Pop Skull at Syntax Physic Opera
At Syntax Physic Opera, everything is entertainment. The South Broadway bar and restaurant is also a venue, drawing crowds for standup comedy, opera, live local music and burlesque. A stage sits front and center in the dining room, where live performance is woven into the experience of the place. Entertainment is part of everything here — even the cocktails. “I always try to take inspiration from the place itself,” says bartender Nick Bode, who has been crafting cocktails at Syntax since the doors opened two years ago. “It’s easy to come up with a good drink,” he continues, “but there are plenty of good drinks that wouldn’t fit with this place, or with what we do.”
Syntax was designed to evoke Denver’s nineteenth-century history, placing its identity and culinary roots somewhere around 1860. That was a time of miners, cowboys, railroads and campy entertainment — including burlesque. James Buchanan was America’s president then, and the country had not yet plunged into the Civil War. It is with these parameters in mind that Nick Bode serves his cocktails. “I always try to take the inspiration from the environment that a cocktail is going to be served in,” he says. To that end, one of his most popular cocktails combines gin, lemon juice, bitters and rosemary-black tea syrup, and it’s called the Pop Skull ($9).
“It’s made from local ingredients,” Bode says. He could be talking about just about any item on the food or drink menu, but in this case, he’s talking about the CapRock gin he’s using as the base spirit in the Pop Skull. The gin is made with apples plucked from trees on Colorado’s Western Slope and is distilled only miles from where the fruit is grown. “We try to get as much as we can from as close to here as we can,” Bode says. “If I’m presented with two fantastic gins, and one’s made here and the other is made in England, and they both blend well and they both represent gin well as a category, then of those two, I’ll always go with the local one.”
In addition to apples, CapRock uses organic winter wheat and is infused with twelve different fruits, flowers and seeds to create its specific flavor profile. “We chose this gin because it is a great representation of the new-world style of gin,” Bode says. “It’s very easy to blend with. It’s distinctively a gin without being overpowered by juniper.”
As a complement to CapRock’s bounty of herb and fruit flavors, Bode makes an herbaceous tea. “I start by cooking rosemary for about ten minutes — not enough to break it down too much,” Bode says. “I definitely want to get the essential oils off the rosemary leaves and into that water. While the water is still hot, I steep Earl Grey tea in it for about five minutes, to give it a nice strong concentration. At that point, you’ve basically got a rosemary-flavored Earl Grey tea.” Once the tea is fully infused, Bode adds enough sugar to the hot liquid to turn it into a syrup.
“I love the tea,” Bode says. “It gives [Pop Skull] that nice tannic dryness and really provides some flavors — but the rosemary, especially, just really plays nicely with the botanicals in the Cap Rock.”
Bode tried several different kinds of tea at first, including herbal teas, but settled on the popular Earl Grey, which is a blend of black tea with the addition of citrus oil extracted from the rind of the bergamot orange. “There’s just that little bit of orange that kind of ties the citrus together with the fresh lemon juice,” Bode says, “and a real sharp dryness and concentrated tea flavor. Of the different ones that we tried, it seemed to play best with the other ingredients.”
“We have a lot of different bitters here,” Bode says of the selection at Syntax. For the Pop Skull, he chose the classic Angostura bitters, named after the Venezuelan town of Angostura, where it was first sold in 1824. It's a botanically infused flavoring made of water, alcohol (44.7 percent) and a basketful of herbs, roots and leaves. The exact recipe is a secret (only five people in the world are reputed to know the formula), but the taste is known worldwide. Angostura is the bitters commonly used in such popular cocktails as the Manhattan and Old Fashioned, among others.
“If I was going to have this drink with something off of our menu,” Bode says, “it would be the rattlesnake ravioli ($10). This dish features lemon-pepper-dusted rattlesnake meat stuffed into housemade ravioli, served with sweet and spicy squash and beef consomme. “It’s hearty; it tastes great,” he adds. “It’s one of those situations where people are surprised that they’re eating rattlesnake.”
And, he says, that’s similar to the experience some people have with the Pop Skull: Those who don't like gin often don’t realize they’re drinking it until they’ve finished the cocktail. “That’s actually one of the things I like a lot,” Bode says. “People will see it made and order one, maybe not realizing what’s in it. They try it and love it, and then realize that it’s a gin drink. And that's always fun when somebody who’s had only bad experiences with gin gets to have a positive one. But people like it because it’s not too sweet. The rosemary gives it a nice earthiness and herbal characteristic.”
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Another thing Bode likes about his drink is the ease of preparation. “In a lot of ways, that fits in with the whole experience here at Syntax Physic Opera,” he explains. “You can get a very well-crafted drink made quickly. And the way it’s prepared is also part of a show, and that’s what we’re doing here, beyond just serving drinks. We’re putting on a show.”
2 ounces CapRock gin
.75 ounce Earl Grey-rosemary simple syrup
.5 ounce fresh lemon juice
3 dashes Angostura bitters
Pour all ingredients into a shaker tin over ice. Shake vigorously. Double-strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a lemon wedge, skewered with a sprig of rosemary.