Meet Marnie Ward, creator of the Tree Line and winner of the Colorado Cocktail Contest

What does Colorado taste like? Sunshine and cherries and whiskey, according to Marnie Ward, who created "Tree Line," the winner of the inaugural Colorado Cocktail Contest. "I love to go to the farmers' markets through the summer and find great fresh produce, grab something and make cocktails with it," says Ward, the bar manager at the Avenue Grill, where you can taste her creations.

Like everyone else who comes to Colorado, as Ward did eleven years ago, she also loves the weather. And all the outdoor activities you can enjoy year-round. And the people, especially those you run into all over town. Denver, she proclaims, "is the perfect little big town."

The perfect little big town that likes its cocktails, particularly Tree Line.

Ward was one of ten finalists in the Colorado Cocktail Contest, chosen from dozens of bartenders who had submitted cocktails to the project. "I felt like this was a really great crossover drink," she says of her entry.

So did the judges, who proclaimed it the official Colorado Cocktail at Monday night's contest at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver on Monday night. The winning recipe:

Tree Line

2 Bing cherries 2 oz. Leopold's Small Batch Whiskey .5 oz Leopold's Three Pins Alpine Herbal Liqueur .5 oz fresh squeezed lemon juice .5 oz simple syrup

Muddle cherries, lemon juice and simple syrup; add whiskey and Three Pins; add ice and shake. Serve up. Garnish with round slice of lemon peel (to replicate the Colorado sun). Drink and enjoy!

Randy Layman of Steuben's took second place with his "100 Years Cocktail"; Evan Faber of Salt Bistro placed third with "The Diamondback," and Britt Henze of Mateo won the People's Choice with her "Bear Paw Palmer."

The Colorado Cocktail Project was sponsored by the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, the Colorado Distillers Guild, the Colorado Bartenders Guild, Whole Foods and Westword. See photos of the contest in our slide show here; keep reading for Marnie Ward's Q&A with bartender Sean Kenyon:

Marnie Ward Avenue Grill

When and how did you start bartending?

I started bartending full-time during the past eight years. I've been around the restaurant industry off and on for eighteen years. I've been at the Avenue Grill for three years and bar manager for the past year and a half.

What sparked your interest in mixology?

Mixology is the perfect combination of science and art -- both of which I love. When creating a new cocktail, I sometimes feel like Beeker from the Muppets -- explosions, misting, blackouts -- and sometimes I feel like Picasso, where the creative juices are freely flowing and making beautiful art! Blending my artistic and creative side with scientific experimentation makes for a good day!

Tell us about your bar.

The Avenue Grill has a 23-year history in the Uptown Neighborhood as a San Francisco-style grill with Asian and Italian influences and specializing in the martini. In addition to providing amazing fare and drink, the Avenue Grill prides itself on sustainable practices (composting, recycling, conservation and education), supporting local producers (brewers, distillers, food producers, farmers, etc) and community involvement on many levels.

In recent years, with the expansion of mixology in Colorado, the Avenue Grill has been one of the leaders in promoting a new renaissance in cocktail creation. We have a seasonally changing cocktail menu with house-made specialties and classics alike represented.

Tell us about yourself.

Although I'm not a native, I love this state. Can't lie that I didn't move here for the mountain biking and snowboarding, but I've grown to appreciate many other facets. Denver is a vibrant "little-big-town" where I run into friends in unexpected places; have a wide array of stellar restaurants and bars at my fingertips; and, of course, the beauty of this state can't be beat. On any given day off I can choose mountains,plains, rivers, trails and be equally happy. What a treat! I've lived in Colorado since 2000 and this is home.

I grew up in Bloomington, Indiana and Cameron, Oklahoma (on my grandparents' farm). My degree is a BS in athletic training and I believe I'm the only person who can tape an ankle while singing The National Anthem in 2 minutes and 20 seconds (although it's been a while so I need to brush up my skills). I've been singing since I could walk; have performed in Carnegie Hall and at numerous regional theaters, including Boulder's Dinner Theatre and Candlelight Dinner Theatre here in Colorado; have sung for Presidents Carter and Ford; and currently manage and perform with my entertaining group: Reveille 3 -- An Andrews Sisters Tribute Act (www.Reveille3.com).

What do you love about bartending?

I love telling the story that goes with the history of the bar, the history of the cocktail, the spirit, etc. Engaging and educating the drinker to move through a drinking progression -- light spirits to dark spirits, to enhance their drinking experience -- is the best part of my job!

What is your least favorite thing about bartending?

Digging a lime wedge out of the backed-up drain, face down on the bar mats at the end of a busy night! It's not all glamorous and we don't party every night after work.

Favorite cocktail

Tree Line is actually my favorite cocktail I've created recently (with a couple of other select faves). I have an affinity for working in classic cocktail bars and my inspiration usually comes from said cocktails. Since it's summer, one of my favorites to turn people onto is the Brunelle. At the Avenue Grill, we make ours with equal parts Leopold'sGreen Absinthe, simple syrup and fresh lemon juice, shaken and served up nice and cold. Packs a punch but is delightfully refreshing.

Favorite spirit

This is a tough one. There are so many amazing distillers in Colorado that we have been spoiled with who create some amazing spirits for us to work with. We are blessed. Basically my philosophy with cocktail creation is looking for ways to incorporate "non-traditional" spirits (eau-de-vie's, brandy, port, cordials, liqueurs, etc) with more "traditional" ones (whiskey, bourbon, rum, etc) in an elegant combination to make your tastebuds sizzle.

Describe your cocktail and why it is THE Colorado Cocktail.

My inspiration for Tree Line was from two things. First, visiting the local farmers' markets and finding beautiful Colorado produce -- hence the cherries! Secondly, I was really struck by the complex flavors iLeopold's Three Pins Alpine Herbal Liqueur. To me. it's a cross between chai and curry (two of my favorite flavor profiles). From there, I started looking at a base spirits, and since I like to work with whiskey I started there. Then you always need some citrus and some sweetness somewhere for balance. After that, the experimenting begins! I found by muddling the cherries, they expressed this gorgeous color to add to the cocktail -- it literally looks like Colorado earth, that red-purple-orange-brown you see on the trails.

One key part of creating this cocktail is to show you can mix whiskey and satisfy two groups: whiskey drinkers and non-whiskey drinkers. The cocktail is very approachable. This cocktail could be introduced to someone who is a clear spirits drinker to broaden their horizons into dark spirits; conversely, someone who is a dark spirits drinker (maybe a purist who only likes whiskey on the rocks, not in a cocktail) can appreciate Tree Line because the subtle notes of the whiskey are still apparent in the cocktail.

Tree Line oozes Colorado. The two spirits are made in Colorado. Leopold's Three Pins Alpine Herbal Liqueur is made from fifteen different herbs and flowers found in the alpine regions of Colorado -- what is more Colorado than that? Colorado is most notably known for our mountains, the cocktail name originates from the alpine region where the Three Pins herbs and flowers are found, and thus Tree Line was born.

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