Drink of the week: 2U, by Rob Corbari of the Populist

The 2U rum-based cocktail at the Populist.
The 2U rum-based cocktail at the Populist.
Kevin Galaba

2U at the Populist
In the fall of 2013, Rob Corbari was busy getting the Populist ready to open at 31st and Larimer Streets.
He literally built the bar he still works behind, which included installing floor tile, plumbing, electrical and even the bar top, made of thick, dark, heavy wood. But the cocktail list is what he’s most proud of, and it’s also something he's built from scratch, from the ground up. His newest cocktail, called 2U ($11), reflects that approach. He designed the recipe in response to customer requests for a good rum drink — and he doesn’t even really like rum.

“I get a lot of bartender’s choices,” Corbari explains. That’s when a customer asks the bartender to create a cocktail based on a few flavor preferences. They’d tell Corbari that they really liked rum, but were sick of drinking sweet rum drinks. ‘Give me something that’s not so sweet,’ they said. ‘Give me something that’s complex.’

So, when Corbari created 2U, he made sure to avoid the typical pitfall of overly sweet and sticky tropical ingredients. His recipe contains aged Columbian rum, Braulio amaro, Yellow Charteuse, and apple bitters.

“I’m not a rum guy,” Corbari says. “I think that’s the most interesting part. When people ask me about my favorite spirit, it’s American bourbon.” Perhaps that’s why he was surprised to find himself enamored with Parce straight Columbian rum, which has been aged for twelve years in used American bourbon barrels, which provide those oaky, whiskey notes that he loves.

One of Corbari’s suppliers stopped by the Populist with a bottle of Parce, telling him “You’re gonna like this.” And he was right, because by then, he knew of Corbari’s preference for bourbon. “He knew,” Corbari says, “because I have such an eccentric palate for certain things.” The unique flavor of the rum caught him off guard. “And that’s great, he says, “because when you bartend, you sample a lot of things, so when something comes along that’s pretty unique, but great, you want to do something with it.”

Parce is made with from the juice pressed from Columbian and Trinidadian sugarcane. Molasses is added, along with yeast and natural spring water. After the juice is fermented and distilled, it’s put in barrels to mature for more than a decade.

“It’s really unique in the sense that it takes on a lot of the qualities of the wood, “Corbari says. “It reminds me a lot of an American bourbon. There’s some orange notes in there, and a lot of tobacco, toffee, a little bit of vanilla. It’s pretty unique in the sense that it’s not like a lot of other twelve-year-old rums that I’ve had. It’s really cool stuff.”

Instead of the usual lime or coconut flavors that many bartenders reach for when mixing a rum drink, Corbari added Braulio Amaro Alpino, an herbal liqueur made near the Swiss-Italian border.

“It’s one of my favorites,” he says of Braulio. “I would say it’s a little more delicate when it comes to an amaro, but it still has a nice, bitter finish that lets you know you’re drinking an amaro, but it’s not an herb-heavy punch in the tongue.”

Rob Corbari, stirring one of his cocktails behind the bar he built at The Populist
Rob Corbari, stirring one of his cocktails behind the bar he built at The Populist
Kevin Galaba

Braulio is made with flavors from twenty herbs and botanicals foraged from the slopes of the Alps, including gentian, wormwood, juniper and yarrow; the rest of the ingredients are not disclosed. “Half of amaro recipes are super-secret,” Corbari says, “but if I was to pull anything out it’s anise. There’s also a sweet thing in there that I can’t really put my finger on, that I really enjoy. There’s some orange in there, as well, that plays well with the rum. Braulio gives the cocktail “a little bit more of a rounded, complex edge,” he says.

Corbari also adds Yellow Chartreuse, taking his recipe even further away from tropical territory. “The saffron works really well with the vanilla and oaky thing that’s going on with the rum,” he explains. Yellow Chartreuse, a bit milder and sweeter than it’s green sibling, blends 130 more herbs and botanicals into the recipe, all harvested in southeastern France, near the border with Italy. It’s been made there since 1737 and the exact recipe is, of course, a closely guarded secret.

A dash of apple bitters, made by a collective of bartenders called Bar Keep, is the final ingredient in the 2U. This bitters imparts a nuance of baked apple pie, with hints of cinnamon and caramel. “They’re clean, they’re nice,” Corbari says of the flavors in the bitters, “and you don’t have to dig to find the flavor.” 

Corbari recommends drinking 2U with the Populist’s lamb meatballs ($14), which are braised in milk until the milk is reduced and the flavor concentrated and then plated with polenta and fried fennel chips.

“It’s booze forward,” Corbari says of the cocktail. “The presentation is elegant. It’s not your typical rum drink” And the name of the drink has more than one meaning: “It’s my family cattle brand,” he explains. “And it’s all about hospitality — it makes it personal because it’s “to you.”

Corbari will be busy this spring helping to open Bar Fausto, across the street from — and owned by — the Populist. There, he will be crafting a new cocktail list based on what he loves — and on what people suggest from the other side of the bar. 

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