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Ask the Bartender: Meet Kevin Burke, Colorado Cocktail contestant

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Sean Kenyon knows how to pour out both drinks and advice. A third-generation bar man with almost 25 years behind the bar, he is a student of cocktail history, a United States Bartenders Guild-certified Spirits Professional and a BAR Ready graduate of the prestigious Beverage Alcohol Resource Program. You can find him behind the bar at Squeaky Bean -- and here every week, where he'll answer your questions. But right now, he wants to introduce you to our second Colorado Cocktail Contest contestant.

The Colorado Cocktail Project, with its mission to create the official Colorado Cocktail, has begun. Over the next five weeks, we will profile each of the bartenders and all of the Colorado distillers involved in the process -- and not only can you read about them here, but you can sample the contestants for yourself at any of the participating bars and restaurants, then vote for your favorites. We'll decide the ten finalists by June 15, and they'll pour out their hearts -- and drinks -- in a head-to-head competition on June 27 at the culmination of the Colorado Cocktail Project at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver.

Our second contestant, Kevin Burke of Colt & Gray, discusses being a geek and fishing in small ponds...

Kevin Burke Colt & Gray

When and how did you start bartending?

I have a fond memory of pouring John Powers for my grandfather whenever he visited. Bartending for me is about hospitality and taking care of people, so I would consider my start to be very early by following my mom around the kitchen. Helping her prepare meals for the family and set the table for dinner sparked an early interest in taking care of people.

What sparked your interest in mixology?

Wine started my path to mixology. Old drinks and vintage cocktails are fascinating because they come from a sense of history and a sense of place. My early interest in wine was spurred by the "idea" of terroir. I geek out on the fact that wine comes from a place, is a snapshot in time, and will continue to evolve. I found that early cocktails, like the Americano, transported me back to Milan after a few sips. An honestly made cocktail can have a story and a sense of terroir, much like well-made wines and beers.

Tell us about your bar.

Colt & Gray's bar is an intimate restaurant bar. We're very lucky to have an extremely talented team in the kitchen that forces the bar staff to be creative about flavors. The kitchen staff are always a willing tasting panel and editing board when we are crafting new cocktails. The other two bartenders working full-time behind the bar at Colt & Gray are accomplished barmen in their own right. Glenn has one of the most intuitive palates that I have worked with and shows complete flashes of genius when putting flavors together. Kelly's commitment to professionalism and education is inspiring. We're a bunch of nerds who get together every night and help the kitchen throw a dinner party for our guests. It's a rocking good time.

Tell us about yourself.

I'm a huge nerd and a voracious reader. My favorite books were written by the French Existentialists in the 1950s and '60s. I firmly believe that the best bar and the best bartenders in Denver all work at My Brother's Bar, down the street from Colt & Gray. Their commitment to the craft of tending bar inspires me to be better at my own job.

What do you love about bartending?

Bartending combines my artistic passions exercised in the crafting of drinks with my desire to take care of individuals' hospitality experience when visiting us.

What is your least favorite thing about bartending?

There's very little to dislike about bartending; everything from cleaning out the walk-in and putting away orders to scrubbing at the end of the night can have a zen quality about it and a deliberate value. My least favorite aspect about the new realities of the profession is the competitiveness to be the biggest fish in a small pond. The politics of it all can be a bit discouraging at times.

Favorite cocktail.

I consider myself to be a seasonal drinker. I love vermouths and potable bitters in drinks, they add a depth and complexity to cocktails that arrest me mid-sip and force me to think about what I'm drinking. They have the ability to evoke a sense of place and purpose. When Moe Elio worked at Colt & Gray (she's now at Steuben's, go see her now, she's a genius), she crafted a drink called the Juno that evolved after a guest's requests for Alaska cocktail variations were exhausted. The combination of Aquavit, Amaro Montenegro and Dry Vermouth was so complex and layered that the first time she made one for me it kept me up at night trying to figure out why all of those flavors worked. I love cocktails like that.

Favorite spirit.

I have a love/hate relationship with gin. On one hand, it demands manipulation and requires adjustment. There's really very little history to drinking gin straight. Unless it's Genever or Old Tom, Gin requires a cocktail to be consumed. So I guess it would be the raison d'etre for bartenders. Gin has this ability to make cocktails taste better. Unfortunately, I drink very little gin. At the end of a shift, I really don't want to mix myself a drink. Instead, I will just pour a small dram of something brown and sip on it straight -- whisky, brandy or tequila usually. I love gin for its brilliance, and hate it for being such an attention whore.

Describe your cocktail and why it should be THE Colorado Cocktail.

The complexity and concentration that distillation provides is an insight into the point-of-view of the distiller. Scott and Todd out at Leopold Brothers would be one of the best brewers in the state if they chose to bottle their beer. Instead, they opt to distill it, concentrating its genius and brilliance into a distillate. They get that their products are only as good as the base ingredients, they opt for open fermentation which allows for true Colorado terroir to be expressed in their products, they embrace the fact that their product is unique and Colorado, and that it could never be made anywhere else because they have welcomed terroir into their process.

Colorado is ground zero for craft beer, and has been hailed as the Napa Valley of beer. I'm inspired by the complexity of Colorado beers and the gusto with which brewers chase something authentic and develop a house style. The combination of one of the best brewed and distilled micro-whiskeys with tone-perfect pilsner from Avery in Boulder pays homage to how we all started drinking better and drinking locally.

The traditional Shandy is a refreshing combination of ginger beer and lager or sparkling lemonade and lager (otherwise known as Panache in Southern France....) and made for a nice springboard to develop a recipe. The Colorado Dachshund is cute and unassuming, its belly hangs a little low, and it has short legs. No one hates Dachshunds; they're awesome. They also have disproportionately long torsos with which I can identify.

Ultimately, the taste and flavors of the cocktail show off the best Colorado artisans -- whether it includes those who brew brilliantly and up the ante with distillation, or those who brew brilliantly and package the genius to be consumed as is.
The Colorado Dachshund

0.75 oz. Leopold's Straight Whiskey 0.75 oz. fresh grapefruit 0.25 oz. simple syrup 1.5 oz. Good Ginger Beer (Bundaberg) 1 dash Angostura Bitters 6 oz. Avery Joe's Pilsner

Combine ingredients in an 11 oz. Collins glass, stirring gently to combine, add a few ice cubes and garnish with a Lemon Wheel.

Cheers! Have a question about the Colorado Cocktail Contest? E-mail bartender@westword.com.

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