If you're the guy who had a key role in bringing the high art of mixology to the Boulder drinking scene, what do you do for your next act?
If you're James Lee, a partner with Dave Query and other investors in opening the Bitter Bar and Happy Noodle House in 2009, you buy out the partners and deformalize the Bitter Bar, turning it into what Lee describes as a "friendly neighborhood bar."
Lee closed on the deal in April and has been working hard on finding the sweet spot between a restaurant with a bar scene centered on high-end cocktails and a college/dive bar.
"I believe no one in Boulder ... has an upscale place with friendly prices. There was not a place that people 24 years and up feel comfortable," he says.
To reach that niche, Lee has virtually eliminated the food menu, as he is allowed to do since the bar has a tavern license. The Bitter Bar will now serve only a few light bites such as marinated olives, smoked salmon pate, cured meats and a trio of cheeses, prepared by Hosea Rosenberg of Blackbelly Catering. Most cocktails range in price from $6 to $9, with a discount at happy hour.
Peter McGraw, who has been a Bitter Bar customer through the change, says he likes the new iteration, although he's quick to add, he also liked it before.
However, he says of the new vibe: "It's more casual and has more of a neighborhood feel to it. Rather than being a place to go for a specialty cocktail with a bartender in a vest with an ironic mustache, you don't feel like you're going to wait 20 minutes to get a cocktail."
He's speaking of the highly crafted, often custom, cocktails that are the hallmark of the mixology culture. While many people like the attention to craft and customization of drinks with unusual liqueurs and added ingredients, others would like a simple drink at a lower price.
Lee says there has been something of a backlash against the mixology cultures, or at least the stereotype thereof.
"A lot of times, a young, bright, wannabe bartender/mixologist forgets about the hospitality part. They get consumed over what kind of recipe they are creating," he says.
He even goes so far as to use the word "diva" for the extremes to which some mixologists can take the passion of their craft, although probably not in Boulder.
"A lot of those scenarios are happening all over the United States," he says.
However, not catering to the divaesque egos of mixologists does not mean that the Bitter Bar will be using, say, commercial sweet and sour mix in its cocktails.
Lee says the bar still makes handcrafted sodas and mixers.
Regular customer McGraw says he advises people who haven't been to the Bitter Bar before to try its house-made tonic water.
"They serve it in a shot glass as a taster," he says. "People will say, 'I never knew tonic water any other way besides Schweppes and Canada Dry.' "
Lee adds that customers desiring the full-on mixology treatment can still receive it. The back bar is stocked with exotic liqueurs, and the bar still makes spherical ice cubes to enhance certain cocktails.
"The best part is if you do want a $16 cocktail, the bartender and staff know how to execute it for them," Lee says.
When it comes to crafting drinks, the bar is concentrating on making kegged sodas and cocktails. One such is the Blue Velvet. The drink contains the mixologist favorite, Creme de Violette — Lee says he was the first person to get Colorado liquor distributors to carry it — as well as vodka, fresh lemon juice and orgeat, a non-alcoholic, sweet-almond syrup from France. The ingredients are mixed together, put in a keg and carbonated for 48 hours. That means that the elegant drink — the bar's most popular — comes out of a tap and costs $8, or $5 at happy hour. The second most popular drink, Kiss the Sky, also $8, features gin, Domaine de Canton (a ginger liqueur), house-made lavender syrup and lemon.
"Everything is hand-crafted ... everything is fresh ... and seasonal also," Lee says. "That's where my niche comes in. We're doing everything at the highest level, but want to give customers the price and feel of a neighborhood bar."
Lee says his business model is to convert regular customers who previously came once a month to regulars who show up once a week or more.
Lee will bring Blackbelly and another to-be-determined food truck to the patio on Fridays and Saturdays. Rosenberg and Lee are friends from their days working with Dave Query, Rosenberg at Jax Fish House and Lee originally at Zolo Grill before he headed the beverage program at Query's restaurants. Lee will work with Rosenberg as a consultant as he opens up Blackbelly Restaurant in East Boulder later this year.
Regular customer McGraw, who happens to be an associate professor of marketing at the University of Colorado, says Lee may have found a niche.
"If a 30- or 40-something wants to go out to have a drink and are not going out to have dinner, it fills that need," he says.
Contact Camera Staff Writer Cindy Sutter at 303-473-1335 or firstname.lastname@example.org