brewpub’s 25th anniversary party the first weekend of May 2014. Boston beer buffs, mark the date.

Elevation Beer Co. Engel Weisse

From a newcomer in Poncha Springs, Colo., this oak-fermented and -aged Berliner Weisse would, as my friend Amy observed, make a fine alternative to lemonade on a hot day, throwing shades of gingerbread and yogurt into the citrusy mix (4% ABV). According to sales manager Alexander Bustamante, it’s named for a snow-pack formation called the Angel of Mount Shavano “that looks over us here at Elevation,” it’s currently available seasonally only in Colorado.

For the record, I also appreciated two other refreshingly straightforward variations on the theme: one from Crabtree Brewing Co. in Greeley, Colo. (4.3% ABV), which garnered a gold medal in 2011, and one from Nodding Head Brewery in Philadelphia, which proved a pioneer when it debuted the gracefully fruity Ich Bin Eine Berliner Weisse (3.5% ABV) in 2000. Brewer Gordon Grubb observes that while the style’s reputation as “the Champagne of the North” might be overstated, “it does have some white wine characteristics, more tart than truly sour.”

Elysian Brewing Co. Great Pumpkin Ale

Sampling this Seattle brewer’s take on the predominant fall favorite at this year’s beer festival media luncheon was a revelation. So many of its peers come across as muddy or cloying; this was anything but. Crisp and sparklingly clean, it showcased its namesake ingredient not by letting it run rampant but by treating it and its baking-spice trappings with restraint. 8.1% ABV.

Logsdon Organic Farmhouse Ales Seizoen Bretta

This haunting saison, which nabbed a gold for its Hood River, Ore. , producer at last year’s festival, spoke to me in fleeting, delicately effervescent tones of musty cider houses, honeypots and savory herb gardens. Bottle conditioned with pear juice to 8% ABV, it stood up remarkably well to the milk chocolate-pumpkin mousse cake it was served with.

The Lost Abbey Framboise de Amorosa

By the time we cut through the crush surrounding the booth, this San Marcos, Calif.-based cult leader was fresh out of the Red Poppy Ale that had just scored a medal in the American-Style Brett Beer category for the second year running. But the barrel-aged sour we settled on instead was hardly sloppy seconds. (Indeed it took a silver back in 2011.) Despite whiffs of its own bretty funk, its raspberry juiciness remained breathtakingly pure from start to long finish. 7% ABV.

New Belgium Coconut Curry Hefeweizen

The name of this brew, released in July as part of the Fort Collins, Colo., giant’s Lips of Faith series, says it all. Creamy touches of coconut and banana combine with spikier, more savory hints of garam masala, yet the effect is surprisingly smooth and relatively subtle. 8% ABV.

Scratch Brewing Co. Carrot-Ginger Saison

Specializing in the use of locally farmed and foraged ingredients, this Ava, Ill., brewer impressed me with the easy balance it struck between warm, earthy sweetness and a cool, clean bite. Of the inspiration for the farmhouse ale, first released in July at 6% ABV (but available only locally), co-founder Marika Josephson says, “Squash and sweet potatoes have obviously been done in a lot of fall beers, and we figured that roasting carrots would give a similar flavor. But we wanted to spice up the carrot a little, so we decided to use wild ginger and a small amount of peppercorns.”

Smuttynose Straw-Barb Short Weisse

If, as my friend Mark suggested, the name of this fruited Berliner Weisse out of Portsmouth, N.H., alludes to shortcake, it does itself a disservice. Rather than conveying any sugary, baked-dessert message, it delivers the floral perfumes of strawberry and rhubarb to back its tartness. Smuttynose enjoys fairly wide distribution on the East Coast, so keep your eyes peeled for the recent release. 3.5% ABV.

Weyerbacher Eighteen Weizenbock

Forgive me for including this dark, malty wheat beer. Not only does it break my style rule at 11.1% ABV, but as a one-off made in honor of its Easton, Pa., producer’s 18th anniversary in June 2013, it will soon be sold out across Weyerbacher’s distribution network if it isn’t already. Should you track it down, though, you’ll be treated to a veritable chocolate-banana milkshake of a pour.

Top photo: A beer being poured at the Great American Beer Festival. Credit: Brewers Association

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Guess Which Beer Capital Has Uplifted Artisanal Spirits Image

Back in 2011, in a piece on mountain rums, I briefly provided some context to explain how Colorado had managed to become such a liquor mecca — not just the beer capital it’s best known as, but also a distilling hub. (Granted, my state’s wine industry is still fledgling, but it’s got potential.)

That discussion really hit home just the other day, when I attended the fourth annual Breckenridge Craft Spirits Festival. It surely will again when I hit the Great American Beer Festival — more on that in another story. As a mining settlement turned ski resort, Breckenridge was born to be a hard-drinking town. There were already 18 saloons here in the late 19th century, including the Gold Pan, established in 1879 and still going strong. The city’s Heritage Alliance even conducts a tour on the subject. No wonder, then, that it’s proving the perfect place to showcase local distilleries, welcoming more than 20 of them, along with 600 guests, to the Riverwalk Center this year (compared with eight producers and 100 attendees at its inauguration, according to Ken Nelson, president of the Breckenridge Restaurant Association).

Some of the names may already be familiar to outsiders, including Peach Street Distillers in Palisade, which sources from neighboring orchards and wineries to make fruit brandies, eaux-de-vie and grappa, among other things; the pioneering Denver-based Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey; and Montanya Distillers, whose rums are available far beyond its home base of Crested Butte. Others were new even to me — but if quality alone guaranteed distribution, products like the following would be everywhere.

Golden Moon Crème de Violette

Many present-day spirits producers talk the talk of ancient recipes and Old World methods, but few walk the walk quite so boldly as Stephen Gould’s Golden Moon Distillery (based, of course, in Golden). A “trained saucier” and former brewer, he got interested in collecting old, rare bottles a decade ago. Upon “stumbling across a case of 1950 Spanish absenta and really enjoying it,” he says, “I started doing a little digging — and now I own, I’m told, one of the largest collections in private hands of books on distilling in North America.”

Based on his research, he’s worked tirelessly to re-create bygone styles of gin, absinthe and brandy as well as liqueurs rarely sighted on these shores. Though the craft-cocktail movement has begun to engender their modest return to the market, Gould is staking his name on the sort of remarkable adherence to historical detail that screams “cult following” — and sure enough, he’s beginning to distribute out-of-state thanks to the help of restaurateurs who have petitioned to carry his products.

His wonderfully evocative crème de violette, for instance, is a true distillate of the namesake flower. He hit upon the recipe for it after “studying how French perfumers worked with violet to keep it stable.” The result is higher in alcohol (at 30% ABV) and lower in sugar than any that I could find. Sadly, I couldn’t sample his take on the legendary orange bitters Amer Picon, which he calls Amer Dit Picon, because he’s awaiting label approval. In any case, his version replicates not the current but the original recipe, “with the exception of one ingredient, calamus root, that the FDA has forbidden.” Although there are substitutes on the domestic market for the otherwise unavailable French liqueur, Gould says they’re much less complex than the 100-year-old bottles he’s had occasion to try, compared to which “ours is a little more peppery and a little harder — but then, after a century of aging, it’s natural that they’d have mellowed. I think we’ve come about as close as possible.”

Feisty Spirits Elementals

Unless it’s specified as bourbon, rye, etc., “whiskey can technically be made from any grain. Only four or five are generally used, but there are hundreds out there; why not try them?”

Drinks ready for imbibers at the Breckenridge Craft Spirits Festival. Credit: Jessie Unruh

Drinks ready for imbibers at the Breckenridge Craft Spirits Festival. Credit: Jessie Unruh

So wondered Jamie Gulden, co-founder of Feisty Spirits in Fort Collins, when he and his partner, head distiller David Monahan, set about experimenting with cereals beyond the blue corn, oats and rye they use for their single-barrel bottlings. Not all of them worked, he admits — amaranth, for one, “isn’t something you’d want to drink straight” — but four others now compose Feisty’s single-grain line, Elementals: Kamut (aka Khorasan wheat), Millet, Triticale and Quinoa. I liked the roasty, toasty qualities of the Kamut; as for the Quinoa, which wasn’t on offer at the festival, Gulden calls it “a polarizing whiskey: some people really love its grassiness mixed with nuttiness, some don’t.” It may be awhile before non-Coloradans can judge it for themselves; Feisty’s distribution, after only a year in business, remains limited to the Front Range.

Santa Fe Single-Malt Whiskey

Speaking of whiskey, I have to give a nod to one of the festival’s few non-local exhibitors. Santa Fe Spirits is rolling out a single malt in which the barley is smoked not over peat à la Islay Scotch, but rather mesquite. Perhaps I’m swayed by fond memories of Christmas in New Mexico, but its tangy notes of wood smoke yet surprisingly mellow character immediately won me over. (Availability is slowly expanding from the Southwest to the West Coast.)

Dancing Pines Black Walnut Bourbon Liqueur

I first met ex-paramedic firefighter Kristian Naslund a couple of years ago, not long after he’d launched Dancing Pines Distillery in Loveland. Offered samples of his chai, caramel and cherry liqueurs, I was thoroughly skeptical — they sounded like just so much commercial cough syrup. But boy, I was wrong; though certainly sweet, they lacked any trace of sharp artificiality, their profiles warm yet clear. So it is with this newer release, which begs for a fireside armchair; Naslund and crew do distribute out of state.

Breckenridge Bitters

Billed as the world’s highest-altitude spirits producer (the facility sits at 9,600 feet), Breckenridge Distillery likewise enjoys some presence on the national market, primarily thanks to its well-received bourbon. Its strikingly heather-honeyed small-batch bitters are built on the discovery by master distiller Jordan Via, while hiking close to home, of some plants that turned out to be related to those used in génépi, an Alpine liqueur. Along with the brand’s own vodka, they serve as the foundation for a blend whose 10 other proprietary botanicals make for a smoother, gentler, more rounded variation of the European model — neither quite as bitter nor quite so intensely sweet.

Top photo: Feisty Spirits was one of several Colorado distilleries to showcase its products at the Breckenridge Craft Spirits Festival. Credit: Jessie Unruh

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