‘Vodka is like tofu,’ says James Lee of The Bitter Bar in Boulder, Colorado, and he need say no more. Lee’s run his own bar here in health-conscious Boulder for the last six years.
‘Boulder has more awareness of fresh produce,’ he says. ‘The city is very health-conscious but there’s also a vibrant bar scene. Some customers may want a vegan or vegetarian drink, but they say: Hey, that’s good, and it’s vegan! ‘
It was Boulder’s outdoor lifestyle in the foothills of the Rockies which first brought Lee to the city from Chicago eighteen years ago.
‘I moved here for the skiing,’ he says. ‘I love hiking, skiing. About 6-7 years back I’d done 28 of the 14ers, but it gets harder – personally and logistically.’
Lee’s referring to the 53 peaks in Colorado that exceed 14,000 feet, but these days running his own bar takes up much of his time. He still makes sure he uses healthy produce in his cocktails, though.
‘We grow our own mint, basil, jalapenos and other things. We use local fruit from the Farmer’s Market in our cocktails. We make our own tonic water. We no longer make our own bitters, but buy them from Strongwater, a local bitters company.’
Lee is also hot on using local spirits, though he stresses he buys based on quality, not simply because they’re local. He has to like them too. Fortunately in Colorado’s energetic craft distillery scene there’s no shortage of good local spirits.
‘Anders Vodka from Colorado is my favorite vodka. We also stock a Roundhouse Gin, and various products from Leopold Brothers in Denver. I like their rye, and their Alpine liqueur. The guys grew up here then moved to Michigan and came back to Denver.’
What’s unusual about Lee’s Bitter Bar is that it survives on drink sales alone, without being a dive bar in what is predominantly a college city: 30,000 of the 100,000 population are students. The Bitter Bar doesn’t rely on food sales either, apart from a few bar nibbles. Lee relies on selling affordable craft cocktails.
‘Boulder doesn’t have anything like us,’ Lee maintains. ‘They have dive bars, college bars, and restaurants with cocktail bars. Even Denver doesn’t have anything like us. My wish when I bought out my partner last year was to have a neighborhood bar that was a high-end or Speakeasy-style cocktail bar, and to eliminate the food. If you eliminate the restaurant you make it more of a bar. In the last 12 months or so it has become exactly what I wanted it to be.’
Most of Lee’s cocktails run at $10 and under, and having graciously allowed him to make me one or two – including an amazing Manhattan – I can confirm they’re not quickly thrown together drinks that cut back on the spirits to maintain profit levels. There are also cocktails on tap for $8-9.
‘We make them fresh in large batches, which enables us to sell them cheap. There’s a gin cocktail, two vodkas and a bourbon, but that changes. We make them in a 5-gallon keg, and carbonate them for 48 hours. It speeds things up on busy nights, keeps the prices down, and keeps the consistency, which is important.’
Another advantage to Boulder’s location is its water supply. It’s the only city in the USA to own its own glacier, the Arapaho Glacier, which provides Boulder’s water.
‘You’ve got to have the right ice cubes,’ Lee says. ‘We use local water, which is then filtered four times in our own special machine. Boulder has awesome water!’
And in The Bitter Bar it also has an awesome neighborhood bar. Later, from another bartender, I learn that the modest but wildly enthusiastic Lee was Playboy‘s Bartender of the Year not long ago. Good choice.
Photo of James Lee (c) Christopher Cina, all others (c) James Lee.