Butter Beer at Green Russell
“People come here for the showmanship, and for all the touches we put on drinks,” says Alex Lerman, bar manager at Green Russell, Denver’s first speakeasy-style cocktail bar. Those touches made for some sophisticated sipping, but they took time, too. Guests loved the intricate potions poured for them, but groused about the time spent waiting between drinks.
“We are not at that stage anymore where it takes twenty minutes to put down a cocktail,” continues Lerman, who brought his philosophy of ‘beauty in simplicity’ to the bar program at Green Russell. “Something I’ve done as bar manager here is to get bartenders to really limit their touches on drinks. That way, we’re getting drinks out and no one’s waiting too long.” One of the cocktails on his drink menu, called Butter Beer ($12), doesn't take very long at all: It’s ready in about five seconds.
What makes serving Butter Beer so fast is that most of the ingredients are batched in a large quantity before serving. All liquid ingredients are poured into a stainless-steel siphon canister, which allows them to be pressurized (Lerman uses nitrogen gas), then dispensed rapidly. It’s currently one of Denver’s most unique cocktails, because it comes out of the siphon lighter than air.
“A lot of people see it on the menu,” Lerman says, “and then we pull out a siphon and let it go into a glass. They’re surprised, because they've never seen a cocktail like that before.”
For this recipe, Lerman collaborated with Adam Hodak, beverage director for Bonanno Concepts, a family of area restaurants that includes Green Russell. “We didn’t want it to be overly sweet,” Lerman says. It was designed to be a winter drink, so they wanted it to be spicy, but strong. “We needed something to dry it out,” he says, “and give it a little backbone.”
They started with Zaya Gran Reserva, a vanilla-forward rum from Jamaica that's distilled from fermented molasses and aged for twelve years in old bourbon barrels. Lerman enjoys the Zaya’s vanilla flavors, but also its coffee and chocolate notes.
But what to add next? “We tried a bunch of different things — other rums, pisco, other dry spirits — and it just wasn’t working,” Lerman says. He settled on a mellow Scotch whisky called Monkey Shoulder, unique in that it combines single malts from three distilleries from Speyside. “Monkey Shoulder was approachable, not heavily peated,” Lerman explains. “It’s not heavily smoky, and gave it that backbone that it needed without taking away from the integrity of the drink.”
With Butter Beer being a winter cocktail, Lerman reached for Becherovka, an herbal liqueur from the Czech Republic. In it, he found the seasonal spice he was looking for. “It brings the cinnamon and allspice that people look for in winter cocktails,” he says. “It’s something to warm you up on the inside.”
After combining a large quantity of all three spirits, Lerman starts a process called fat washing. He starts by clarifying ten cups of butter (melting it and removing the milk solids) and mixing it with the spirits, letting it all infuse for one day and then putting the mixture in the freezer overnight.
Alex Lerman fills a glass with the feather-light Butter Beer, behind the bar at Green Russell.
“The next day,” Lerman explains, “all of the butter has frozen to the top. That way I can strain it off, leaving all the butter behind. All the essential oils are left with the spirits, so you get that buttery richness in the spirits. It gives everything a different, oily mouthfeel, and brings a nice body, richness, complexity.”
But that’s only half the process. After the buttered booze goes into the siphon, Lerman whips up eggs, vanilla syrup and two kinds of cream, adding them to the booze. He caps the canister, and adds nitrogen gas from two pressurized metal capsules. The nitrogen penetrates the liquids, adding millions of tiny bubbles to create a foam.
It takes some time to prepare, but serving the drink takes only seconds. Topping it with caramel made from sugar, butter, vanilla and Hickory-smoked sea salt takes another three or four seconds.
“People were trying to eat it with their straws,” Lerman says, “saying ‘This is so good, I don’t want to leave any of it behind.’ ” Now, he serves the drink with a metal straw with a saucer-shaped spoon attached to one end, so you can sip it, or scoop it.
The drink is as light as a glass full of feathers. When Lerman pours a guest a sample of it in a shot glass, he turns it upside down — and nothing falls out of the glass.
“It’s definitely not your paleo cocktail,” Lerman says, referring to the eggs and cream. “But people want something amazing to go with the pie that we serve here.” He’s referring to Green Russells’ mixed-berry pie ($7, $9 with ice cream), made of strawberries, raspberries and blueberries on an almond-flour crust.
The sweet, frothy drink is definitely best with, or as, dessert. “Most of the time, people get it as their last drink,” Lerman says. “Most people are really, really blown away by it.”
But sometimes they’re skeptical, because Butter Beer is made with raw egg whites. Lerman explains to them that egg whites in a cocktail has been around for a very long time — since the pre-prohibition era. “It really doesn’t change the taste of the drink; it just changes the mouthfeel and adds a different sense of body, texture.”
Lerman has worked at Green Russell since he started as a barback in March, 2013. Last July, he became bar manager and brought his style of service to the forefront. “A lot of people come in here skeptical — not sure what to think or what to order,” he says, “so I try to make something not too outside of their comfort zone, something they can really get comfortable with.”
.75 oz. Zaya Gran Reserva rum
.75 oz. Monkey Shoulder blended Scotch whisky
.5 oz. Becherovka
Combine spirits with clarified butter, allowing them to marinate for one day. Freeze overnight. Remove cap of frozen butter.
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1 oz. heavy cream
1 oz. half and half cream
.5 vanilla simple syrup
2 egg whites
Add all ingredients to soda siphon, and double-charge with two nitrogen capsules. Shake the canister vigorously. Spray into a glass and top with salted caramel.