The Life Necrotic at Ste. Ellie
Sometimes, one rum is not enough. This is especially the case when it comes to tiki drinks, where up to three completely different rums might be blended in the same cocktail. This way, bartenders can create their own blended rum that contains flavors such as smoke, caramel, molasses and tobacco. Matt Jensen, bartender at Ste. Ellie, took this practice a step further by going beyond just rum in his newest cocktail, which he calls the Life Necrotic ($15).
Instead of using three different rums, Jensen used three completely different spirits. “The base in this cocktail is three different liquors — the rum, the bourbon and the Cognac, kind of working together to make their own base,” he explains.
Plantation Original Dark Rum is a blend of rums from Trinidad and Tobago which are blended and aged in wooden barrels. It’s bottled at a super-strong 146 proof, but beneath the alcohol there is a boatload of flavors — caramel, banana, lemon peel, cloves and a hint of smoke from barrel-aging.
Jensen’s bourbon choice was the also over-proof Old Granddad 114, made at the Jim Beam distillery in Clermont, Kentucky. “It’s a big, buttery, high-rye bourbon,” Jensen says. For the Cognac, he chose Pierre Ferrand 1840 — a blend of aged Cognacs, mixed to closely resemble the flavor of a not-yet-empty bottle from 1840. “What I love about Cognac is that it’s fruity and dry, simultaneously,” he adds. “It brings much-needed fruit into the cocktail.”
After dialing in his mix of base spirits, Jensen expanded the recipe with a slew of other flavors. “They are mainly there for texture,” he says. “I usually start with texture, and then I’ll make the flavors work after I figure it out.” One of those flavors is Dolin sweet vermouth. “It’s a little bigger and rounder than the average vermouth,” he says.
There are quite a few other ingredients — eight more, to be exact — in the island-style cocktail: Campari, orange juice, lemon juice, lime juice, grapefruit juice, bitters, grenadine, and cinnamon-sugar syrup. “The recipe is not basic,” Jensen says, “because there’s a ton of ingredients in it. It’s an exercise in absurdity.”
Jensen knew he wanted Campari in the drink, because he loves bitter flavors. “To me, a tiki drink has to be refreshing,” he says, “and I always find bitter to be refreshing, in certain doses. Anything that’s bitter I think is bright and crisp and refreshing. I knew I wanted that component in it.”
Grapefruit juice helps to lengthen the bitterness in the Campari, he says and along with orange juice, also help to balance the strength of the overproof liquors. “They impart a little bit of their own flavor, but they're not gonna knock the horns off the liquor,” he says. “So when you’ve got two liquors that are so highly over-proof, you need length to balance it out.”
A cinnamon-sugar syrup adds some sweetness, and also an unexpected, almost wintry flavor. Jensen combines sugar and cinnamon in a blender, pulverizing them before adding the powder to simmering water to make the sugar syrup. “The cinnamon is sort of the outlier flavor,” he explains. “That’s why it sticks out so much. The rest of them all blend together, but the cinnamon really pops.”
Rum and Angostura bitters belong together, Jensen claims. “They’re like husband and wife,” he says, “because rum is really sweet and rounded, and Angostura is really dry and spiced. Sweet and spicy are things that always balance each other out.”
Even with twelve ingredients, The Life Necrotic is a breeze to bring together — the ingredients are mixed into one bottle, minus the citrus, which is always fresh-squeezed. Jensen says he can make one in less than sixty seconds, shaking all the ingredients and straining them over fresh crushed ice into a tiki glass purchased specifically for his cocktail.
Since the Life Necrotic is such a strong cocktail (there’s a limit of two per guest), Jensen recommends enjoying some food while you’re drinking one of these at the bar. “Our burger is a masterpiece — it’s a big, juicy delicious burger,” Jensen says of the Ste. Ellie burger ($8). It’s made with beef that is aged four weeks and ground twice, in-house, and served on a brioche bun with habanero horseradish pickles.
“I thought it would be fun to hop all over the world with it,” Jensen says of the eclectic mix of spirits in the Life Necrotic. “And I love making tiki cocktails in general.”
Jensen loves making tiki cocktails because of their dramatic, vivid — often violent or sexual — names. “It’s a real dismissal of formality,” he says. In keeping with those brash and lurid themes of tiki culture, he set out to make a cocktail with a ridiculous amount of ingredients. “And that is usually how it sells,” he adds. “People think it’s just this fun, novelty thing. It happens to be delicious, too.”
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.