Boulder’s Best Mixologist competition takes local one sip further

Alan Henkin of Basta
Photo by Abby Faires

It’s everywhere: The local movement has found strong roots in Boulder.

Boulderites think local, eat local, buy local, are local. But what about when it comes to drinking local?

Well, Boulder’s got that covered too. April 21, 303 Distillery is hosting the third annual Boulder’s Best Mixologist competition, where mixologists from seven restaurants will be mixing up cocktails to see who is the best in the business.

Several mixologists competing this year come from restaurants where chefs create seasonal, locally-sourced menus: The Kitchen, Aji, SALT, Basta and Riffs Urban Fare, to name a few. Boulder mixologists often compare their work to that of chefs.

“There are always these really great chefs, who are like celebrities,” says Katelin Westfall, a mixologist who will compete on behalf of Aji this year. “But bartending has a lot of the same concepts — you’re still creating something from scratch, and you’re still putting your heart into it.”

Alan Henkin, owner and general manager of Basta, agrees that mixologists are a lot like chefs, but he is reluctant to equate mixology with bartending.

“Mixologists are slightly more artisanal and craft-driven and chef-driven in a way,” Henkin says. “A bartender is definitely a more loose term that encompasses anybody behind a bar serving food and drinks. But mixologists are really trying to learn everything they can about every ingredient they are putting in that drink.”

Henkin says that it is crucial for mixologists to get ingredients of the highest caliber, so they can make drinks of the highest caliber. For Boulder mixologists, finding high quality ingredients often means sourcing locally.

Randi Curtis, Boulder’s Best Mixologist competition event coordinator, agrees with Henkin and draws a strong line between mixology and bartending.

“The mixologists who will be in the competition try very hard to be creative with their cocktails,” Curtis says. “They pour fresh ingredients and use local ingredients from here in Boulder. They use a lot of herbs from local farms, and that’s some of the difference as opposed to just pouring a vodka-soda.”

The “market section” of Basta’s cocktail list changes just about every month, and that’s where the East Boulder Italian eatery’s Basta’s locally-sourced ingredients can be found, according to Henkin.

“We go to the back-of-house chefs all the time, and we say, ‘What kind of fruits and vegetables are coming in this season that you’re really excited about?’” Henkin says. “They’ll give us some options, and the bar team takes that ingredient and uses it as inspiration for the next market cocktail. Local plays a huge part in it.”

Conor McDermott, who will be representing SALT at the competition this year, says that surviving the Boulder bar scene isn’t just about sourcing locally. It’s also about knowing what’s in season.

“You better really wrap your head around what’s new and what’s fresh and what’s in season,” McDermott says, “or else you won’t be working in this town very long.”

Recently, Basta has taken a more seasonal approach to its menu and has really been focusing on grapefruit, Henkin says. He anticipates the winter fruit playing a role in Boulder’s upcoming mixology competition.

“Right now, grapefruit is one of the best winter fruits,” Henkin says. “And think about how great of a mixer grapefruit can be with cocktails. I definitely think that’ll be popular.”

McDermott says he plans on using strawberries in the competition because they are just starting to come into season. Katelin Westfall, one of Aji’s two competing mixologists, was reluctant to divulge too much of their ingredient list. But she did say that they would at the very least be seasonal.

Every participant must use 303 Vodka, distilled in Boulder, as a base for their cocktails. Everything that goes into making the vodka comes from Colorado, says Curtis.

“The water is from Indian Peaks,” Curtis says. “And the potatoes are from the San Luis Valley. And even the owner — well, he went to Fairview High School.”

For Curtis, creating this event was about going “local.”

“This competition is for the community,” she says.

In fact, it’s the community who will determine the fate of the competition. Attendees get to vote for their favorite cocktail, and the mixologist with the most votes wins.

“The people who attend this event are the ones who go in and support the mixologists at their restaurants every week,” Curtis says. “This event is a great way for people to meet the mixologists, when they have time to talk about what they’re doing — when they aren’t behind a busy bar.”

McDermott, however, says that he wants the competition to feel like he is behind the bar. He doesn’t want to “pre-batch” his drinks, as Curtis requested.

“The way I’m thinking about it, I want it to be like I’m behind the bar,” McDermott says. “I want people to see how the drink comes together.”

Curtis says she wanted to create this event because she thinks people in Boulder want to stay close to the community, and they want to support local businesses.

“That’s what’s so nice about being in Boulder,” Curtis says. “Everybody calls it the bubble, but it’s a really nice bubble to live in.”

Boulder´s Best Mixologist competition takes place 4 p.m. April 21 at the 303 Vodka Distillery, 2500 47th St., Boulder. Proceeds benefit There With Care, a nonprofit for families facing critical illness. Participants include Aji, Basta, The Corner Bar, The Kitchen, Q´s Restaurant, Riffs Urban Fare and SALT.