Word of Mouth

James Lee leaves the Bitter Bar and Big Red F for a restaurant in Salida

The explosion of cocktail culture in Colorado was ignited by a legion of talented bartenders working to prove that their craft is more than mixing rum and Cokes; it's creating drinks that reflect their deep understanding of spirits.

And few bartenders have done more to influence that culture than James Lee, who's worked with the Big Red F group for twelve years, impacting the bars at Zolo Southwestern Grill, Jax Denver and Boulder, Lola, Centro, the West End Tavern, and Happy.

But now, he's stepping out -- on Wednesday, he'll work his last shift behind the bar at the Bitter Bar. On Friday, he'll move his family to Salida to help run the Boathouse Cantina, a joint that serves up burgers and fries from an old property on the Arkansas River.

Lee's history with the Big Red F restaurants started in 1998, when he moved to Boulder from North Carolina to ski. He became the bar manager at Zolo a year later, translating his love of margaritas and tequila into a tightly run bar program that stocked 120 tequilas on the back shelf. That leadership won Zolo accolades as the best tequila bar in the state.

A few years later, Dave Query, owner of Big Red F, asked Lee to move over to the West End Tavern, a college dive bar the group acquired in 2004, to make it a successful restaurant.

"It was my first lesson in fixing a losing restaurant," says Lee, who was responsible for turning the place around. "It was also where I really took the next step in bartending. I learned about all spirits, not just tequila. And I met Jim Meehan, a partner at PDT [the famed New York cocktail bar group], who opened my eyes to the history of spirits."

From there, Lee went on to manage the beverage program across the company, tightening up the bars at Lola and Jax Denver, until the concept was born for Happy, where he became a part-owner. And in that restaurant, the bartender had a chance to do something Colorado really hadn't seen before: a cocktail-focused bar replete with a deep stock of spirits.

"Happy was going to be a restaurant doing quick $7 noodle bowls," says Lee. "I went to Dave and talked to him about doing a semi-speakeasy which would open after Happy closed. Then I created the menu. That's how the Bitter Bar was born."

The lid was soon blown off the speakeasy concept as drinkers packed into the low-ceilinged space, accessed only through the back door in the alley after the kitchen closed. The place quickly became an epicenter of craft and education in the metro area, hosting seminars, cocktail classes and guest nights for local bartenders and, occasionally, the public.

Lee won awards for his work. In April 2009, he was featured as one of Playboy's top ten bartenders in the country. In August of last year, he was one of six finalists on Iron Chef Bartenders, beating out competitors from major cities.

But Lee says his greatest accomplishment is his staff, which includes Mark Stoddard, who won the international 42 Below vodka competition earlier this year, propelling him to the ranks of the world's best bartenders and putting Colorado firmly on the mixology map.

"I've known Mark since he was an eighteen-year-old kid," notes Lee. "Now he's one of the best bartenders in our trade. And he's an inspiration to young bartenders who see him getting rewarded for his craft."

Lee's influence is also apparent within the Big Red F family, where he meets frequently with all the bar managers to determine how to expand the cocktail programs, putting new drinks into hands of regulars who fear straying from their usual order. And he's spent the last couple of months helping to tighten those programs up.

But now, he's ready to move on.

"I met the Boathouse owner, Ray Kitson, when I went down to consult on his restaurant," says Lee. "It was like we'd been best friends since we were little kids. He came to Boulder after that and asked me if I'd be interested in coming to Salida. And then he made me an offer I couldn't refuse."

Lee will take part ownership of the restaurant and will be charged with applying his restaurant business sense to the operation. And, of course, he'll be bringing his cocktail knowledge to the beverage program.

"It's cool because I'll get to make an impact right away," he says. "I want to make good cocktails, and then gradually raise the culture. I'll start with hand-crafted margaritas, Singapore Slings, the Pimm's Cup, stuff like that -- done Boathouse style."

Lee starts at the Boathouse on September 1. He'll keep his stake at Happy, but there's no news yet on who, if anyone, will succeed him as beverage director at Big Red F.

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Laura Shunk was Westword's restaurant critic from 2010 to 2012; she's also been food editor at the Village Voice and a dining columnist in Beijing. Her toughest assignment had her drinking ten martinis and eating ten Caesar salads over the course of 48 hours. She still drinks martinis, but remains lukewarm on Caesar salads.
Contact: Laura Shunk