Spirits win out over poker hands at Still on the Hill in Breckenridge
Michael Pavsek, head bartender at Twist, shared his recipe for the Pumpkin Smasher, a perfect cocktail for fall. It starts with pumpkin simple syrup, which can be mixed with any high-end craft vodka. Here’s the recipe, which can be reduced if you aren’t serving a crowd of poker runners:
2 cups sugar
2 cups water
1 cup brown sugar
2 tablespoons nutmeg
1 teaspoon cloves
1 cinnamon stick
Pumpkin puree to taste
Bring all ingredients to a boil, cool down, and strain through a colander lined with cheesecloth. Shake with vodka, and serve on the rocks.
I’m terrible at anything that requires a little luck, and that was painstakingly obvious upon review of the cards I collected during the Still on the Hill Festival poker run on Friday night in Breckenridge.
The object of the game is simple: Travel from bar to bar with boyfriend in tow to order cocktails made with some of the country’s finest craft spirits and collect playing cards to compile the ultimate poker hand. The best hands would win prizes at the Grand Tasting on Saturday, and the first card I pulled was a two of diamonds. Great.
Turns out I’m better at sipping cocktails than I am at stockpiling face cards. Here’s how it all went down.
Modis — We started the evening with a butcher block and drinks at Modis. There were three featured craft spirits cocktails, and our server recommended the B-Line, a light, frothy mix highlighted by Spring 44 Honey Vodka and orange bitters and served in a martini glass. The honey vodka added a smooth, not too sweet component to the drink. Spring 44 makes all of its products with water harvested from a 9,000-foot mountain spring on property owned by the distillery’s founder. In addition to the honey vodka, the company’s product line includes straight vodka, three gins and two Kentucky bourbons.
On the way out of the restaurant, we ran into three of the four judges from the Still on the Hill craft spirits competition, Richard Wolf, Pennfield Jensen and Dave Pickerell. Wolf is a bulk bourbon and spirits and contract bottling and distilling broker, Penn is the executive director of the American Craft Distillers Association and Pickerell is the managing member and senior consultant for Oak View Spirits. The fourth, Tom Fischer, was not in my line of sight, but he’s the face of bourbonblog.com. These guys know their booze, and we shook hands and looked forward to hearing the results of their afternoon of sipping and scrutinizing.
Downstairs at Eric’s — After a failed attempt to buy a smoky digestif (Slope Side Cigars was closed for the evening), we moved along to Downstairs at Eric’s and ordered a variation on an Arnold Palmer made with lemonade and Deep Eddy Sweet Tea Vodka. Deep Eddy was born in Austin, Texas, and sweet tea vodka was its flagship product, followed by its straight and ruby red vodkas. The company takes its vodka seriously, distilling its product 10 times for a smooth, clean taste and proclaiming to use the best water in all of Texas. The whole-leaf Indonesian tea used for the vodka, along with cane sugar and a bit of clover honey, makes for a super flavorful cocktail with no alcohol burn.
Briar Rose — I was a little bummed about not winning an iPod from one of the games in the arcade at Eric’s (I fed the machine $3 before giving up), but my spirits brightened when we arrived at the Briar Rose and ordered our third round of drinks for the evening. We settled on gin and tonics made with Crystal Peak Gin, which is handcrafted and hand bottled in Colorado. I’ll admit I’m one of those people who avoid gin. The botanicals and aromas are really strong, and the flavor never seems to suit my taste buds. But when it comes to spirits, I try to follow a “try everything once” mantra, and this gin delighted me. It was really smooth yet complex and had this sort of gliding property as it rolled over my tongue.
I collected my third card, a four of diamonds, and was contemplating my extremely bad poker hand when I saw a familiar face. It was Kristian Naslund, co-founder of Dancing Pines Distillery in Loveland. Naslund was kicking back with his wife, Kimberly, and his kids and leaving the schmoozing and heavy lifting of cocktail glasses to his father, Dancing Pines co-founder Christopher McNay. The distillery opted out of the poker run this year to give other spirit slingers a chance at it, and I was sad to miss out on another taste of their amazing liquors and liqueurs, including the spectacular Chai Liqueur, winner of a Double Gold Medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
Fatty’s — We toasted the Naslunds and promised to seek out Dancing Pines on Saturday at the Grand Tasting before strolling up the hill to Fatty’s. Our journey had thus far led us through a trio of clear spirits, so here we opted to take the plunge into bourbon — Colorado Gold Straight Bourbon Whiskey, that is. The bartender poured it double tall with 7-Up and two straws. Thinking back, she might have thrown the two straws in there because we were sharing the drink, but I used both at once to flood my mouth with delicious bourbon. I’m a devoted disciple of Breckenridge Bourbon, but Colorado Gold is right up there in flavor and intensity. The distillery is located in Cedaredge and uses all local, high-mountain grains to produce its award-winning spirits.
Twist — A somewhat uneven walk down the block to Twist was rewarded with cocktail No. 5. Head bartender Michael Pavsek was pouring a concoction he created called a Pumpkin Smasher, which originally featured Woody Creek Signature Potato Vodka. Pavsek said his stash of that vodka — made with native Colorado Rio Grande russet, Chepita and Lady Claire potatoes, mountain spring water and yeast — was quickly depleted. For our cocktails, he served 5284 from Colorado Vodka in Denver. The cocktail had a pumpkin pie spiciness rounded out with the corn and wheat notes of the vodka, and Pavsek was nice enough to share his recipe so we could make it by the gallon at home.
Salt Creek — We followed a rowdy bachelorette party from Twist to Salt Creek, and as the gaggle of girls invaded the dance floor, the bartender lined us up shots of J&L Distilling Co. Fyr Liqueur. The liqueur is one of three handcrafted by the Boulder distillery — Sno Vodka and Sno Gin round out the trio.
Gold Pan — It was getting pretty late by the time we waddled around the block to the Gold Pan and selected a whiskeyrita poured with Santa Fe Spirits Silver Coyote Pure Malt Whiskey. Rather than using corn like most “white dog” spirits, this un-aged whiskey is a combination of Scottish yeast and European and American malts. I collected another lack-luster card — a five of clubs — and slowly sipped my cocktail as I watched a handful of gentlemen attempt to master the Gold Pan’s ring-toss game. On a night that revolved around luck, we left it up to chance to decide if we made one more stop before heading home. One lightning round of rock-paper-scissors later, we were on our way to Mi Casa for a final nightcap.
Mi Casa — Surrounded by the festive trappings of the Mi Casa bar, it seemed only fitting to order another margarita, this one more traditionally made with Blue Nectar Tequila from Miami, fresh-squeezed lime juice and a bit of agave nectar. We spread our cards out on the bar with every intention of combining our hands and cheating our way into something worthy of showing at the Grand Tasting, but we had nothing. Our best effort was a full house, queens over nines. Pathetic. But we’d sampled some fantastic spirits and generally enjoyed ourselves — when life deals you a bad hand, have another cocktail.
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