In this interview, James Lee, one of the godfathers of Colorado cocktail culture, discusses the Pimms Cup that made him see the light, one thing he thinks bartenders absolutely have to measure, and the night he was called the worst bartender ever.
Westword: How long have you been a bartender? What made you get into the profession?
James Lee: I truly got into bartending when I wanted to be a beach bum. I was into beach volleyball in North Carolina in the early '90s, but I let go of my engineering job, and I went back to bartending to have the flexibility to do things I wanted to do.
I moved to Boulder in 1998 because I wanted to get into skiing. I didn't move to a ski town because I wanted to have a normal life, bartending and then skiing a couple of times a week. I started at Zolo Southwestern Grill, and six months in, they offered me the bar manager position, which I declined because I wanted to ski sixty or seventy times a season. A year later, Dave Query offered again. This time, it was kind of take-this-job-or-I'm-going-to-fire-you. I didn't say no.
I met Jim Meehan in 2006, when he came to Boulder for a seminar on mixology. I was at the West End Tavern at the time, and he really opened my eyes on tasting, flavors and integrating fresh ingredients into cocktails. Things really changed when he made me a Pimms Cup. I'd had a Pimms Cup before, but he made one his way, with fresh ginger, fresh mint and strawberry. It blew my socks off. I was like, what? This was above and beyond anything I'd ever had. I was totally inspired, and Jim mentored me for about two days on his idea and his vision of what would be a great cocktail. Then he opened the door for me to come to New York, and he put me in touch with people in L.A., San Francisco, Chicago. He really opened the door for me. Mixology was brand-new in Boulder at that time.
I became the beverage director for Big Red F in 2007, and I was mostly overseeing Lola and Jax Denver. Then Dave and I came up with a noodle-house idea and opened Happy Noodle House and the Bitter Bar in 2009. At that point, it was supposed to be sort of a turn-and-burn quick-service place that would close around 8 p.m. We'd have an hour layover and then open a semi-speakeasy -- the Bitter Bar -- at 10 p.m. That never really happened. Happy Noodle was never really quick-service, and it never closed at 8 p.m. So it became a blend of the two, and people got confused. I hand-picked Mark Stoddard from Zolo Grill to help me at Bitter Bar, and he was on board from the beginning. That's where it all started.
In 2009, I was listed as one of the top ten best bartenders in the country by Playboy, and I competed in an Iron Bar Chef competition. That was fun. Now, [after a year-long stint in Salida and managing the bars at TAG and Le Grand] I work at Blackbelly Catering with Hosea Rosenberg, and I'm doing a couple of nights a week at the Bitter Bar, where I'm still a partner. I'm also involved with the Denver FIVE this year.
Bartending rule to live by: Always measure simple syrup. I don't mind free pours of spirits, but I can't stand people free-pouring simple syrup or agave -- you have to measure that. You can't free-pour sugar.
Five words to describe your drink list: Seasonal, well-balanced between sweetness and acidity, fresh, clever. Favorite drink on your list and why: Cucumber Margarita, or the Q Coin. It's a twist on a classic, and you can't go wrong with a classic cocktail with a twist. Cucumber gives it a great scent, and it's one for everyone. It's not overwhelming, it's not too strong, it's a perfectly balanced cocktail any time of year, and it's all natural.
Favorite item on your back bar: Ooh, there are a lot. Favorite spirit would be tequila, bar none. That's my first love. Older Scotches are amazing, but what spirit would I take to a desert island? Silver tequila. As far as a label, Campari. It has everything I want -- bitterness, sweetness on the front, it accentuates a cocktail if you make it into a cocktail, and it's good in an aperitif in the summertime.
What was your craziest night behind the stick? I was at West End Tavern about eight years ago. I was tending the upstairs patio bar, and I was head down and really busy. One of the college kids came up and asked for a beer, a tallboy PBR. I gave him the beer. He turns around and says, "Thank you, but you're the worst bartender ever," because it had taken me thirty minutes to acknowledge him. I don't know if that's particularly crazy, but it was a humbling moment. We all have them. I said, "Okay, thank you." He turned around and left.
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Favorite Denver venue for a drink that's not your own, and what you order when you're there: My Brother's Bar. I love that bar. It's so unpretentious, it's just an old-style bar. I love ordering a Manhattan there.
What's next for the Denver bartending scene? I think it's more of a friendly neighborhood bar that creates high-level cocktails. I think we're moving away from the speakeasy and into the neighborhood places, but they'll still be service-oriented and preserve the integrity of mixology.
Also, it's really nice to see in the last three, three and a half years how much the bartending scene has risen and all the bartenders who have come out: Kevin Burke, Mike Henderson, Sean Kenyon, the Layman Brothers, Alex Parks and so many more. It's great to see the recognition for what we do, and it's quite a joy for me.