Ask the Bartender: Meet Justin Lavenue, Colorado Cocktail contestant

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Sean Kenyon knows how to pour out both drinks and advice. A third-generation bar man with almost 25 years behind the bar, he is a student of cocktail history, a United States Bartenders Guild-certified Spirits Professional and a BAR Ready graduate of the prestigious Beverage Alcohol Resource Program. You can find him behind the bar at Squeaky Bean -- and here every week, where he'll answer your questions. But right now, he wants to introduce you to our fifth Colorado Cocktail Contest contestant.

The Colorado Cocktail Project, with its mission to create the official Colorado Cocktail, has begun. Over the next few weeks, we will profile each of the bartenders and all of the Colorado distillers involved in the process -- and not only can you read about them here, but you can sample the contestants for yourself at any of the participating bars and restaurants, then vote for your favorites. We'll decide the ten finalists by June 15, and they'll pour out their hearts -- and drinks -- in a head-to-head competition on June 27 at the culmination of the Colorado Cocktail Project at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver.

Today Justin Lavenue, bar manager at Bombay Bistro, fires up his Rocky Mountain Wildfire.

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Justin Lavenue
Bombay Bistro

When and how did you start bartending?

I began working as a busser at Bombay Bistro in August 2008. Bussing is definitely not something that anyone wants to do for a prolonged period of time, so as soon as a position behind the bar opened up I jumped on it. I have now been bartending for around two and a half years and loved every second of it!

What sparked your interest in mixology?

About a year ago the owner of Bombay asked me to take a stab at creating a new drink menu for the restaurant that would complement the multitude of flavors in Indian food. I took the task very seriously and, about six months later, had a diverse drink menu that utilized many different flavors and now boasts a selection of cocktails that pleases even the most particular of palates. Since then, I have been possessed by creating new, original cocktails that bring a smile -- or tear -- to the faces and/or eyes of my patrons!

Tell us about your bar.

For the first four years Bombay was in business, the bar was simply meant to support the restaurant. It had a very limited selection and, as I mentioned, the drinks on the drink menu did not pair well with the food. While the new menu was being created, we carefully selected spirits and liqueurs to add to the bar. Now the bar has become a destination for people wanting a delicious, carefully crafted cocktail! In addition to the regular drink menu, we have been offering seasonal cocktail menus that are sure to satisfy the drinker wanting a cocktail or martini to warm them up, cool them down, cheer them up, or make them forget which season it is altogether!

Tell us about yourself.

Where to start?... Well, I am a senior at the University of Colorado in Boulder getting my degree in marketing and entrepreneurship. At first my job at Bombay was just a way to make a little beer money, but that quickly changed once I stepped foot behind the bar. Two and a half years later I am the ruler (manager) of all things bar-related and have, thankfully, found a steady balance between school and work. Once I graduate I hope to start a company offering uniquely designed bar products that will make the lives of other bartenders much easier!

What do you love about bartending?

Wow, this is a question with more possible answers than my latest final exam. But I'd say the one thing I love the most about bartending/mixology is the creativity that it enables. A mixologist gets the unique opportunity to craft a cocktail that potentially has never been made before, specifically to satisfy the tastebuds of a patron in the mood for something new! I get excited just talking about it!

What is your least favorite thing about bartending?

People in a bad mood who don't appreciate a good cocktail and just want you to poor their damn drink so that they can get their sauce on. Customers like this not only put me in a bad mood, but they dampen the moods of everyone else at the bar as well.

Favorite cocktail.
Without a doubt, it's the always delicious Cosmopolitan.... joke. This is also a question with an infinite number of answers and no answer at all, because my favorite cocktail changes about every hour. I would say that I have a favorite cocktail for each spirit depending on what I'm in the mood for, the mood I'm in, whether if I've eaten or not and, of course, how many drinks I've already consumed! However, if I had to choose one cocktail to drink right now, it would be a Vieux Carré.

Favorite spirit.

Ahhhh... this question has but one answer! Lagavulin 16-year Islay Single Malt Scotch Whisky. I go crazy for this dry, incredibly peaty spirit that seems to have been crafted by God, Himself!

Describe your cocktail and why it should be THE Colorado Cocktail.

My cocktail is named the "Rocky Mountain Wildfire" because it embodies the sensory stimulants accompanied with a wildfire in Colorado's own Rocky Mountains. The first experience with the cocktail is the initial smell that comes when bringing the cocktail to your lips. This fragrance, inspired by the smoke scent that sweeps across the state when a wildfire occurs, comes from the flamed lemon peel garnish, which gives the nose of the cocktail a charred, smoky aroma. The cocktail itself is light and has a very herbal, wood-like flavor reminiscent of the Rocky Mountains that hits you (like a wildfire) a moment after the first sip. This flavor is the result of a combination of 1) the base spirit, Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey, which is made from fresh Colorado barley and aged for a minimum of two years in American white oak-barrels, giving it a distinct "oakiness" perfect for this cocktail; 2) muddled Colorado rosemary, which gives this drink a smooth yet distinct piney flavor comparable to the alpine trees populating the Rocky Mountains; 3) the flavoring agent, Leopold Bros Three Pins Alpine herbal liqueur, which is made with fresh herbs and spices found in the Rocky Mountain region and not only adds to the overall complexity of the drink, but gives it a taste much like the mountain air that fills your nostrils while hiking a 14-er; 4) honey gathered from Colorado's Western Slope by Ambrosia Honey Company based in Longmont, a honey that has an incredibly rich and floral aroma that complements the multitude of other flavors embraced by this cocktail. Altogether, the flavors and experience of drinking this cocktail will beautifully display the complexity and power possessed by one of nature's most awe-inspiring occurrences. However, rest assured that the end result of each wildfire is healthier, more fertile land where plants and trees can flourish once again.

It is my hope that those of you who read this stop by Bombay Bistro on your next visit to Boulder (or your next night out, for those who live in Boulder) to experience this cocktail and give me your feedback. Who knows, maybe this cocktail will come to represent Colorado and spread like...


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Rocky Mountain Wildfire

1/4 oz. fresh lemon juice
1/4 sprig rosemary
1-1/2 oz. Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey
1/2 oz. Leopold Bros. Three Pins Alpine liqueur
1/4 oz. Colorado honey
4 dashes Angostura bitters
Flamed lemon peel to garnish

1) Muddle the 1/4 sprig of rosemary in 1/4 oz. fresh Lemon juice.

2) Add the 1-1/2 oz. Stranahan's, 1/2 oz. Alpine liqueur, 1/4 oz. honey and 4 dashes of Angostura bitters.

3) Dry shake to ensure that the honey mixes in with the rest of the ingredients.

4) Shake over ice and double strain into a Martini glass.

5) Flame a 1-and -/2 inch lemon peel over the cocktail, twist and drop in.

6) Consume while trying to refrain from screaming in sheer ecstasy (some screaming is allowed, however)!

Price of your the at the bar: $11


Have a question about the Colorado Cocktail Contest? E-mail bartender@westword.com.



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