New Year’s Eve: Breckenridge Distillery liquid chef shares passion for cocktails | SummitDaily.com

New Year’s Eve: Breckenridge Distillery liquid chef shares passion for cocktails

Krista Driscoll
kdriscoll@summitdaily.com

Billie Keithley lounged against the front bumper of the Breckenridge Distillery's iconic green Land Rover, soaking up the sun on an unseasonably warm fall day on Airport Road. The door to the distillery was propped open, and a tour group could be heard shuffling through, sipping samples and scooping up souvenirs.

Chico, the resident Chihuahua, stretched out on the pavement at Keithley's feet as she started her story, saying she didn't intend to become a bartender when she arrived in Breckenridge more than 15 years ago.

"It really grabbed me with the different smells and colors and flavors, and I was just like, wow, like a raccoon seeing a shiny thing," she said, her eyes lighting up at the memory. "I knew then I wanted to learn more and I was not really going to stop."

She continued animatedly, saying that after pouring drinks for five or six years, she thought she knew everything there was to know about bartending — until she attended a seminar in Vail led by Francesco Lafranconi, one of the world's foremost masters of cocktails.

"I was blown away," Keithley said. "I had my head down taking 10 pages of notes. I wanted to take it to 100 times more. I was looking into bar tools I had never seen before, and I knew that was what I wanted to do after that."

She paused and took a deep breath, feeling that first surge of passion all over again.

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"Phew, I almost cried."

CAREER PATHS

A few years after her revelation, Keithley was slinging drinks at Cecelia's in Breckenridge when Breckenridge Distillery founder and CEO Bryan Nolt, master distiller Jordan Via and marketing manager Maya Berthoud walked through the door.

"I was bartending, and I made them some cocktails and took them into the walk-in humidor," Keithley said. "They told me they were thinking about opening up a distillery. I didn't know what to think of it at the time. When someone says they were opening a distillery, back then, there were only six or seven licenses in the whole state of Colorado, so I was like, we'll see."

The hooch purveyors persisted, and when their plan for the distillery came to fruition in 2009, Via invited Keithley to spend some time there and take a tour, ultimately recruiting her to the team.

"It all stemmed around the cocktails," she said, adding that Via has his own way of telling the story. "When we are out in public, he says, 'As soon as we met her, we knew we had to have her.'"

ON THE ROAD

If you come across Keithley at a festival, you'll experience her powers of persuasion when it comes to hawking Breckenridge Distillery products.

"When people meet me, they have no choice; they're going to try it," she said with a laugh. "As far as a neat sample goes, I pour a little bit, educate them on it and then follow up with a cocktail. Also, if someone refuses to try bourbon, I mix up something that I know will be pleasing at first to break them into it. And they say, 'Oh, that's not what I thought it would be,' then they try the bourbon by itself and they are blown away by it.

"I like when people try our stuff neat, by itself, but I like to enhance everything by making craft cocktails, to show people the versatility of it."

By the end of her spiel, she almost always inspires a new fan, and with the distillery's award-winning bourbon, vodka and bitters now available in bars, restaurants and liquor stores in more than 40 states, it won't be hard for those new customers to find a follow-up cocktail or pick up a bottle for their next soiree.

IN THE BAR

Between social gigs, Keithley said she's most at home in a bar or restaurant, educating her colleagues across the country by rolling up her sleeves and demonstrating her craft.

"Usually when I'm on the road, I've just met people behind the bar, but I'm behind the bar making cocktails by the time I leave," she said. "I'm very comfortable with the scene and talking with people about bartending and cocktails — you can't shut me up. I'm definitely a geek about it."

Whether it's constructing imaginative recipes, creating pairings for a dinner event or getting a restaurant started with a barrel-aged cocktail program, Keithley tailors her input based on the degree of comfort the staff has with the products and their knowledge of mixology.

"That goes from very new bartenders, where I don't want to overwhelm them with crazy concoctions, just two or three ingredients, on up to lets start flaming this and foaming that," she said. "I will work with the bartenders and work with the cocktail menu to balance it out with the food menu. I love working with chefs because I learn just as much from chefs as I do bartenders about flavor profiles and building drinks."

DOWN THE ROAD

When the Breckenridge Distillery first opened, there were only about seven other distilleries in Colorado, Keithley said, and as the industry has grown, so has the little distillery on Airport Road.

"It's crazy how it's grown," she said. "I don't think any of us knew what to expect. I didn't. I came in working full time as a bartender and this was all kind of new to me about learning the real distillation process and all the hard work that goes into it. Jordan and his team of distillers are at it around the clock."

Keithley said she's become good friends with the members of her little hooch-making family, and like any good family, they have returned the love through support of her newest endeavor.

"Hopefully for the start of the holiday season, I'm going to be launching Psycho Billie's Cocktail Syrups, Shrubs and Bitters, and the distillery has been in full support of me to get this thing rolling."

Breckenridge Distillery has given her the title of liquid chef, but Keithley said she's still proud to be a bartender and that's how she refers to herself when acting as a brand ambassador for the distillery. She said when she looks back on being a full-time bartender, there were times it was stressful and she felt burnt out, but she was always able to take a step back and realize that she loved what she was doing — and she still loves it.

"I'm very passionate about my job," she said. "I always want people to know that. My biggest thing is making sure that person is happy with the cocktail I made for them and putting a smile on their face. I'm very serious about it. I feel like it's my craft."

Be an amateur liquid chef

Breckenridge Distillery liquid chef Billie Keithley created these elegant cocktail recipes, perfect for your New Year’s Eve get-together.

Fall into Breckenridge (serve hot or cold)

1½ ounces Breckenridge Bourbon*

¼ ounce Breckenridge Sipping Bitters*

¼ ounce mulberry, tart cherry and fig shrub

Spiced apple cider

Garnish: cranberry rolled in caramel, pecans and citrus sea salt

Still Broke II

1 ounce Breckenridge Bourbon*

Broken Compass Black IPA**

Sparkling apple cider

Garnish: apricot-graham cracker whipped cream (homemade with an iSi Cream Whipper) and a drizzle of Dude, Sweet Chocolate Bourbon Sauce*

Rocky Mountain Grizzly Pear (serve hot or cold)

1½ ounces Breckenridge Vodka*

Teakoe pear tea

¼ ounce honey, cardamom, Lapsang Souchon* simple syrup (Lapsang Souchon is an organic black tea smoked with Breckenridge barrel staves)

Juice of half a lemon

Garnish: diced pears rolled in cinnamon and vanilla sugar

Winter Warm Up (serve warm)

2 ounces Breckenridge Bourbon*

½ ounce allspice dram

Orange zest

*These products are available at the Breckenridge Distillery, 1925 Airport Road in Breckenridge, or at the Main Street tasting room, 137 S. Main St., across from the Breckenridge Welcome Center.

** Broken Compass Brewing offers 32- and 64-ounce take-home growlers of beer at its tasting room, 68 Continental Court in Breckenridge.

Have questions about obtaining other special ingredients? Email Keithley at billie@breckenridgedistillery.com.

========= Terms of the trade

Creating cocktails is a science, balancing salty and tart, sweet and savory to create flavors and textures that are complex and interesting to the palate.

“I’ll wake up at 3 a.m. and think, why can’t I mix those things?” said Billie Keithley, Breckenridge Distillery liquid chef. “I hop into the lab in my kitchen — it looks like a science lab, basically — and I try it out.”

Like any other scientific realm, mixology has its share of technical terms and jargon. Here are a few definitions that will help you along if you are stumbling through a more complex cocktail recipe.

• Sipping bitters — European-style liqueur, not to be confused with dashing bitters

“It’s an aperitif, a digestif,” Keithley said, adding that the Breckenridge Sipping Bitters took a double gold medal in New York and was named spirit of the year. “It has genipe, which grows wild in high-altitude environments. It has a little bit of a sweet, a little bit of a bitter; it’s great on a stomach and great on a palate. I mix that with some simple, basic cocktails or just with ginger ale. I use it in my Manhattans, my Sazeracs, my Negronis, old fashioneds.”

• Shrub — Base syrup of sugar and vinegar with added flavors

“I prefer cider vinegar to bring out the flavors of your fruits,” Keithley said. “Back in the day, it was used to preserve fruits and it just makes the fruits pop more. I think in the past four years, they have been emerging back again in the bar industry, which I’m very excited to see people use them more and more. They are fun to play with. If something is too sweet, that vinegar balances it out with that tart, which I love. There’s a lot of work that goes into prepping them, but then you put it in your fridge and it will last.”

• Dram — Measurement for a wee bit of whiskey or other liquid

Allspice drams are common enough in cocktails that you can buy one right off the shelf, rather than investing the time and labor to create it from scratch. The St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram is made with Jamaican rum and allspice, a blend of pepper, nutmeg, clove and cinnamon flavors. “A dram is like a small amount,” Keithley said of determining how much to use in a drink. “It’s a measure; a small sip.”