As a native Denverite, I both hate and love Boulder. Its self-righteousness sends me over the edge: Give Boulderites a chance, and they'll recite all the statistics about how they are healthier and better educated than everyone else, and know exactly which local farm each morsel of food on their plate comes from. People in Boulder act as if their lacto-vegetarian shit doesn't stink. Still, I was happy when Boulder was recently named "Foodiest Town of the Year" by Bon Appétit. There's a reason Boulderites know which local farm each morsel comes from: This town has an amazing concentration of passionate restaurateurs who were implementing the farm-to-table concept before anyone cared one iota about the origins of their food. And mixologist James Lee has been one of the most passionate. When Happy Noodle Company (now Happy) opened in early 2009, he was tapped to set up the bar program at the Bitter Bar located within Happy; he was also named a partner and chief mixologist for all six Big Red F restaurants. Recognized that year as one of the country's top ten mixologists by Playboy, Lee has been key to Colorado's being recognized for its impressive cocktail culture and not just as a craft-beer mecca.
But now Lee is moving on. He's abandoning the healthier, better educated, foodiest town in America and moving to Salida, perhaps the only place in the state that has a more outdoorsy population than Boulder (but definitely a less sophisticated cocktail crowd — think bottled margarita mix), to run the Boathouse Cantina. I stopped by Bitter Bar on Lee's last day, when he made me an extraordinary Brooklyn ($10), a fancy version of the Manhattan, created with homemade Amer Picon, Bitter Bar private label single-barrel (ri)1 rye whiskey and French Dry Vermouth. The drink is almost impossible to find in this country, because Amer Picon is unavailable for purchase in the U.S; invented by Gaëtan Picon in 1837, it's a bitter, orange-flavored aperitif made from oranges, quinine, cinchona and gentian. But after the Bitter bartenders came up with their own recipe for Amer Picon, the Brooklyn was added to the Bitter Bar's roster. Lee may be departing from Bitter Bar and the foodiest town in America, but he leaves behind some great bartenders — 2010 42 Below Cocktail World Cup winner Mark Stoddard, Bombay Sapphire National Cocktail Competition finalist Michael Cerretani, and Boulder newbie Matt Lanning, who's going to New York this month for the prestigious Beverage Alcohol Resource Program — and one great cocktail with the Brooklyn. Maybe they should rename it the Boulder.