Colorado Cocktail Project shakes, stirs, and mixes up a good time

by Jess Hunter, Julia Yugel, and Lisa Bongiovanni

Alex Parks mixing up her Green Larimer Bees Knees Cocktail

It was a beautiful affair. You walked into the room, and as far as the eye could see were tables of mini cocktails and drink samples. The sound of ice and alcohol dancing in cocktail shakers filled the air. This was one of the best cocktail competitions we’ve been to and folks in the industry agreed (were you tweeting with us? If not, you should’ve been).  Combined with the efforts of Colorado Bartenders Guild, Colorado Distillers Guild, Whole Foods, Westword, and MCA Denver, this team of talent organized and executed a great event. The layout was perfect, consumers were able to imbibe and mingle, bartenders were repping their fun and dapperness, and it was a beautiful summer night.  It made us proud to be ‘Merikan. Er, Coloradoan.

We were all out there to find Colorado’s cocktail.  What started as a barroom talk for Sean Kenyon and others in the industry developed into a beautiful and daring discussion of what our great state tastes like in a glass.  New York has the Manhattan, Kentucky has the Mint Julep, Louisiana has the Sazerac, so Colorado has the…?  We just couldn’t have it if the Mile High Plunge or the Colorado Bulldog went down as our drink rep.

The Colorado Cocktail Project began with 33 contestants and was narrowed down to 10 finalists.  The panel of judges included Emcee and startender Sean Kenyon (The Occidental and Williams & Graham), Mark Stoddard (Bitter Bar), Bryan Dayton (Oak at Fourteenth), Nicola Twilley (Edible Geography, booze and food blog), and Patricia Calhoun (Westword editor).  Here were the ten finalists:

  • Kevin Burke, Colt & Gray, “Colorado Daschund”
    Leopold Bros’ whiskey, simple, ginger beer, grapefuit juice, Avery Brewing Co’s Joe’s Pils, and bitters
  • Evan Faber, Salt, “Diamondback”
    Roundhouse Imperial Gin, lemon, simple, Leopold Bros. Absinthe Verte, egg white
  • Tyler French, Row 14, “Brother’s Brew”
    Leopold Bros’ Gin, lemon, simple, orange liqueur, mint, strawberries, Oskar Blues’s Dale’s Pale Ale
  • Allie Geppert, Encore on Colfax (no longer with Encore but working for Hooch, an upcoming cocktail publication in Denver), “Pins and Needles”
    Leopold Bros’ Whiskey, Three Pins Liqueur, Earl Grey honey syrup, lemon
  • Britt Henze, Mateo, “Bear Paw Palmer”
    Rob’s Mountain Gin, Calvados, cardamom-rosemary simple syrup, lemon
  • Amy Kempster, Jonesy’s EatBar, “The Green Heart”
    Peach Street’s Jackalope Gin, Dolin Blanc, Leopold Bros’ Michigan Tart Cherry, Campari
  • Randy Layman, Steuben’s Food Service “The 100 Years Cocktail”
    Leopold Bros. Rye Whiskey, Peach Street Peach Brandy, Ramazotti Amaro
  • Robert Leavey, The Broadmoor, “Pikes Peak Swizzle”
    Gin, Velvet Felernum, lime, grapes, absinthe
  • Alex Parks, Green Russell, “Green Larimer Bees Knees”
    Stranahan’s Whiskey, Colorado Honey, egg white, Great Divide’s Colette, sprayed bitters
  • Marnie Ward, Avenue Grill, “Tree Line”
    Leopold Bros’ Whiskey, Three Pins Liqueur, muddled Colorado bing cherries

At the end of the night, here were the results:

People’s Choice Award went to Britt Henze from Mateo with her “Bear Paw Palmer”

3rd place went to Evan Faber from SALT with his cocktail “The Diamondback”

2nd place went to Randy Layman from Steuben’s Food Service with his “The 100 Years Cocktail”

1st place went to Marnie Ward from Avenue Grill with her “Tree Line” cocktail

Mark Stoddard (left) and Sean Kenyon (right) sample one of ten final cocktails

Wait… who? Which cocktail? A group of at least 20 of us tried to remember what was in the drink with some difficulty.  We then remembered whiskey (yay!)… Leopold Brothers’  Three Pins Liqueur… and cherries, no muddled bing cherries! We noticed the rest of the crowd—consumers, distributors and tenders alike—were having the same conversations.

Marnie’s cocktail brought up a few other talking points:

  1. Colorado is famous for suds, but only three of the finalist cocktails included Colorado beer. Should a drink that represents our state include our most famous alcoholic beverage as an ingredient? In plain-speak, should it have beer?
  2. The Manhattan and Mint Julep are simple. Their ingredients are types, not brands, which allow a bit of creativity to build on the flavors in the drink. Experiment with whiskey and you can alter the drink; make it yours. The blue-ribbon drink, however, is specific (Three Pins isn’t the easiest liqueur to get your hands on). Should Colorado’s drink be a framework drink allowing local bartenders to customize and personalize or precise to be replicated?
  3. Making the cocktail representative of the Centennial State means getting the word out. To be a truly Coloradoan drink it needs ubiquity. Would you make the winning drink for a friend? Would you order it on a night out?

Regardless of the murmurs and questions surrounding the garage at the end of the night, it was a celebration of the returning age of the cocktail.  We all were there to support Colorado distillers in our passion of making (and consuming) excellent booze and continuing our excellent drinking culture of Denver and Colorado.  At least, for the time being, you can find the cocktail with Marnie behind the stick at Avenue Grill.  Soon, we hope it’ll catch fire to be our Colorado cocktail.

What are your thoughts?



(Dear bartenders and wonderful Denver establishments: please keep Colorado spirits and brewers on your menu!)

About Jess Hunter

Jess is a lady and a scholar. If she's not mulling over the various names of famous mustaches and their respective bitter cocktails, she's nibbling on American Craft Singles and Cantillon. Connect with her by email at

  • Jason

    DISCLAIMER: I wasn’t there (sadly), so I can’t talk about the finalist drinks, but on the topic of talking points:

    1. When I think of Denver, I think of beer, but I wouldn’t say it’s a required ingredient. In fact, I’d prefer Colorado’s (official?) drink didn’t. Denver’s beer scene is strong and well founded. Denver’s cocktail scene is growing. They’re linked, sure, but it would be awesome to have a strong cocktail identity to rival the beer scene in its own right.

    2. Framework drink all the way. I remember chatting to a barman in London about his menu. He made his Martinez with Beefeater 24 bitters. It was great! It still tasted like a Martinez, but with an extra layer of spice. Denver’s a diverse place: What I want on a night out in LoDo is not the same as après-ski. Give the Denver cocktail a foundation and let the next bar surprise you compared to the last.

    3. Whiskey and cherries? I’m in. In fact, I am looking forward to tasting the list on my next trip back to the 303!

  • Lindsay

    Definitely needs to be something more simple. If you want it to catch on, you want something people could replicate in their homes or remember the ingredients enough to pass on to friends etc.