You know it’s autumn when pumpkin spice lattes appear. It’s a perennial event, like the changing colors of the leaves, that reflects the transition of seasons. As the delicate flavors of summer fade away, we turn to those nostalgic, warming hints of cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon and, of course, pumpkin. At the Nickel, those spiced lattes showed up last month, spiked with a seasonally-favored syrup. Victoria Errio, the Nickel’s bar manager, seized upon an opportunity to cross-utilize that syrup by blending it, not with coffee, but bourbon. Adding sweet vermouth and bitters, she created a cocktail for the season that she calls the Spice Pumpkin ($12).
“I love pumpkin cocktails,” Errio says, “but sometimes they’re just so overwhelming. They’re really sugary or really over-spiced.” With a hand light on the sugar and heavy on the whiskey, she accomplished her goal of making a drinkable, enjoyable pumpkin libation that could be enjoyed with dinner. “I think this cocktail is really bourbon-forward,” she adds, “and it’s something that you can enjoy having one or two of and not be overwhelmed, like you’re eating a pie.”
The recipe started in the Nickel’s coffee bar across the lobby from the main restaurant, where one of Errio’s co-workers, Nick Ziebell, was crafting those pumpkin lattes. Ziebell combined pumpkin puree, brown sugar, granulated sugar, cinnamon, star anise, nutmeg, cloves and a pinch of salt, adding all of the ingredients to boiling water. After straining out the solids, he boiled the mixture again to reduce it into a syrup.
When Errio tasted the syrup, she knew she wanted to use it in a cocktail as part of her new menu. “We do everything seasonal here,” she says. “It’s really fun to keep the list fresh and keep people coming in and seeing new things.”
For the primary spirit in the cocktail, Errio turned to bourbon to create a holiday-inspired version of a Manhattan, which contains whiskey, sweet vermouth and bitters. To start, she reached for Breckenridge bourbon, and not just for its flavor. “We like to use local spirits and distilleries,” she says, “so I like to base a lot of my specialty cocktails off of a local spirit. Breckenridge bourbon, I think, is just really round and very flavorful, and very good to mix with. It blends well.”
She found that it also worked well with the spices in the pumpkin syrup. “Some bourbons are really overpowering and have a lot of strong characteristics,” she explains. “But Breckenridge bourbon is a really great mixing bourbon. It allows other flavors to come out. It also has a little bit of spice, and it still has a good balance.”
For the sweet vermouth component of her Manhattan, Errio added Cocchi Vermouth di Torino because she found that it fit the overall seasonal flavor profile of the drink she wanted to create. I love Cocchi vermouth,” she says. “It has such an orange essence to it, so it goes really well with the pumpkin spice simple syrup. And it’s so smooth you can drink it on its own.”
Cocchi produces several vermouths in northern Italy’s Piedmont region; The vermouth di Torino that Errio uses is made from moscato grapes infused with a secret mix of herbs and botanicals, which are also grown locally. To fully integrate the flavors, the wine is aged in wooden barrels.
Barrel-aging is a central part of the cocktail program at the Nickel; Errio has at least one blend resting on wood at all times, with up to three available simultaneously: a Manhattan, a Boulevardier and a Negroni. The bitters Errio uses are another interesting departure from the common bitters found in most Manhattans — and they're also enhanced with oak. Errio uses barrel-aged aromatic bitters from Winship’s, a company from Oklahoma City that produces five flavors of small-batch bitters. “There are so many great bitters out there,” she says. “This one is very smooth. It’s not very overwhelmingly spiced, so it helps bring out flavors instead of totally taking over like some bitters will do.”
Since her pumpkin cocktail is not heavy or overly sweet, it’s easy to enjoy with dinner. Errio recommends pairing it with The Nickel’s duck breast entree ($26), served with carrots, duck fat granola and orange sauce. “The orange sauce will bring out the orange flavors of the Cocchi vermouth,” she says, “and accents the spices really well.”
“People love it,” Errio says of her cocktail. “They’re expecting it to be sweet, they’re expecting it to be really overpowering, but it’s a really nice, clean bourbon martini.”
“Fall is one of our best times of the year in Colorado,” Errio says. “The leaves are changing, the weather is beautiful. I feel like in that short period we should utilize what we have. I’m just trying to make something that is really enjoyable and approachable. but it’s going to come off the menu quickly, so have it while you can.”