The Heart Beet at the MCA Cafe
Visitors to MCA Denver are greeted by a striking work of art, even before entering the building. An enormous, sparkling heart, stuck through with a silver sword, rotates atop a pole jutting up from the sidewalk in front of the building’s main entrance. The heart, a work by British artists Tim Noble and Sue Webster, is studded with red light bulbs and is a permanent part of the museum's collection. As guests wind their way through the galleries inside, they eventually end up on the top floor, where the MCA Cafe is located. Here, they can purchase food and drinks — including wine, beer and cocktails — while enjoying the view of the surrounding city. And it’s here that they can find another heart — namely a cocktail called the Heart Beet created by Silas Henton, who named his drink after the spinning heart outside.
“It surprises people,” Henton says of his cocktail, made with vodka, beet juice, apples and lemons. “It’s not a martini, it’s not a heavy cocktail. It’s something very light and healthy, something that relies on natural flavors more than anything.”
Henton brought his love of gardening and healthy eating to his drink recipe, which he feels fits well in a cafe that is part of a contemporary art museum. “I wanted to create something that would be fresh, something that would be bright, something that people could enjoy.”
Henton starts his cocktail by muddling slices of apple and lemon in a cocktail shaker with an ounce of beet juice. After adding vodka and ice, he shakes all the ingredients and strains the now scarlet-colored drink into a chilled cocktail glass, and garnishes it with a freshly cut apple slice.
The heart of the Heart Beet is Silvertree vodka, made by Denver's Leopold Brothers Distillery. “It’s a very full-bodied vodka,” Henton says of Silvertree, which is distilled in small batches from potatoes, malted barley and wheat. “I think it complements the beet juice very well. Leopold’s is a great brand. I think their spirits are very well-crafted. They’re not overly produced. They take a lot of care with their product, which shows very clearly.”
Henton’s love of gardening inspired him to keep the recipe as close to all-natural as he could, adding only beet juice and fresh apples and lemons. “I think it creates this fresh, bright drink that is not super complex in flavors,” he says. “It highlights the nuances of the tartness and sweetness of the fruit. It’s bright, it’s healthy; you don’t feel like you’re drinking a cocktail, but a juice. So, it’s really unique in that sense.”
Silvertree vodka is only partly filtered after distillation, resulting in a spirit that tastes thicker and more full-bodied than other vodkas. “It’s very full-flavored, with a good mouthfeel,” Henton says. “I think it sits very well on your tongue.”
“I think that this is a great summertime drink,” Henton adds, “because it’s not a ‘guilty’ drink — it’s not loaded with all these excess sugars and sweets. I use natural flavors to enhance the vodka.”
Henton uses beet juice from Biotta, a juice company founded in Switzerland in 1957, now offering a line of ten juices. All are sourced from organically grown fruit, which are decanted — not pressed. Decanting uses centrifugal force to extract the juice from the fruit, allowing the nutrients to remain in the juice.
“One thing about beet juice,” Henton says, “is that it’s a very healthy drink — it helps with amino acids, it helps with stamina, it makes you feel good.”
Henton even considered the specific type of apple to infuse into his cocktail. “I used Braeburns for this one,” he says, “because Braeburns have some sweetness and they’re not super tart. There’s a good balance between tart and sweet.”
If you’re having one of Henton’s cocktails in MCA’s top-floor cafe, pair it with the cultured raw plate ($7), made with fermented organic vegetables. “They’re healthy, they’re fresh, and really please the palate,” Henton says of the fermented vegetables. “They’re fresh, and made locally. They don’t weigh you down.” The plate’s vegetables are sourced from Haiku Foods, a Denver-based company that specializes in fermented foods such as Kimchi, which is currently on the raw plate, along with lemon-garlic sauerkraut and organic sprouted-seed crackers.
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Henton is very aware of his surroundings; the MCA cafe is not a cocktail bar and he’s always thinking about the exhibits in the floors below the cafe. “It makes you really question things and for me, that’s really big,” he says. “Art should make you think, it should make you wonder. But, you should also feel good about it. You should feel enlivened by this environment. That’s been one of the biggest things.”
By keeping the ingredients simple, Henton challenges the drinker to determine whether they’re drinking juice and booze, or a craft cocktail. The simplicity of ingredients is the beating heart inside the idea of the drink, one that takes basic elements and twists them gently into something new. “By renewing what we already understand,” Henton says, “what else can we make sense of?”
2 ounces Leopold Brothers Distillery's Silvertree vodka
1 ounce. beet juice
1 apple slice
1 lemon Wedge
Pour one ounce of beet juice into a shaker tin and add an apple slice and lemon wedge. Muddle the fruit. Add two ounces of vodka. Add ice. Shake vigorously and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with an apple slice.