After a brief foray to Cherry Creek, where we cured almost anything that could ail us with the Spiced Apple Toddy at Elway's, our first major outing was to the five-contender-strong Larimer Square. But the homemade eggnog promised in one drink turned out to be simply Sinton's (the homemade version didn't keep well, we were told, and while we believe in truth in advertising, we also were relieved to avoid food poisoning), and the brandy had been transformed to vanilla vodka. ("It goes with everything," we learned several drinks along the way.) Up the street, the Capital Grille was about to discontinue its Winter Bubbles offering, because another judge had so thoroughly dissed the combination; across the way, we tried a drink described as a "chocolate lover's delight" that could only be loved by a chocoholic who also has a hankering for jet fuel. But then we slipped into the Santa's Punch at Rioja, a cocktail that mixed up Grey Goose Orange vodka, cranberry purée, triple sec and fresh basil, and we realized our assignment might not be so bad after all.
Rioja remained a favorite throughout our testing. On another night of downtown-pavement pounding, we encountered a Katrina-mold-green offering at one brewpub, which was almost offset by the excellent Christmas Cheesecake at the Wynkoop Brewing Co., which smelled and tasted like the solid food we so badly needed at that point. McCormick's Fish House didn't have the ingredients on hand for its M&S Martini, but the bartender offered up his previously rebuffed Jasmine Martini as a consolation prize. We finished off that night at the Cruise Room next door, our seventh stop, where we wallowed in memories and the tasty Hoggin Moggin.
We barely recovered in time for our marathon tasting night, which involved nine restaurants, eleven drinks and the services of Rastavan, run by the amiable Keith Hammock. You haven't lived until you've pulled up to the Inverness Hotel in a hippie bus; fortunately, by then we'd already gone to the Buckhorn, whose Jolly Jackalope provided the antlers we wore in our hair the rest of the night (and also earned the drink a Best Dressed award); the Burnsley, which was short of both the expected cookie crust and gum drops; Randolph's, which actually had table tents advertising its elegant Denver Rosebud holiday drink; Goodfriends, which had gone the creamy route (like siblings Racines and Dixons); and Bastien's, which could have earned a Misses Congeniality award for its holiday hospitality alone, but got extra points for the three cocktails that the competitive barmaids had created, ranging from the retro Holly Jolly Mile Hiball to Nick's Decadent Cocoa to Denver's Nutcracker Sweet, which got a special award for Best Frozen Drink (and sent another judge into diabetic shock).
From there, we headed south to the Inverness's revamped bar/restaurant, now known as Baca, where the holiday drink came as a surprise to the bartender; then on to Illegal Pete's in the Tech Center, whose Double Black Diamond was "better than most minty ones," the judge who could still form an opinion opined; then to McCormick & Schmick's in the DTC for a Very Merry Cherry Martini, and then, finally, up the highway to Highland and swimclub 32, where we found ourselves swimming in the exquisite Pumpkin Pie Martini.
This drink was so hallucinatory that we had to schedule a last judging round among the finalists, stopping again at Bastien's, again at Rioja, and finally fighting for a seat at swimclub. (It's a good thing we weren't scoring establishments on their welcoming attitude, because the hostess here was frostier then the coldest drink we'd tried.) But any way you sliced it, that Pumpkin Pie Martini was a treat too good to leave just to the holidays, a graham-cracker-crusted glass filled with icy vodka mixed with all manner of seasonal spices. "A bold move to go pumpkin," said our companion, uttering the last coherent words he would utter for several days.
What a way to go. On Donner, on Blitzened