Kevin Burke: Mentorship is the hallmark of a mature bartending scene
courtesy of Kevin Burke
In this week's behind the bar interview, Colt & Gray's Kevin Burke weighs in on how he started bartending, his favorite spot to blind taste spirits and the Mustache Series.
What's your history with bartending? What made you get into the profession? I got into the profession by necessity -- I needed money. I had to pay for my dance lessons somehow, and gin and tonics were a decent way to do it. And then I learned cocktails from whiskey, gnomes and wood fairies. No, I worked my way up through restaurants -- I was a bar back and bus boy. Then I worked as a server and took daytime lunch bar shifts to set up the bar for evening bartenders. That's where you learn process. Evening bartenders would let me hang out because I showed curiosity. That evolved into helping out with happy hour, and then I saw my schedule evolve from lunch bartender to nighttime bartender.
It was an old-school joint, so I learned the classics right along aside Cosmopolitan and shake-the-shit-out-of-it vodka martinis. It was a great way to learn, from set-up to how to close. It was a mentorship, and I was learning how and why to do stuff and why it's important to have discipline in doing it the same way every time. That's the hallmark of a mature bar scene, and Denver is coming into that -- you see young bartenders flock to established bartenders to learn. Sean Kenyon at Williams & Graham is an example of that -- he's an established patriarch, and you have people from all over the place that want to learn from him.
On that note, I moved to Denver to pursue dance, but I couldn't leave the restaurant scene behind. I dropped off my resume at Elway's about three times -- I knew it was an old-school joint with a really impressive wine program. I still think they're doing cocktails the way they should be done -- without attitude and without pretension. I hope that's what St. Ellie is going to be. I also tried to work for Anika Zappe at Root Down. What she was doing was really West Coast, and I wanted to learn. She did something really different and successful.
I got involved with Colt & Gray two and a half years ago, and I've never left. I agreed to do one day a week at Green Russell at the beginning, and now I duck in there every once in awhile to make some drinks when they need help. That's a situation that I like. It's one of the most difficult bars to work behind, and I mean that in a good way: there's a super-diverse clientele, you're working with all block ice and there's a vast array of spirits -- upwards of 300 bottles spread over a bar that's six feet long.
Bartending rule to live by: Everyone else has been saying this, but even at a cocktail bar, it's not the cocktail that's number one -- it's the person. The other thing bartenders should not forget is to respect the ingredients. Just like a kitchen shouldn't put Skittles on Kobe beef just because it can, our inventory should be able to stand on its own. That's not to say you can't drink Pappy Van Winkle 20-year and Ginger Ale -- if that's your order, I'll make it. But a bartender should never suggest it.
Five words to describe your drink list: Classic, playful, collaborative, balanced and hair lip. That last one is for the mustache series. We had a hard time creating and crafting names for cocktails. One of our regulars, Jess Hunter, always drinks brown, bitter and stirred. I made her a cocktail, and she wanted to know the name. I didn't have one. She said, "This cocktail tastes like it has a mustache." And the mustache series was born. We make cocktails inspired by particularly prolific mustaches. We take an external inspiration for a cocktail and use that as the flavor palate. The cocktails are usually brown, bitter and stirred, but not always. Some mustaches are delicate and pretty and deserve an appropriate cocktail. The John Waters, for instance, is a particularly delicate cocktail. It's a Bianco Martini made with cachaca and peach bitters. Favorite drink on your list: The Jack Rose in the classics section. It's incredibly simple, one of those rare cocktails that's more than the sum of its ingredients. It's one of the first cocktails I made that was a real gateway into classics and understanding classic balance, and it has perfect fall and winter flavors: American apple brandy, pomegranate, fresh citrus. Seasonal right now isn't mint, basil or cucumber. But we do have beautiful lemons and pomegranates the size of your fist -- it's citrus season. The Laird family is maybe the oldest in the U.S. cranking out traditional apple brandies -- Applejack is the American equivalent of Calvados. Even their blended tastes apple-y and bright, so you really get the citrus and pomegranate coming through. For people who like simple drinks like cosmos, lemon drops or traditional sours, there's no reason why they wouldn't love Jack Rose. Favorite item on your back bar: The black and white TV? No, honestly, I'm so promiscuous when it comes to the back bar. Here's what I poured for myself last night: a Utica Club and a half dram of A.E. Dor Napoleon Cognac. It's a cool story. Napoleon means the Cognac has to be at least six years old; A.E. has 17-year-old going in, and it uses brandies from less sexy areas of Cognac, which gives it a wonderfully fruity and mature profile. Most producers stay away from it, but this Cognac house says they'll make a beautiful, delicious cognac in a way that's not popular.
What was your craziest night behind the stick? The entire first Christmas season that we were open at Colt & Gray. It was Parker Ramey and myself running the program, and we just got slaughtered. It was pretty gnarly. We were busy, and we were stubbornly trying to run the bar like a cocktail bar instead of like a restaurant. We were going overboard as far as how we did service at the bar and trying to make it more formal than we needed to. There were too many cocktails, and they weren't well-planned. Now, we take many of our cues behind the bar from how the kitchen sets up. There was a level of prep and learning how this monster and this beast was going to operate -- we had to figure out what we needed to do to make it successful. It took about half a year to nail it down and get it done. Our drinks were good, we were just working far too hard to get them produced every night.
Favorite Denver venue for a drink that's not your own and what you order when you're there: My Brother's Bar. It's my office. Usually, they'll see me coming and there will be a tasting glass in front of a bar seat, and I just figure that one's mine. We play a blind game. It's fun. Colt & Gray is eclectic, but they get ornery and pour me Canadian Club or Hennessy or something I haven't tasted in awhile. Then I'll have a beer or cider and a whiskey. For fancy drinks, I go to Linger as close to last call as possible, and I'm totally fine with ordering a beer and a whiskey or a beer and a tequila if they're too busy. they have a great selection of tequila. In LoDo, I go to Green Russell for a platonic ideal of a Manhattan with impeccable service. I will be visiting Matty Durgin at Adrift once that opens. It's on my way home from ballet rehearsal, which is my day job, so he may have to put up with me sitting at his bar in sweaty tights.
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