If you order a drink at the bar at Spuntino and the bartender disappears, that’s a good thing. Chances are you’ve ordered bartender Jason Randall’s garden-to-glass cocktail. Filling your order requires him to walk past you and right out the front door — to his street-side herb patch, just inches from West 32nd Avenue. In just a few moments, he’s picked a half-dozen botanicals and walks past you again with a splash of herbaceous color in his hand. Returning to the bar, Randall gently tamps the leaves and petals at the bottom of a glass to release their aromas and flavors. He adds cucumber, lime, lemon syrup and soda water to create a vibrant, refreshing urban-garden melange of flavor and color that he calls the Gardener’s Collins.
It all started with a few leftover herbs in a small garden just outside Spuntino’s front door. “When I first got here,” Randall says, “the mint in the front bed was already there and was already established. It kept coming back every year. I saw the chef pulling from that a lot, and that just kind of gave me the idea to use more.” He planted some edibles and used those, noticing that the adjacent garden in front of neighboring Park Burger yielded pretty — but ultimately inedible — flowers. “I asked them if they had any plans for their garden,” he says. After Park Burger gave him the go-ahead to plant flowers in their flowerbed, he asked them: “Do you care if I put a garden in it?” The answer was no, they did not mind. Randall doubled his garden space this year — and added a laundry list of edible plants with which to create cocktails.
His Gardener’s Collins is a verdant version of the classic Tom Collins cocktail, consisting of gin, sugar, lemon juice and carbonated water. That recipe first appeared in print in 1876, in legendary bartender Jerry Thomas’s Bar-Tender’s Guide. The tall, thin, slender glass it was served in eventually came to be known as a Collins glass.
Randall’s recipe glorifies these last few weeks of the season by incorporating end-of-summer harvest flavors into a classic gin drink — and he doesn’t even like gin.
“I’m not a huge gin person,” he says. “I was never a fan of really juniper-heavy gins.” Randall came to appreciate CapRock gin, distilled in the Western Colorado town of Hotchkiss. It’s no surprise that Randall gravitated toward the spirit: CapRock also sources all ingredients for the gin from surrounding farms, much the same way that Randall grabs handfuls of ingredients from nearby gardens that he planted earlier this year.
“CapRock was one of the first gins that I had that had a floral and fruit base to it that didn’t have a ton of juniper,” he says. “To me, it was unique, floral, and extremely versatile in cocktails. It’s the most versatile gin that I’ve ever found.” After a bit of research, Randall found that the gin was made from apples, which explained the spirit’s thicker mouthfeel and fruity flavor.
Instead of the traditional lemon-juice component, Randall uses an entire lemon to make his whole-lemon syrup. He doesn’t peel the fruit before he juices it: instead, he pushes several whole lemons into a juice extractor, where the rotating blades shred the rind, pith and juicy flesh together.
“When you extract the entire product,” he explains, “you get this kind of opaque, almost creamy-looking lemon juice. The flavors you get from the bitterness of the pith and the peel and the freshness from the rind is something that’s really important. I think that’s kind of the key.
“A lot of people go home and try to re-create the syrup, because that’s kind of like a secret ingredient,” Randall continues. “It’s just the way that we do it that a lot of places don’t. They’re just getting the lemon juice; they’re not really getting a lot of the pith or the peel, or the bitterness.”
The way that Randall makes the rest of the syrup is unique, too. He uses a 50/50 mix of powdered and granulated sugars, mixed with an equal amount of water to make the base syrup. To every quart of syrup, he adds a quart of the whole-lemon extract, keeping the mixture in squeeze bottles behind the bar, ready to use in any of his creations — specifically the Gardener’s Collins.
With his syrup at the ready and a bouquet of fresh herbs in hand, Randall is ready to make his cocktail. Behind the bar, he carefully separates flowers from stems and leaves from stalks, arranging them on a wooden cutting board. When he’s done, it looks like an artist’s palette: splashes of turquoise, scarlet, yellow, blue and green.
He tosses a cucumber slice and a lime wedge into a tall glass, adds an ounce of lemon syrup and muddles it all. Next, he drops the botanicals into the glass and muddles again — gently this time, to protect the delicate petals and leaves. After adding ice, he pours in the gin, topping it with soda water. He drizzles the remaining half-ounce of syrup over the top, and finishes off the drink with a garnish of sliced cucumber. “I’ve been using the fennel,” he says of his extra garnishes — “but sometimes I might change it up. We have nasturtium leaves that look like a little lily pads. Sometimes that’s cool just sitting on top of the cocktail.”
Randall says his drink is one of, if not the most, popular cocktails on the menu right now. “It’s definitely a show piece, too,” he says, with guests becoming intrigued and entertained when he leaves the bar, returning with a freshly picked bundle of colorful ingredients that he prepares right in front of them. “They’re ecstatic about it,” he adds. “People see it, and they want to order it. It’s one of those cocktails that when people see me making it, they ask where it is on the menu.”
Right now, it’s at the top of the cocktail list at Spuntino, an earthy, innovative neighborhood restaurant in the bustling LoHi neighborhood that is sprouting restaurants like the marigolds in Randall's garden.
And you’ll find plenty of golden marigold petals in his drinks. “We weren’t really using marigolds last year as much as we did this year. We’re using marigolds in, like, everything. I’m kind of obsessed with them; I”m using them in almost every recipe. I just think that they’re awesome.”