The Bourbon Renewal Project at Dunbar Kitchen & Taphouse
Becky Alter, bar manager at Dunbar Kitchen & Taphouse, has a saying that she instills into all the bartenders that work with her: When in doubt, go the classic route. That mixological mantra is a rule she lives by, too; her love of simple, straightforward drink recipes is reflected in Dunbar’s extensive cocktail menu. One of her cocktails became so popular that it got moved to the top of the list, where it presides over all her other recipes.
That cocktail, which Alter calls the Bourbon Renewal Project ($14), is her rendition of an Old Fashioned, one of America’s quintessential cocktails. She stayed fairly close to the original recipe by combining whiskey, bitters, muddled orange and sugar, garnishing it with an orange slice and a cherry. While the recipe is an old one, Alter aged it even further, letting the ingredients rest in a small oak barrel for at least ten days.
Before Dunbar opened last December, owner Charles Wessel and Alter planned out what their cocktail menu would look like. “When we first opened,” she says, “We put together a preliminary list. The Bourbon Renewal Project was part of the list, and I just kept coming back to it.” She knew it was going to appeal to a lot of people since, after all, it was based on a time-tested recipe. “Everyone is going to want this drink,” she thought — and she was right: soon after Dunbar opened, eight out of every ten cocktails sold was a Bourbon Renewal Project.
For the base of the cocktail, Alter chose Breckenridge bourbon. “When we were opening the bar,” she explains, “I tasted a ton of bourbons — I really tasted through a lot of stuff. Breckenridge, in my opinion, is the best thing coming out of Colorado. It’s just firm and smooth at the same time.”
Made mostly from yellow corn, Breckenridge bourbon also contains a relatively high amount of rye (38%), which results in a drier, sharper-tasting whiskey. “The thing that gets me about Breckenridge bourbon,” Alter says, “is the perfect balance of flavor and slight bite.”
Alter developed a strong relationship with the Breckenridge Distillery and collaboratred with the distillery’s mixologists to come up with ways to infuse the whiskey with other flavors. “The regular bourbon, by itself, is too smooth for an Old Fashioned,” she says. So Alter decided to infuse it with another of the distillery's products, called Breckenridge Bitters.
The bourbon, she found, suffered from being diluted after being mixed with ice. The infusion helped to overcome that problem. “Adding the sipping bitters really stiffens it up,” she says. The bitters is made from sixteen alpine herbs, botanicals and fruits, including genepi, which grows wild in the mountains near the distillery. “The bitters really do taste like a Cognac,” Alter continues, which makes sense, as the product is aged in wine barrels before being bottled.
“The two of them together, to me, marry and make the most ‘holy shit’ classic drink,” Alter says. But, it took her a few tries to get it right: “It was just playing with three or four batches until I got that mix that I really wanted,” she adds, “and then honing it in and figuring out the best proportions. I really love the sipping bitters separately and that’s why I started working with them together.”
“It doesn’t make it tart, it doesn’t make it sweet,” Alter says of adding the bitters which, she says combine chemically with the bourbon. “The best descriptive word is that it sharpens the whiskey,” she says. “It just sharpens it up.”
Alter fills a small oak barrel, displayed at the center of her backbar, with four bottles of bourbon and two bottles of bitters. “It sits for at least ten days,” she explains. “Any shorter, and you can taste it in your mouth. At right about nine to ten days, all of a sudden this magical thing happens — it magically blends together.”
The barrel never runs dry. “Some bars do that,” Alter says. “But that just completely messes up the aging process. You never want to let a whiskey barrel dry out. I’d rather make an infusion more frequently so I have more control over how long it’s sitting in the barrel, so I can make sure it’s more consistent for the people who come to drink it.”
After ten days, the infusion is ready to mix. To make an individual serving, Alter drops a sugar cube, then a small splash of water, into a glass, muddling the sugar until it dissolves. She then adds a few dashes of Regan’s orange bitters and an orange slice, gently muddling the orange to release some of its juices. Three ounces of the barrel-aged spirit get shaken with ice and dumped into the glass (along with the ice) before being garnished with an orange slice and a cherry.
“Everything here is made from scratch,” Alter says. “It’s home cooking at its roots.” She recommends her cocktail with Dunbar’s honey kissed chicken ($15), which is served with mashed potatoes and glazed carrots. “It’s actually a honey-cayenne glaze,” she says. “There’s a little bit of sweet and a little bit of heat. The Bourbon Renewal Project is not sweet at all but it’s got a little tiny bit of sting from the bourbon which matches well with the honey chicken, so the balances it out.”
Alter has another mixology motto: less is more. “If I want to sit and have a drink, I want to taste it,” she says. “I want to taste the alcohol. I want to taste the complexity of the flavor, versus having to sort through all the juice and sugar to get down to what’s actually happening in the glass.”
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The Bourbon Renewal Project is Alter’s way of celebrating the simplicity and honesty of not only a great cocktail but of a comfortable neighborhood bar like Dunbar. “I want this to be a classic cocktail bar,” she says. “We’re a neighborhood joint.”
The Bourbon Renewal Project
3 oz. barrel-aged bourbon blend
3 dashes Regan’s orange sipping bitters
1 sugar cube
1 orange wedge
Place a sugar cube in a double Old Fashioned glass, add a splash of water and muddle. Add orange bitters and an orange wedge and muddle gently. In a mixing tin, pour three ounces of the bourbon/bitters infusion, add ice and shake. Dump contents of shaker tin, including ice, into a the glass. Garnish with an orange slice and cherry.