If it wasn’t enough for Aspen, Colorado, to offer amazing landscapes, incredible dining, activities to keep even the most easily distracted person busy, mountain trails that cater to every level of skier or hiker, and a social scene that doesn’t quit, the destination has now added another reason to plan a springtime trip. Introducing the Après Ski Cocktail Classic.
This inaugural event was held March 14 to 17 to celebrate the union of Après Ski culture with the craft of cocktailing. Events were primarily held in Snowmass at the new Westin property. The Classic brought together mixologists, brand ambassadors, chefs, spirits aficionados, and both locals and visitors as attendees, who were more than willing to sample and learn about cocktails slopeside.
My experience began with the seminar, "Fondue and Champagne," a combination that even in thought makes my mouth water.
Executive chef Jim Butchart of the Aspen Skiing Company Mountain Division demonstrated step by step how to make the perfect cheese fondue, while master sommelier Sabato Sagaria of the Little Nell paired the fondue with three champagnes: Pierre Gimmonet, Vilmart e Cie, and L. Aubry Fils. The Pierre Gimmonet was a light, crisp, very bright-styled champagne and served as a great aperitif and palate cleanser; the apple used for dipping in the fondue highlighted it. The Vilmart e Cie, a full-bodied Rosé was almost like red burgundy with bubbles. It worked wonderfully with the earthy meatiness of the roasted mushrooms. Finally the L. Aubry Fils was a more angular expression of Rosé but paired nicely with the chef’s quick-pickled vegetables.
Sabato encouraged us all to go out of our comfort zone when buying Champagne and explained how the acid in the bubbly is the perfect accompaniment to enhance the flavor of fondue: "A Zamboni on the palette."
After finishing my bubbly and fondue I headed to the Après Classic’s Grand Tasting Room. Upon entering, I had a flashback to the scene in "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory" when the doors swing open and inside is a magical land of candy; instead, this was a magical land of vodkas, tequilas, whiskeys, rums, and every other kind of spirit you can imagine!
With my glass in hand, I moved from table to table and was handed a sampling of whatever concoction that was created. From flavored mojitos to vanilla spiced rum ’nog to orange splash tequila, it just kept pouring.
I woke up Saturday with a tiny hangover and therefore headed straight to the Wake up Smart Smoothie Bar and Hydration Station, strategically set up next to the Barista Prima Coffeehouse Bar.
After a strong espresso, I headed to the "Riedel Spirit Tasting" seminar. The chief executive officer of Riedel, Maximilian Riedel, led us through four different tasting comparisons each of tequila, cognac, and malt scotch.
Riedel explained in order to showcase a beverage in its finest form, Riedel glasses are crafted to enhance aromas and taste components. The specific shape and size of the glass creates a balanced interaction between fruit, minerality, and acidity while de-emphasizing the evidence of alcohol. When all these elements are in place the glass becomes the "loudspeaker," transmitting the message of the beverage to the human senses. I was amazed to truly taste and smell the difference in all three spirits. I know anytime I can sit in on a seminar hosted by Maximilian Riedel, I will. It is a true talent to be able to passionately describe the tastes and smells of spirits in such a sensual way.
The next three lectures/samplings I attended were really just a lot of fun:
"Haut Hot Chocolate" hosted by executive chef Ronnie Sanchez featured a few variations, including hot chocolate for churros, Mayan hot chocolate, white night hot chocolate, and Peruvian velvet. All were incredibly decadent and presented so beautifully—and most importantly came with take home recipes!
Then it was right to "The Punch Bowl" hosted by the charismatic Charlotte Volsey, who taught us how to make retro and hip punches. The one fact she made very clear was to always add nutmeg to any punch; it is a key ingredient.
The last seminar I attended was "Hot Toddies 101." The ever-so-charming celebrity mixologist Tony Abou-Gamin demonstrated how to make a killer hot toddy, as well as my favorite, Glogg (a Scandinavian classic). Once again we all sampled his creations, and it became very obvious how he earned his title—the drinks were outstanding!
Before the event day ended I popped into the VIP Exclusive Private Reserve "Vintage Ski" room, which featured some rare and hard-to-find spirits poured by sommelier David Johnson. I sadly had to decline the temptation to try a few very aged scotches, as I had an important dinner that evening and was determined to go, not pass out!
Sunday was the culmination of the classic and featured a bar crawl in downtown Aspen. Seven of Aspen’s top-tier watering holes were vying for the best Original Après Ski cocktail concoction, and I was determined to hit all seven: Terrace Bar at The Nell ("Ginger and Mary Ann"), The J-Bar (Italian daiquiri), Justice Snow’s Restaurant & Bar ("Flying Punchman"), The Red Onion (Melon Berry Spritzer), Sky Hotel’s 39 Degrees ("Irish Stinger"), Limelight ("Stormy Patty"), and Jimmy’s ("Kiss Me I’m Irish").
And the winner is … Jimmy’s! To make the winning cocktail combine muddled fresh ginger, 2 oz Tullamore Dew, 1 1/2 oz fresh pineapple juice, 1/4 oz Benedictine liquor, 1/2 oz Amaro Montenegro, a dash of Bittermens Tiki bitters, and a dash of Angostura bitters. Shake all ingredients and double strain into a coupe glass then mist with Del Maguey Chichicapa.
I hit Jimmy’s last and with perfect timing as Steve Olson and Jimmy Yeager were hosting an in-depth seminar about mezcal, with a tasting of 12 artisanal mezcals from Del Maguey, the gold standard of mezcals. These men are so knowledgeable and passionate about mezcal they could turn anyone into a tequila fan!
The Après Cocktail Classic was a fabulous alternative to a ski day or days. With 1,600 attendees—and only in its first year—this event is destined to keep growing.
I continued my vacation with a stay at the Mountain House Lodge in Aspen. What a surprising delight this hidden gem was. Tucked away just a few short blocks from the center of Aspen, it has 26 rooms that are all very homey and incredibly affordable.
Other than my first few days of excessive cocktailing, my days in Aspen included a mix of activities, including an Independence Pass walk/hike. To get there, continue on Route 82 out of Aspen and stop two miles down. You can park at the barriers since just beyond is a wide, snowy, paved road on which to walk, cross country ski, or snowmobile. The scenery from the pass is spectacular.
I also dined at Pine Creek Cookhouse. Only via snowshoe, cross-country skiing, or a horse-drawn sleigh ride can you gain access to this rustic cabin restaurant. You feel as though you are in the middle of nowhere with breathtaking views. Drive about 30 minutes from downtown Aspen to a tiny shack where you can rent snowshoes or skis; with a trail map in hand you are set on your way up to Pine Creek. Make sure to make a reservation for lunch or dinner. You can even choose to hike up there and ride a horse-drawn sleigh back.
Finally, it was a powder snow day, and I had to choose a mountain on which to ski: Aspen, Buttermilk, Snowmass, or Highlands. Given that Cloud Nine Alpine Bistro - the famous lunch/après eatery - is on the Highlands Mountain, I chose that one. Holy party, Batman! It was mayhem with dancing on tables and music blasting; it does not get much crazier anywhere than this place. The food was great, views cant be beat, and although it is a tiny establishment—with seating inside and out - it makes for the quintessential ski day event.
My last activity was fly-fishing, which is not just a summer sport. Hire a guide from any of Aspen’s fly-fishing shops and head out to the Roaring Fork River. Dress warm, though, since it’s definitely chilly!
I always have a hard time with choosing where to dine when I visit Aspen, and typically return to the same spots each time. This visit I decided to branch out and try two new ones.
The legendary Hotel Jerome, which is now managed by the Auberge Group, was completely renovated and now features Prospect, a fine dining restaurant and The Living Room, a relaxing and funky spot for small plates and cocktails.
The dining experience at Prospect blew me away; kudos to executive chef Rob Zack!
I started with a beet salad with persimmon, faro, arugula, lemon, thyme, and pistachios; there was a perfect combination in every bite, and the dish was beautifully displayed.
The next course was my favorite, the raviolo with spinach, egg yolk, ricotta di bufala, and black truffle. I have to explain: One large but ever so light raviolo was in the center of the plate. When I cut into it, an egg yolk oozed out with pieces of ricotta and spinach. The sauce was drizzled over and around it was so light and just melted in your mouth. My guest and I couldn’t stop saying "mmmmmm" with each bite.
For my main course, I ordered the bone-in Berkshire pork loin with dried figs, gnocchi, cipollini, long beans, and green peppercorns. Again, the presentation was beautiful, and it was perfectly prepared.
Dessert … yes, I had to indulge in one of pastry chef Aleece Gallagher’s creations. I opted for the coconut cream pie with white chocolate shavings and caramelized bananas in a light pineapple rum sauce; it was sheer decadence.
Accompanying this truly sumptuous meal was a phenomenal bottle of wine, which master sommelier Jill Zimorski helped us pick out. She curates her wine list based on Aspen’s manifestation as a foodie destination. I could have spent a few hours listening to her talk about the wine choices, but I finally went with a Pinot noir, a 2010 Confero from Aberrant Cellars.
By the way, when making a reservation at Prospect ask to sit at table 51 - it’s the best table in the house.
For a casual dining option I was told about the lounge at Limelight Hotel. The lobby lounge and restaurant serves incredibly unique and gourmet pizzas and salads. I tried both the bresaola and Gorgonzola pizza with roasted tomatoes, drunken figs, and caramelized onions and the kale pizza with lemon ricotta, mozzarella, and wild mushrooms. Both were delicious.
I was disappointed I didn’t get to try Element 47, the fine dining restaurant in the Little Nell Hotel, which was renovated this past year. The décor includes natural elements such as stone, sumptuous wood, blackened steel, and rich, leather seating. The focal point of the menu is Colorado agriculture, drawing from local produce and livestock as well as sustainable seafood from both east and west coasts. Next time!
I did however sit in the Nell lounge area (during what is always a packed and great people watching Après Ski spot), and snacked on two items prepared at Element. The creamy burrata, macerated dried fruits, pistachios, and toasted baguette and yellowfin tuna served with grilled pita, edamame, cucumber, and chic peas were both perfect and just a sampling of what the restaurant offers.
If you are looking for a reason to visit Aspen, the 2014 Après Ski Cocktail Classic is among the many points to sway you. Just make sure you bring enough Advil to cure a hangover and come ready to party!