The perfect cocktail tends to elevate the dining experience to another level.
From brandy-soaked cherries in an old fashioned to the tropical notes of an exceptional Sauvignon Blanc via New Zealand, beverages are just as much a part of the puzzle as the main dish.
First Sip — an offering of First Bite: Boulder County Restaurant Week — is spotlighting the smooth libations that complement everything from charcuterie boards to perfectly seared steaks.
“I first dreamed up First Sip with Rachael (Caraluzzi), our marketing director, at Arcana’s bar in January 2020,” said Jessica Benjamin, owner and producer of First Bite: Boulder County Restaurant Week and now First Sip. Arcana closed in 2021 and now houses the Asian-inspired Supermoon. “We were talking about highlights of First Bite 2019 and kept bringing up how we tried the most amazing drinks or bottles of wine. The beverage programs of restaurants take almost as much time and attention from the restaurants to craft, so our team wanted to highlight the diversity of the libations in Boulder with its own celebration.”
An impressive 33 locations are participating in First Sip, and reservations or tickets are not required to enjoy the specially crafted drinks. Folks can just simply turn up to the specific establishments, from April 28-May 1, to enjoy an array of options, like License No. 1’s boulevardier or Ash’Kara’s 64-ounce specialty Cointreau cocktail, ideally meant to be shared among six people.
“There is such a huge appetite right now to go do something,” Benjamin said. “Patrons are really starting to explore a bit more, so we’re excited to offer the opportunity to try some of the new places that may have popped up in the past year or two.”
In addition to savoring refreshing beverages, Benjamin and her team are offering opportunities for cocktail lovers to dig a little deeper with a mix of ticketed events.
At 5:30 p.m. April 28, Boulder Spirits and Café Aion will team up for “The Flavor Wheel of Whiskey” tasting at Vapor Distillery. In addition to sampling bourbons and single malts, attendees can also savor bites like chorizo-stuffed dates with honey or crostini with manchego cheese and roasted pears. There will be additional pairings featuring tea varieties from Ku Cha House of Tea and Moksha Chocolate. Tickets are $55.
Japango’s “Cocktail Dynamics & the Art of the Sensory Experience” — led by the eatery’s beverage director Stanley Usinowicz — has already sold out, but there are plenty of other opportunities to learn about the nuances of night caps and more. Those who didn’t score tickets to the event can still savor Japango’s intriguing First Sip cocktails.
“There’s really something for everyone,” Benjamin said. “There’s inventive new cocktails, pairings and flights, non-alcoholic options, tea and coffee and lots of fun engaging experiences.”
Bohemian Biergarten will host a “European Bier Tasting.” There’s even a zoom event — “Rediscovering the Wines of Tuscany” — with wine expert and Denver-based wine writer Kevin Day on April 30.
Gemini — the popular Pearl Street Mall tapas bar that plates up mouthwatering Spanish omelets, thin slices of dry-cured Jamón and spare ribs with sherry glaze — is participating in First Sip.
Owned by twin sisters Catherine and Elizabeth Neckes, along with their husbands Michael Mehiel and chef Brian Pierce, the restaurant continues to impress dinners with its flavorful fare made with locally sourced ingredients.
While local publications have praised its Spanish-style eats, staff is pleased to have the focus on the drinks that are equally as flavorful and nuanced as the various bites prepared by Pierce.
“I’m very excited to push our wonderful cocktail program more towards the spotlight with First Sip,” said Zack Bitzonis, Gemini’s bar director.
Gemini’s beverage program boasts organic wines from Spain and the West Coast, traditional cocktails and selections from Colorado’s craft brewing community
“I don’t usually create cocktails to complement specific dishes,” Bitzonis said. “I prefer to craft cocktails that have a broader range of applicability, so I build more around seasonal flavor combinations or concepts. A spring-focused cocktail list will naturally pair well with spring-focused dishes, while allowing enough flexibility for the drinks to be enjoyed on their own.”
During the inaugural First Sip, the eatery — which opened in November 2021 — is pouring out a creation inspired by the blooms found within a close radius of its doors.
“For the Desert Flower, we’re evoking the sense of spring turning into summer that is happening in the flower beds all along Pearl Street,” Bitzonis said. “It’s floral, herbaceous and complex, with light sweetness throughout and a dry finish.”
The creation is just as visually appealing as it is fragrantly delicious.
“Garnishing with an edible flower feels very Boulder — encompassing the new growth in town, the desire for sustainability and the eccentricity of an unusual accoutrement for a drink,” Bitzonis said. “We complete the Desert Flower with a spritz of rose water, amping up the natural perfume of the cocktail.”
Like all spirits, the Desert Flower is best enjoyed with pals.
“I would pair it with a sunny late afternoon on the patio in the company of friends, but, if pressed, I would recommend the artichoke hearts at lunch or the spring pea crostini at dinner,” Bitzonis said.
Benjamin is also using First Sip as a way to honor the folks behind the bar with a Badass Bartender award. Bartenders from participating restaurants have a chance to win $250 and prizes from Oliko Ginger Beer and Boulder Spirits.
Folks can log onto First Sip’s site to nominate a bartender through May 2. Winners will be announced May 4.
“We have so many creative bartenders in this town, and they are serving up some really inventive drinks,” Benjamin said. “Most of the media’s attention, and thus diners, is on the food restaurants are serving, so it’s nice to put the beverage programs on their own pedestal for a minute.”
While the debut launch is next week, fans of adult beverages can look forward to the event becoming an annual one, and perhaps evolving into a longer stretch.
“First Sip will definitely be a new permanent offering from our production group,” Benjamin said. “We have happily expanded in the past couple years into being a catalyst for exploring and celebrating our dining scene and community.”
From a strawberry frosé with pink lemonade vodka by Avanti Food & Beverage to non-alcoholic bubbly espresso from Dry Storage, inventive First Sip creations are sure to surpass expectations.
“This will be a fun weekend opportunity to grab some friends and adventure around to two or three establishments, leading them to explore deeper into the beverage scene,” Benjamin said. “I hope they can discover a new elixir, get to know their bartender and make some fun memories celebrating our amazing community.”