Meet the Mixologists

In Food & Drink by Aimee HeckelLeave a Comment

Boulder’s famous for its food — from James Beard award-winning restaurants to “Top Chefs” from TV. But it wouldn’t be a complete foodie paradise without good drinks to go with the dishes.

The city boasts many notable sommeliers and cocktail masters, but a handful stand out for their innovation and passion. Here’s a closer look at four of Boulder County’s best mixologists: Jason Ruff, the beverage director at Santo; Atman Hanel at Brasserie Ten Ten; Chris Johnson, the beverage director at Blackbelly; and Toni Bowersox, bartender at Caprese Trattoria in Longmont.

As a bonus, we’ve asked each to share their favorite summer cocktail recipes that you can make at home.

Jason Ruff makes a drink at Santo. Photo by Mark Leffingwell

Jason Ruff, Santo

Ruff grew up in the restaurant scene, first washing dishes and bussing tables at his mother’s restaurant in Baltimore. He began bartending in brewery restaurants in college, right at the cusp of the craft beer movement. That’s where his base knowledge of classic cocktails took root.

But it wasn’t until he moved to Colorado more than a decade ago that the seed began to blossom. Inspired by the growing craft cocktail movement, he began diving into the history and intricacies of beverages. In Boulder, he worked as the beverage director at Salt on Pearl Street and tended bar at other places around town before he took his current position at Santo.

What do you enjoy the most about making drinks?

The creative outlet and experimentation are what I really enjoy, especially with new spirits becoming available every year. There have been a ton of local, small-batch distilleries that are making fantastic spirits — Grove Street Alchemy in Longmont to name one. Fifteen years ago, the industry did not have access to all these great, new, high-end products. I also love working with chefs and seeing what kind of fresh seasonal ingredients they are working with and if I can find a way to incorporate those same ingredients in some of my cocktails.

What is the biggest challenge?

Staying on top of what is happening in the larger metropolitan areas while still keeping true to a personal style and catering to what the public desires.

What are a few of the more creative/interesting cocktails you have come up with?

Last year, we did a cocktail at Santo with a beef bone marrow washed mezcal and tequila infused with aquavit spices, hatch chile agave, clarified tomato water and lemon. It was one of the more savory cocktails I have made and it came out really great. Another was a mezcal cocktail with Del Maguey Vida (a mezcal), fresh beet juice, Dolin Genepy Le Chamois Liqueur, sage agave and lime. It was really beautiful visually and just super earthy and tasty.

What characterizes a good cocktail — to you?

It depends on the time of year. For me, I like lighter-proofed cocktails in the warmer months and bolder cocktails in the colder months. I enjoy something that is approachable and not overthought; drinks with too many ingredients tend to turn me off, as flavors begin to become muddled. I enjoy cocktails with agave-based spirits, as that is what I’ve been working with most lately.

What’s your favorite cocktail recipe for spring and summer?

One of my favorites right now is a rye and tequila cocktail we have at Santo.

Santo’s Rye and Tequila Cocktail

Ingredients

1 ounce Altos Olmeca Blanco

1 ounce Rittenhouse rye

¾ ounce fresh lemon juice

¾ ounce rosemary agave*

Shake vigorously, strain into a glass with crushed ice and garnish with a fresh rosemary sprig and a lemon twist.

*For rosemary agave, bring 16 ounces of 1 part water, 1 part agave to a boil. Remove from heat. Add 7 sprigs of fresh rosemary and allow to steep for half an hour. Remove sprigs and discard. Syrup can be refrigerated for up to three weeks.

Atman Hanel poses for a portrait at Brasserie Ten Ten. Photo by Mark Leffingwell

Atman Hanel, Brasserie Ten Ten

Hanel says he has always enjoyed entertaining and mixing drinks with friends. When he realized he could turn that love into a career, everything fell into place, he says. He began at the Sundown Saloon in Boulder working from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. when he was 21, and he finally found his home years later at Brasserie Ten Ten working from 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. He says he much prefers the hours and the more sophisticated clientele.

What do you enjoy the most about making drinks?

What I enjoy most about creating drinks are the days when I make something that I think is good and my guest enjoys it so much that they ask me to help them explain how to order that same drink when they dine at a different place.

What is the biggest challenge?

My biggest challenge is not limiting myself to my own personal tastes. Some of my best successes have been with libations that I don’t usually drink myself.

What are a few of the more creative/interesting cocktails you have come up with?

When it comes to cocktails, the possibilities are endless. I make my own bitters. I’ve made my own walnut liquor. I’ve infused Thai tea and smoked cactus paddles. When you think flavors will work, sometimes you just have to make them yourself.

What characterizes a good cocktail — to you?

A good cocktail is a great thing. When remembered, it should invoke the experience, as well as the flavors. It will be nuanced and balanced and should showcase the taste and feel of the alcohol, not the proof of it.

What’s your favorite cocktail recipe for spring and summer?

One of my new favorites for summer is a lower-alcohol option. I feel our guests are enjoying each other’s company and drink at a slower pace, and they are becoming more well-versed in the realm of cocktails. Making new and different cocktails is becoming as important as the comfortable approach of service I like to bring to my guests.

Apres-Midi Bleu (Blue Afternoon)

Ingredients

8-10 blueberries

½ ounce Nolet’s Gin

½ ounce Stella Rosa 22 Aperitivo

2 ½ ounces Soto Sake

Lemon

Start by muddling the blueberries in a large cocktail glass. Then fill a glass with ice and add 1/2 ounce gin and 1/2 ounce of Stella Rosa 22 Aperitivo. Top off with 2 1/2 ounces of Soto Sake and a squeeze of lemon. Give a quick stir and sit back and enjoy.

Chris Johnson, Blackbelly

Johnson’s mixology career began in dive bars in southern Illinois. He says he quickly fell in love with the industry and worked his way up into new places where he could learn from bartenders he respected. Finally, he landed in a restaurant in his hometown that was focusing on craft cocktails. That was the game-changer for Johnson. He worked there for several years and began traveling to bar competitions, eventually taking over the bar program at three different restaurants.

About a year ago, Johnson moved to Boulder and fell in love with the area. He found his new home as the manager of Blackbelly’s bar program.

What do you enjoy the most about making drinks?

The look on people’s faces when they take the first sip.

What is the biggest challenge?

My biggest challenge is staying on top of current trends and not falling back on old ways. It’s easy to default to classic combinations and more difficult to make new ones work well.

What are a few of the more creative/interesting cocktails you have come up with?

We have had a few fun ones on our list, such as infusing Agastache with cachaca and mixing it with Szechuan pepper and cherry; or mixing mezcal, sherry and ginger liqueur, which worked out wonderfully.

The two that we have on our list right now that were a lot of fun to come up with are Everlasting Light, which mixes beet juice, limoncello, honey and cava rose; and Howlin’ For You, which combines Madeira, smoked prickly pear liqueur, local orange liqueur and maple syrup. They also are low-alcohol beverages, which a lot of people are looking for these days. They want a cocktail that tastes great and they can enjoy but doesn’t completely ruin them the next day.

What characterizes a good cocktail — to you?        

Balance and aroma are two things I look for when trying cocktails. It has to pique my interest with the smell and then make me come back for a second sip instantly after the first.

What’s your favorite cocktail recipe for spring and summer?

One of my favorite warm-weather drinks is something one of our bartenders came up with last year. We named that seasonal cocktail list after the No Doubt album “Tragic Kingdom,” and this cocktail was lovingly called “Happy Now” because of how you feel after the first sip.

Happy Now

Ingredients

1 ounce of Mezcal

0.75 ounce Aperol

0.75 ounce lime juice

0.5 ounce tarragon simple syrup

2 ounces of Cava Rose wine

Mix ingredients together and enjoy.

Toni Bowersox poses for a portrait at Caprese Trattoria. Photo by Mark Leffingwell

Toni Bowersox, Caprese Trattoria

Bowersox’s pathway to making drinks at one of Longmont’s finest restaurants is like no other. It began unexpectedly — and on a dare.

About 25 years ago, she was the only woman on an all-men’s softball team in Denver. The team was sponsored by Saturday Night Live, a strip club. Which meant the softball players often ended up there after a game. One night, she says, the owner joked that she was there often enough that she may as well work there. She didn’t want to dance, but she said she would be interested in bartending — as long as she didn’t have to dress in sexy clothes. He made her an offer: If she could sell a certain amount of alcohol that night, she was hired and could wear whatever she wanted.

She ended up working there (and the sister bar, The House of Babes) for more than two decades. She quit her job as a teacher.

Over the years, she headed up drinks at an Asian restaurant in Erie and a Mexican restaurant in Longmont, before working at Caprese Trattoria, a fine Italian restaurant in Longmont

“I’ve been everywhere,” Bowersox says. “I started in a strip club and I’m now in a five-star restaurant.”

Her diverse background informs her drinks today, from pineapple upside down shots with grenadine art on top at the House of Babes, to peach sake martinis and green tea cocktails at the Asian restaurant, to mezcal martinis and smoky margs at the Mexican restaurant, to old-school Italian cocktails at Caprese Trattoria.

What do you enjoy most about making drinks?

I like to see what flavors will marry well together, and it has to look pretty, too. That’s my big thing. It’s such a good feeling, like when chefs put out great food, I just love when people love the drinks that I make. I like putting the time and effort into them, and getting them out so they’re looking good with a fresh, fresh garnish.

What is the biggest challenge?

It’s the service industry. It’s long hours, and you have to carry your weight in this business to be good and hold it down. I think some people don’t understand the rules and regulations we have to follow, the classes and certifications required to stay up with our protocol and keep people safe. Many people don’t realize how much work goes on behind the scenes.

What are a few of the more creative/interesting cocktails you have come up with?

So many, but some people don’t know about an Italian margarita. It’s a regular marg, with sweet and sour made from scratch (a simple syrup, add lime and lemon to get it to the right flavor), and you float amaretto on top.

What characterizes a good cocktail — to you?        

Fresh ingredients, quality ingredients and measurements are key. You can wing it on certain drinks but sometimes when it comes down to a good cocktail, you have to put the love in there, shake it a certain amount of times, stir it a certain amount of times and makes sure it comes out fresh and clean.

What’s your favorite cocktail recipe for spring and summer?

A Harvey Wallbanger is simple, refreshing and classic Italian.

Ingredients:

1.5 ounces of top-shelf vodka

3 ounces of freshly squeezed orange juice

0.5 ounces of Galliano, sweet herbal Italian liqueur

Mix the vodka and OJ like a screwdriver and then float (or pour) the Galliano on top. The Galliano has a vanilla flavor, which sweetens the drink and makes it reminiscent of a “creamsicle” flavor, although it’s not creamy.

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