“I look at cocktails as cooking,” says Scott Bauer, co-owner of Butcher's Bistro on Larimer Street. “It is cooking. You’re taking many different things and putting them together to make the palate play.” Bauer opened Butcher’s Bistro last year as a meat-centric restaurant with a focus on Colorado proteins butchered in-house and turned into all manner of sausages and cured meats. But the bistro is a bar, too, and Bauer’s talents in the kitchen came into play as he began to put together a cocktail menu. Drawing on local products, culinary techniques and an experienced bar staff, the drink menu began to get interesting. One popular cocktail, Smokey Bandito ($10), starts in the bistro's kitchen, where Bauer smokes the tequila over hickory wood chips.
“I’ve never seen cold-smoked booze on a menu, anywhere,” Bauer says. “It sounded like a fun idea, so I said, ‘Hey, let’s play with it.’” He combined that smoked tequila with green Chartreuse, fresh lime juice, agave nectar, an ancho-chile liqueur and sprigs of fresh thyme to build the Smokey Bandito.
Bauer, who was a chef for fifteen years before opening Butcher's Bistro, approached making cocktails the same way he learned to make food. “I started playing around with cocktails,” he says. “I did a lot of reading. I hired good people and learned from them. I started with the basics, and I learned how to tweak them.” The Smoky Bandito is a Bauer’s version of a classic cocktail called the Last Word, consisting of gin, lime juice, Charteuese, and cherry liqueur. Bauer took that template and spun it into his own smoky sipper.
“This is a really well-paired cocktail,” Bauer says. “We took out one liquor and substituted another. “Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t.”
Much as he sources meats from local farms, Bauer likes to support local distilleries when it comes to cocktails. He didn’t have to look much farther than his own neighborhood to find the tequila that forms the base of Smokey Bandito.
“I’ve known the boys from Mile High Spirits for years,” he says. “They’ve been in this neighborhood for so long, and they’re right across the street.” Mile High Spirits distills rum, vodka, whiskey and gin, but it’s their tequila, called Cuidado, that Bauer wanted to work with. The spirit is actually is made in Jalisco, Mexico and then transported to Denver where it’s blended with local water and bottled as a silver tequila.
Bauer wanted to put a mezcal drink on the menu, but since there are no locally produced mezcals, his chef instincts led him to seek a solution to that problem. He asked himself: "What if we took tequila and cold-smoked it?" It seemed like a good idea, so he set up the cold-smoker in the kitchen and fired it up. “We actually tried cold-smoking a whole bunch of different boozes,” he says. “The tequila came out palatable and actually drinkable.”
“It’s a touch sweet,” Bauer says of the un-smoked tequila. But he transforms it for his recipe. “I like how it reacts to smoke,” he continues. “It holds it very well. We put it in the cold-smoker at 120 degrees for twenty minutes. We usually do two bottles at a time.” Bauer empties the bottles into a flat, shallow pan to increase the surface area of the liquid so that it can better absorb the hickory smoke.
Once he had his smoky tequila, he collaborated with his bar team on how to make it work in a drink. He knew he wanted to make a variation of the Last Word, so his bar team started working with that recipe as a template.
“We started playing with cocktails, coming up with different ideas,” Bauer says. Instead of the Last Word’s Maraschino liqueur, one of his bartenders used Ancho Reyes, a liqueur made from ancho chiles. “The tiny touch of spice was beautiful,” he says.
“It’s a really great way to add spice to a cocktail,” Bauer continues. Made in Puebla, Mexico, the bronze-colored spirit is full of the flavor of that region’s signature crop: poblano chiles — which, when dried, become anchos. The peppers make for an earthy liqueur and add complex flavors of cinnamon, tamarind — and even cocoa. “We’re only using a bar spoon of it,” Bauer says, “so it gives you just a little tinge of spice on the aftertaste. It opens up the palate. It’s a fun ingredient.”
The Smokey Bandito retains one of the Last Word’s original ingredients: green Chartreuse, an herbal liqueur containing 130 herbs and botanicals gathered from the Chartreuse Mountains in southeastern France.
"I love Chartreuse,” Bauer says. “The history behind it is remarkable to me.” Chartreuse has been made by Carthusian monks at their monastery near Grenoble since 1737 from a recipe that dates back to 1605. In 1793, the monks were expelled from France, returning in 1838 to continue distilling. In 1903, they were expelled again, taking the secret recipe for their liqueur to Spain, where they began distilling operations. After World War II, the monks were allowed to return to their monastery, where they continue to make the popular liqueur.
“I’m a huge fan of anything that’s herbaceous,” Bauer says of Chartreuse. “We do a lot of things with herbal liqueurs because they’re just good. I think they complement food very well. It helps clean the palate in between bites of food.” Bauer also drops a few sprigs of fresh thyme over the ice in a shaker for added herbal flavor. “The thyme goes well with it,” he says. “It’s another herb that can bring more to the forefront.”
Bauer recommends enjoying a Smokey Bandito with the bistro's cold-smoked fried chicken ($21), which comes with pepper Jack macaroni and cheese, apple agrodulce and a house-made biscuit. “The chicken is brined for 24 hours and dried so the skin crisps,” he explains. Like the tequila, the chicken is then cold-smoked over hickory wood chips for an hour. It is then marinated in buttermilk, breaded and fried to order. “There’s some sweetness from the brine,” he adds, “and it basically has a lot of the same levels of flavor that the cocktail comes with.”
Overall, the Smokey Bandito is a collaborative effort. “I’ve relied on the people around me,” Bauer says about not only his cocktail, but the success of the bar program and the restaurant in general. Behind the bar — and in the kitchen — he’s picked up tips and ideas from his staff. “We had a lot of fun playing around with different things,” he says.
Bauer’s curiosity and the people he’s surrounded himself with drive him to keep creating. With so many distilleries opening up in Colorado, he is regularly finding new local products with which to experiment.
“A lot of people order this drink just out of pure curiosity,” he says. “The smokiness is there for a minute, then dwindles away, and then the herbs start breaking in. When somebody orders a second, that’s when you know you did something right.”
2 ounces cold-smoked Cuidado tequila
.75 ounce green Chartreuse
.75 ounce lime juice
.25 ounce agave syrup
1 bar spoon Ancho Reyes ancho-chile liqueur
3 sprigs fresh thyme
Pour all ingredients over ice in a shaker tin. Add thyme sprig and shake vigorously. Double-strain into a cocktail glass and garnish with a thyme sprig.