If you were going to make a cocktail using only spirits made in Colorado, what would you make? A vodka and soda might be easy, but what about a more complex cocktail such as, say, a Manhattan? That’s a question that bartender Chelsea Carey grapples with during every shift. When South Broadway restaurant Black Crown closed in April and reopened under new ownership as the Crown Social, a new bar program was introduced that offers only products made in Colorado. Carey embraced the challenge of finding local spirits that were suitable counterparts to traditional ingredients, allowing her to re-create classic cocktails, such as the Manhattan.
“I am definitely a traditional drinker,” Carey says. Her drink of choice is a perfect Manhattan — made with whiskey, bitters and equal parts sweet and dry vermouth. To make a 100 percent Colorado Manhattan, she had to deconstruct her favorite drink and plug in the basic flavors and aromas from local distillers to get it to where she wanted it to be. When her experimentation ended, she landed upon a combination that included a bourbon and a black-walnut liqueur from Loveland's Dancing Pines Distillery, an herbal liqueur from Leopold Brothers Distillery and bitters from local producer Cocktail Punk.
“A lot of people are Manhattan drinkers,” Carey says. “I am. When people order this drink, I tell them to have an open mind — it’s gonna be a little different.” Part of that difference is the whiskey that Carey uses as the foundation of the cocktail. After trying out a few local whiskeys, she settled on Dancing Pines bourbon, adding: “I like that bourbon, especially in a Manhattan, because it’s got a piney, 'woodsy' flavor. It’s in the name and it’s in the flavor. You can kind of taste wood in the bourbon. I think it mixes well for a really good cocktail.”
Made from mostly corn, but also rye and malted barley, Dancing Pines bourbon gives off aromas of corn, nutmeg and vanilla. The spirit is aged in white American oak and is bottled at 88 proof. The result is medium-bodied and suggests flavors of cardamom, clove and licorice.
But after finding a cocktail-friendly local whiskey, Carey came face to face with a Colorado Manhattan’s biggest challenge: coming up with a substitute for sweet vermouth. Vermouth is an aromatized wine — a wine fortified with additional alcohol and infused with botanicals such as roots, bark, flowers, seeds, herbs and spices. Carey looked first to local liqueurs to see which ones had the right kinds of spice and sweetness that would work with the bourbon.
“We kind of worked our way down the line to see what worked and what didn’t,” she explains. “When we tried Leopold Brothers’ Three Pins Alpine Herbal Pine liqueur, we just fell in love with the complexity. You can really taste a lot of the spices, and I think that it mixes with the bourbon really well.”
It was probably the best choice she could have made. Vermouths, traditionally, were made in Europe from botanicals foraged at high elevations, which is precisely how Three Pins is made. However, the foraging is done on the slopes of the Rocky Mountains — so the roots and herbs and flowers are native to Colorado, giving the liqueur a truly local flavor.
Gingko biloba, echinacea, and orange zest are combined with those Rocky Mountain botanicals, blended with spirits and aged to produce Three Pins. “When we were coming up with different cocktails,” Carey explains, “we liked the taste of the herbal liqueur neat. You get a lot of spices from it. You think of tea and chai. Mixed with the bourbon, it just brings out a good flavor.”
“I really like Leopold’s products,” Carey continues. “All of them are delicious. And I like their distilling methods. They use fresh ingredients for all their liqueurs, which you can taste.”
The second component of Carey’s vermouth substitute is another product from Dancing Pines: black-walnut bourbon liqueur. “It’s mostly for the sweetness,” she says. “The black-walnut liqueur by itself is delicious, but it’s on the sweeter side. It has a dark flavor, a dark color — and adds a little bit of color to the cocktail, but also that sweetness.”
The liqueur starts with a base of Dancing Pines bourbon. Black walnuts, which have a more robust and earthy flavor than the more common English walnuts, are added, along with sugar. The spirit is left to age for several months before bottling. The walnut liqueur is a sweet complement to the herbal liqueur’s bitterness and completes Carey’s sweet vermouth/dry vermouth contrast in the Manhattans that she prefers.
Finally, Carey had to find a stand-in for the bitters portion of the Manhattan recipe. Like vermouth, bitters are alcohol-based solutions that contain copious amounts of botanicals, most of them sharp and acidic. Order a Manhattan just about anywhere, and it’ll be made with Angostura bitters. Since Angostura is made in Trinidad and Tobago, it's not on the shelf at the Crown. But Carey had to look only as far as Boulder to find Cocktail Punk, a company specializing in making bitters from locally sourced ingredients.
“If you make a cocktail, it’s not just going to be taste,” Carey says. “It’s going to be sight, and it’s also going to be smell.” The smell that appealed to Carey came from a bitters that Cocktail Punk calls, simply, aromatic bitters.
It was not just the baking spice, cardamom and anise aromas that she liked about them. “Wood,” she describes or the aroma. “Fresh, chopped wood.” Having spent her childhood on a farm, Carey loves the smell of wood. “Chopping wood is quite possibly the most enjoyable activity of all time,” she says, laughing.
Adding it all together — the woodsy smell of the bourbon, the herbal liqueur sourced from local mountain slopes, the chopped-wood aromas of the bitters — the Crown Manhattan is certainly a Colorado cocktail. Or, as Carey describes it, “It tastes like the outdoors. It makes me think of Christmas. It’s a cocktail for lumberjacks.”
The Crown Manhattan
3 ounces Dancing Pines bourbon
1 ounce Leopold Brothers Three Pins Alpine Herbal Liqueur
.25 ounce Dancing Pines black walnut liqueur
2 dashes of Cocktail Punk aromatic bitters
Pour all ingredients into a shaker tin, over ice. Shake vigorously, then strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a Maraschino cherry.