Chef News

Rob Masters and Nick Touch on Collaboration, Cocktails and the Family Jones

Mark Antonation
Cocktails made with Family Jones spirits from the restaurant's own distillery.
The Family Jones rolled into LoHi earlier this month, giving Denver a place where drinkers can experience a high-end bar program built entirely on spirits made in-house. The project, the brainchild of Paul Tamburello (who developed the Olinger complex, including Little Man Ice Cream), is ambitious. Fortunately, two of the city’s top spirits-industry talents are at the helm: Rob Masters, formerly of Rob’s Mountain Gin and Spring 44, is running the still, while Nick Touch, who cut his teeth bartending and then managing at Williams & Graham, is overseeing the bar. We caught up with the pair to talk about what it means to build a bar program from the still up, what’s coming down the pike at the distillery, and what they’ll be drinking this Thanksgiving.

Westword: You both have had prolific careers in the spirits industry. How did you find your way to the Family Jones?

Rob Masters: Paul was talking to [Westword editor] Patty Calhoun and told her he wanted to start a distillery. Patty and I worked together on the Colorado Cocktail Project, so she said, “You need to meet Rob Masters.”
She arranged a meeting with Paul, myself and her at Williams & Graham. We looked at the old Cobbler’s Corner, where Bacon Social House is now. I kind of went in consulting — I had this big project in Nevada that I’m still working on — but then things kind of worked out, and I became part of the team.

Nick Touch: I’ve known Rob for a lot of years, and I’ve always respected the products he produced. I was ready to depart from traditional bars and restaurants. I found this love for education, for teaching people about the tequila I work with, and about Ancho Reyes, and this was an opportunity to have that educational component while utilizing my skills as a bartender, as well. I’m melding these two paths I’ve taken in the spirits world. And I’ve visited distilleries all over the world and tasting rooms all over the country, and I’ve never seen anything like what we’ve put together. It was the opportunity to take on a unique challenge of creating a great cocktail program, but only with things we make. I love the art of mixology; it’s great to have the color palette the world has provided us — amari, Chartreuse, Campari — but here I have to re-evaluate the way I look at creating cocktails from the ground up. I don’t have blanc vermouth — how can I make something that resembles that in our still or lab so I can make a cocktail like a fifty-fifty martini? I’ve never experienced anything like that, to be able to have initial creative control from the ground up.

Creating your entire back bar from scratch is an ambitious place to start. What was the vision for the spirits here?

Masters: The vision for the space has always been making anything a good bartender needs to have for a world-class bar program. It’s going to be really hard to re-create Chartreuse or the amari that have been around for generations, but there’s no reason we can’t create things that a good bartender could use to have a great bar program using only things we make. It’s pretty common to start with gin and vodka, bourbon and rye. We’re doing it because it’s the base of a great bar program. Our bar program will constantly evolve, and we’ll always be creating new things.

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Housemade spirits with temporary labels.
Mark Antonation
What supplemental spirits did you need to focus on first?

Touch: The first five things we need behind the bar are a bitter aperitif, a sweet amaretto, an orange liqueur, an amaro and then something extremely herbal — something like Chartreuse. So something herbal, bitter and sweet. Triple sec was one of the first obvious things that we needed to have, and it seemed relatively easy. It was about getting the right blend of sweet orange and bitter orange and distilling it. It was one of the things we hit right away. Vermouth was something I wanted to have, and Rob shares my love for classic gin martinis. But we had to overcome the challenge of not having a winery license. What do we replace it with? What do we start with as a base? We had a lot of help from Ky Belk, who bartends at Linger. We tried apple cider and different juices, and settled on white unsweetened grape juice to replace the wine. We looked at recipes for our favorite vermouths and learned we needed to have wormwood; that was essential. You need other bittering agents, like gentian root, and some of the fall spice flavors, like cinnamon and cloves and orange peels. We finally found a recipe that really worked, and we cooked up a batch and fortified it with neutral grain spirits and sweetened it with cane sugar to get to a 20 percent-alcohol level. I stirred it up in a vesper, and it wasn’t a vesper, but it was delicious. So the non-vermouth was born.

You’re also doing a crème de violette.

Touch: Of the first five modifying liqueurs a bartender would need, crème de violette would not fall into those. It adds color and a floral note, but it’s not like, try this crème de violette. But I would put ours up against most of the mass-produced ones out there. It has a perfect balance.

Yeah, for the crème de violette, a friend is a cocktail nerd, and he was looking back at recipes, and we figured out this very obvious ingredient that we’ve used in gin development is essential to a crème de violette. We pulled it down, distilled it, tasted it, and sure as shit, it was crème de violette. I never thought crème de violette would have been made by us so quickly, but it just worked.

The collaboration aspect of this is really unique. Does working together so closely change how you think about making spirits or tending bar?

Touch: The collaboration is as unique as the tasting room itself. Distillers and bartenders have had a relationship as long as distilling has been happening, but usually it’s, “This is what I make — use it.” It’s rare that you have a bartender who can say, “Hey, can we figure out a way to make a fall spice aperitif liqueur to feature in cocktails?” I can go to Rob, he can show me the botanicals and we can say, “How do we do this?” Or for him, he can have an obscure amaro at a bar in New York and ask, “What do you think? How would this work in a cocktail?”

The nice part for me about the bar is that it allows me to make tweaks to products before they go out to the world. Jones House Gin was at 40 percent ABV, but Nick was making cocktails with it, and we ended up raising it up. It’s like a test kitchen for a distillery. Everything we make is going to be as good as we can possibly make it — and we’ll get better from there. We’re able to make tweaks quicker and more efficiently because of the bar downstairs.

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The Family Jones uses a still imported from Germany.
Mark Antonation
What are you excited to experiment with?

Masters: I love the idea of all the amari, fernets, fun stuff. I love the idea of seasonal gins. What I’m super-excited about with this facility is the wooden fermenter, because we can get into brandies and one-off whiskeys. We’re talking to farmers about heritage grains and getting some cool funky grains. If you take 3,000 pounds of that grain, you can make a barrel of whiskey — so what if you have 100 different barrels of 100 different whiskeys? I’m excited about getting peaches and pears and other fruits from Palisade and making brandy. That’s bigger-picture, and it won’t come for a year or two, because getting Nick the modifiers he needs to have should come first.

Bonus question: What are you drinking this Thanksgiving?

Masters: I gotta drink wine at Thanksgiving. You can’t beat a good cabernet with a big, heavy, hearty meal, and I end the night with a ferrari — fernet and Campari in equal parts, thank you, Amy Kempster [a former bartender at Colt & Gray].

I traditionally bring makings for a cocktail and a bottle of amaro to have after dinner and before when the snacks come. This year, I’m bringing Luxardo Amaro Abano, which I brought from Italy, and some of our Stop Gap Rye, which has a good mix of botanicals and herbs.

Anything else you want to chat about?

Masters: We have to give a shout-out to Sean Kenyon, Bryan Dayton and the rest of the old guard who created the scene here. And to Todd Leopold, for having raised the bar on us continuously. You can’t be a distiller and not talk about grain-to-bottle, because every bartender worth a damn has been to Leopold’s distillery and had it preached to them that grain-to-bottle is the only way. Todd and Scott have done it right from the start. So has Jake Norris.

The Family Jones
3245 Osage Street
Hours: 4 to 10 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday (closed Thanksgiving), 3 p.m. to midnight Friday, noon to midnight Saturday, noon to 10 p.m. Sunday.