Thai Mai Tai at Nocturne
“I had very little exposure to music growing up,” says Topher Hartfield, lead bartender at Nocturne, a new jazz venue and supper club that opened in March in the Ballpark neighborhood. But when he opened Nocturne with owners Scott and Nicole Mattson and chef Dustin Beckner, he found himself tasked with weaving jazz into his cocktail program because music was not just an afterthought — it was a fundamental part of the restaurant’s existence. “It was frightening and exciting and challenging, all at the same time,” he explains.
“Our classics needed to be quite good,” Hartfield says of his opening cocktail menu, which he split equally between classics and some of his own creations. His creations reflect Nocturne’s jazz-friendly, Prohibition-era concept and Art Deco interior.
“When it came down to the other cocktails, we wanted cocktails that were modern, but not too far off the beaten path,” he notes. One of his drinks, called Thai Mai Tai ($12), is a hybrid of both modern and vintage cocktails. Based on a standard Mai Tai, Hartfield’s drink combines basil-infused white rum, dark rum, orgeat, coconut cream, lime juice, sugar and bitters.
With his opening cocktail menu, Hartfield’s strove to present drinks that weren’t too complicated. “It’s about taking some classic flavors and making them a little more unique and approachable,” he says, “but still giving them our own flair. It’s all about balance. In the end, if the cocktail isn’t balanced, I can’t be comfortable putting it on the list.”
If a classic was going to be re-done, Hartfield reasoned, it had to be exceptional; all the ingredients had to play harmoniously together, like the musicians in a jazz band. So, he took the Mai Tai recipe (light and dark rums, lime juice, orgeat and curacao) and made it his own by omitting the curacao and added bitters and coconut cream. Hartfield further transformed the recipe by infusing the recipe’s base spirit, Don Q Cristal rum, with Thai basil.
“It’s just a quality rum,” Hartfield says. “It’s just a really easy drinking rum. It’s a little bit lighter, a little bit creamier. The first time I was introduced to it, I put it side by side with other rums, and it was one that I just stuck with for a while. It’s considerably smooth and it’s a very approachable rum.”
For the infusion, Hartfield blanches torn basil leaves in boiling water for a few seconds before adding them to the rum, which helps them to retain their bright green color. After stuffing the leaves into bottles of rum, he waits 24 hours for the flavor to develop. After that, the infusion is ready to pour.
Ron Abuelo Añejo 7 is a seven-year-old Panamanian rum that Hartfield chose to complement the infused Don Q Cristal light rum. “The Don Q is particularly bright. It has a nice sharpness to it,” he says. “But the Abuelo gives the drink a little more backbone. The Abuelo 7 has some nice, aggressive notes and adds a lot more flavor, without being overly sweet.” Hartfield began pouring the Panamanian rum in different drinks behind the bar, and fell in love with it. “It just had a flavor profile that I liked,” he adds.
After combining his rums, Hartfield mixes them with fresh-squeezed lime juice and orgeat. “When you fresh-squeeze the limes you get a little bit of the oil from the zest, and that gives you another flavor profile," he explains. " It adds a bitter, aromatic side.”
Another of Hartfield’s departures from the traditional Mai Tai recipe is the addition of bitters — in this case Pastiche bitters, made by Cocktail Punk in Boulder. Pastiche contains notes of anise, licorice and fennel. “They’re in probably five or six of our cocktails right now,” Hartfield says of Cocktail Punk. “I fell in love with them as soon as I started working here. They add an anise note, but also a structured note. It’s kind of like adding salt to a meal — it gives it that balance, that nice roundness.”
But the biggest leap forward was when Hartfield found coconut cream while shopping in a local Asian market. Up until that point, the recipe wasn't quite right. “There was something that just wasn’t right, it just didn’t fit,” he explains. “So we hit it with just a little bit of coconut cream and it added that really cool, creamy quality to it, and just mellowed everything out. It smells wonderful.”
“It’s very soft. It’s almost nutty,” Hartfield says of the thick, rich cream (the fatty layer that's skimmed from the top of coconut milk). “It has a really nice texture and consistency to it.”
While he was at the Asian market, Hartfield stumbled upon something else, too: tiny, cylindrical cookies flavored with coconut. He bought a package and brought those back to Nocturne, too. He ended up turning them into a garnish for his new cocktail. “It’s kind of like Asian cookies and milk,” he says.
Hartfield recommends enjoying his cocktail with chef Dustin Beckner’s “Mack the Knife,” dish, part of a five-course tasting menu. Each dish on the menu is inspired by songs off the 1959 jazz album Quiet Kenny, by Kenny Dorham. The dish features a schnitzel made from monkfish, which is served with Colorado mushrooms, parsley sauce, perserved lemon, and pea shoots.
“It has that sweet and that tart balance,” he says, “which this cocktail has.”
Jazz isn’t just in the air at Nocturne. It’s in the food and drinks, too. “It’s like the third component,” Hartfield says. “It’s like adding a third dimension. So, to bring in music, and local artists, it’s almost like giving you another component to where you can really feel the environment.”
Thai Mai Tai
1 ounce Thai basil-infused Don Q Cristal rum
.75 ounce Ron Abuelo Anejo 7 year old rum
.75 ounce fresh lime juice
.5 ounce orgeat
.5 ounce coconut cream
.5 ounce Thai basil-infused simple syrup
2 dashes of pastiche bitters
Pour all ingredients into a shaker tin without ice and shake vigorously. Pour ingredients over crushed ice. Garnish with a sprig of Thai basil, a lime wedge, and a coconut flute cookie.
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