DSTILL Celebrates Craft Spirits and Cocktails

With the American Distilling Institute in Denver for its annual confab, DSTILL takes over the McNichols building in Civic Center Park on Wed. April 3 for a night of craft spirits and cocktails. Organizers hope to turn it into an annual event. Amidst the hoopla, will Denver's real cocktail please stand up?
In beer-mad Denver, the cocktail is getting its due, thanks in no small part  to the city's increasing affinity for craft cocktails and the state's 41-and-counting distilleries. DSTILL is taking place over the week of April 1-5, climaxing with a public tasting at the McNichols Civic Center Building on the evening of April 3, with 1,000 attendees expected.
Peach Street's impressive selection."This idea has been five years in the making," says Chris "Moose" Koons, who handles sales and marketing for Palisade's Peach Street Distillers from the Front Range and is also Co-Founder of the Rocky Mountain Soda Company. "A perfect opportunity arose when the American Distilling Institute chose Denver for its conference this year."
It follows that DSTILL is timed to coincide with distilleries visiting from all over the country for the conference April 1-5. "We have a ton of craft distillers coming in from other states," says Koons. Eat Denver, the Colorado Bartenders Guild and other groups have collaborated on the event.
A lot has changed since 2008. "Five years ago there were 13 distilleries in Colorado," says Koons. "Now there are 41."
Many of them are among DSTILL's participants, including Peach Street, Leopold Brothers and Montanya Rum as well as such out-of-staters as West Virginia's Smooth Ambler and California's Greenbar Collective. In all, there will be more than 30 distilleries on hand, more than half of which are based in Colorado.
For the public tasting on April 3, bartenders from a half-dozen of Denver's top cocktail spots will mix drinks at DSTILL -- a ticket gets you samples of spirits and one craft cocktail, as well as free food from the "best restaurants in town," says Koons. The public tasting will be followed by an after party with a dessert bar and a DJ spinning Motown records.
Denver's Cocktail?
Against this backdrop, one question's answer still remains elusive. What's the definitive Denver cocktail? New York's got the Manhattan, New Orleans has the Hurricane, Louisville the Mint Julep and so on.
My nominees from an extensive Google search (I must have looked at no less than four pages of search results):
  • Tree LineA 2011 cocktail competition had this cherry-and-whiskey concoction come out on top as the winner. I'm not sure if it's sweeping the city or not.
  • Denver Bronco (or #7) (or Bucking Bronco): 1) Fill a shot glass with orange soda, rum and whipped cream. 2) Slam it on the bar with your clean hand over the top. Repeat step two. Drink. Classy.
  • Buffalo Bill: "Buffalo Bill" Cody would stop in at the Buckhorn Exchange for rye and cider. It's still on the menu today, but it seems apple juice has replaced the cider.
  • The Beer: Open can or bottle of beer. Drink.
Yeah, I know. Pretty sorry list. So I asked an expert: Bonanno Concepts Beverage Director Adam Hodak, who often mans the bar at the Green Russell on Larimer Square and is one of the bartenders working DSTILL's tasting event.Bartender Adam Hodak makes a cocktail at the Green Russell in LoDo.
"It is hard to say if Denver has its own cocktail," says Hodak. He says the Moscow Mule may be the closest thing. "It's probably the most widely utilized cocktail in the city," he explains. It was invented in California -- ostensibly by three out-of-luck salespeople peddling vodka, ginger beer and copper cups.
Being something of a cocktail historian, Hodak knows the story is almost certainly myth, but there is a lining of reality. "The idea three lonely salesmen were at one bar is not likely, but it's true to drinking culture at the time," he says. The 1952 book, A Guide to Pink Elephants, "has 15 or 20 brandy cocktails. Vodka has five."
And the cocktails du jour in Denver are likewise indicative of today's drinking culture. Hodak explains his amazement when he was first introduced to Leopold Brothers' sour apple liqueur. "All of a sudden your apple martini goes from atomic green to a natural apple-juice color," he says. "And there's no fake coloring or dye or corn syrup."

Distillers Catalyzing Local Cocktail Culture
Hodak says the bars at Bonanno's establishments usually have 20-plus Colorado labels behind them. "There are some fantastic things being produced here that drive it," says Hodak. "It all snowballs together -- good spirits and good cocktails."
The public tasting for DSTILL "is going to be a good time," he adds. "I think it will help promote craft spirits -- like the Great American Beer Festival does with beer."
Peach Street's Koons envisions this year's DSTILL as the first of many, and he too looks at the Great American Beer Festival as a model. "DSTILL is going to turn into a Colorado Craft Cocktail and Spirits Week," he says. "Next year DSTILL will probably be a Friday and Saturday event."
"The city really got behind us," says Koons. "Even the governor's office is behind us. They really want this to be a success."

Read more articles by Eric Peterson.

Eric is a Denver-based tech writer and guidebook wiz. Contact him here.
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