Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Campari America Spirited Interview Series - Simon Banks

Winter is not messing around this year - it is cold cold cold and the snow has been falling at record rates!  All this cold weather means one thing - Hot Toddys!  Warm, boozy remedies for the cold weather just outside.

A few weeks ago I stumbled into Comida at The Source in my hometown of Denver, Colorado and was instantly impressed with their cocktail program, and notably, their seasonal "Some Like it Hot" Cocktail Menu!  Why yes, I would like a hot cocktail made with gin, Aperol, and fresh grapefruit juice!

The man behind the menu (and the bar program at Comida) is Simon Banks, an up and coming talent in the bar world who has an affinity for dive bars, American Gin, and hot cocktails.

Without further ado, Simon Banks:

Gastronomista:  Simon, how did you become the head bartender at Comida?  What do you love about running a cocktail bar in the Denver area?

Simon Banks:  E, it's a pleasure to be interviewed by such a Bon Vivant like yourself. Like all things in my life, its been a long road of education and hard work that has brought me to Comida and the position of bar manager and director of beverages here. I started tending at Magnolia Bar in Louisville, KY, when I was 22, and fell in love with this industry from the first drink I poured. Magnolia Bar, aka MAG BAR, the best dive bar in Louisville, schooled me on the basics and every other bar since has added knowledge to my general philosophy that I carry with every movement.

Back to the Comida story though, I was having a hard time finding a bar in Denver that fit my style and would pay the bills and as fate had planned, I stumbled upon a job posting on Sirvo.com for Comida. I had a working interview November 8th, Election Night, and The Source was packed to the gills, after the night was over I was hired on the spot. Comida opened up their new restaurant in The Stanley Market Place in Stapleton December 14th, and Cristina, the former bar manager at The Source was moved over to the new location, and Rayme, the owner, decided with the rest of the management staff, that I was the best fit to move up. It was destiny.

The Krampus - Dark Rum, Leopold's Blackberry Liqueur, St. Elizabeths Allspice Dram, Cherry Bitters, Lime Juice, Simple Syrup, and Muddled Pineapple

Running a cocktail and beverage program in Denver is incredible, because it is a major world destination. People from all around the country and globe visit here, not only because of legal cannabis, but also because of the fine arts scene, sports scene, food scene, etc... The other week I had two German guests, one was a gin collector and we got into talking about the new American small batch gin movement and how American small batch gin is the best gin being distilled in the world right now.

Everyday I come to work I meet worldly people and I love that; being able to provide my guests with a solid beverage program and a wonderful dinning experience is my passion. A good bartender will craft a great cocktail you'll enjoy, but a great bartender will provide you with an amazing experience you'll remember for a long time. Drinks are momentary, but memories can be life long. It's always and always will be about the people and relationships you build.

Pear Mimosa served with an Angostura Bitters Soaked Pear Slice

Gastronomista:  What drives the creative process for you when you're creating cocktails?  Any tricks of the trade you can share?

Banks:  Before I started 'tending I cooked for a living. The last restaurant I cooked for was a gastro pub with a focus on pork and twists of eastern European peasant food. I was the day cook and ran five stations by myself for about 80-100 seats within about a hour and a half time period, also coming up with two daily specials and a weekly special. Food and beverage are brother and sister and if you know how to balance flavors in food, then crafting a balanced cocktail is second nature. When I get off work, go home, take the dogs on a walk, bust out my laptop and research spirit history, bar technique, product, etc... Knowledge is power, and history should not be forgotten.

There are five main flavor profiles in my opinion: rich, dry, spice, tart, and herbal, and many sub modifiers within these as well. People are creatures of pattern and habit, and we all like certain flavors. One of these five profiles is the foundation for your cocktail, then you add the modifiers to fit a persons personal taste. Having a menu that covers these five is crucial and necessary, and also having a menu that changes with the seasons should be a standard you hold as well.

Gastronomista:  What bars do you frequent in Denver or Boulder?  Are there any innovative cocktail programs that excite you?

Banks:  Ah, bars I frequent, yes. The Larimer strip from 20th to 29th in Denver is called "black out alley" by us industry folks. So many great bars and restaurants and if you know the bar staff, you're in for a hell of a good night or some Sunday Fun-Day shenanigans. El Charrito, corner of 21st and Larimer, is my neighborhood watering hole. It's a five star dive bar and if you haven't visited it, go. Great tequila selection thats very reasonably priced, great happy hour and the food is pretty traditional with some amazing special tacos of the week as well, my favorite being the fried catfish taco with a  house made cole slaw. The staff are all good friends of mine and I also DJ there the last Wednesday of every month. The Crimson Room makes the best gin fizz in Denver, Colt and Gray is beyond perfection with anything they do and of course you must visit Aloy Modern Thai for the best mai tai using Mekong rum. Scruffy Murphy's is the archetypal Irish pub, with a great selection of Scotch priced for the working class. Basically, I'm a dive bar man, gotta stay true to my roots.

John McClain - Rye, Cointreau, Drambuie, Rhubarb Bitters, Muddled Cherries

Gastronomista:  If you were to visit any bar anywhere in the world, at any point in history, what bar would you visit?  Who would you have a drink with?

Banks:  Any bar in history huh? Well, thats super vast, but I know exactly what year and where I would go. Milk and Honey, 1999 and I would have a pour of Woodford Reserve with my father, the late Hugh Banks. I owe so much to Sasha Petraske and it's a shame I'll never be able to meet that man, or have him whip me up a cocktail. If you haven't researched Sasha's life, it truly is inspiring. My father passed away when I was six and he was a bourbon drinker. Every time I drink bourbon or a nice rye I cheers to my pops. If he only knew, I think he'd be proud, most likely pissed I have tattoos and dreadlocks, but I think he would be proud of the direction I've taken and the things I've learned so far in life.

Gastronomista:  Comida is a Mexican Restaurant that has an extensive Tequila offering.  How have you seen the trend towards Tequila grow within Colorado?

Banks:  Tequila, tequila, tequila. All spirits have trends, some drop off as the wheel turns and others pop up as mister popular. Tequila is on a rise, but mezcal and American small batch gin are going to be the new trend, mark my words! Colorado, due to the heavy Latino population, is a very popular state for tequila. Tequila is also one of the healthiest spirits to drink.

Comida Hot Toddy - Bourbon, Hibiscus Flowers, Candied Ginger, Lemon, Simple Syrup, Angostura Bitters

Gastronomista:  What other Mixologists inspire you and why?

Banks:  My top 5 influences:

1) Mr. Jaime Boudreau, owner and operator of Cannon in Seattle. This man is all about bitters and in fact, stained every piece of wood in his bar with Angostura bitters. He's a genius and I can't wait to meet him one of these days.

2) Sother Teague, owner and operator of Amor y Amargo in NYC. I've picked apart this mans business strategy and he truly is one of the wisest people to study if you plan on opening up a cocktail bar, which eventually I plan to do myself.

3) Dushan Zaric, owner and operator of Employee's Only in NYC, his bar prep and house made product program is unmatched in the American market

4) Dale DeGroff, where would be with out him?  The Rainbow Bar completely changed the cocktail game, hats off to you sir.

5) Sasha Petraske, rest in peace man, you created a speak easy out of necessity and laid the foundation for a whole new movement.

I could go on and on about contemporary bartenders and the old guard as well, but I would bore you. Each of these guys with their concepts and execution I have studied and learned from the best I can with the resources available to me and each one molded my style without their knowing, so here's a thank you to them, cheers guys.

Reindeer Games - Gin, Aperol, Passion Fruit Gum Syrup, Lemon, and Grapefruit Juice

Gastronomista:  I love your seasonal Hot Toddy Menu you created this winter.  What inspired a hot drinks list, and what are some of the best surprises to come out of the process of creating them?

Banks:  Thanks E, I love it too. Well, it's winter and we're in Denver and it's cold as hell some days and nights. My second week working at Comida I started to catch a chest cold and all I did was eat Thai food and drink Hot Toddy's. Hot Toddy's were originally created as a medicinal drink to kill a cold. Tons of bitters, lemon, rye, honey, throw some fresh herbs in there, throw some ginger in there, shit, throw some garlic in there. Just make something that's healthy and has medicinal properties and drink it. It's going to help you get better, trust me, plus a little buzz helps you pass out. So after I got promoted I was thinking, what menu do I launch? And boom, it hit me, hot cocktails for winter.

Naming them was fun, I just thought about my favorite holiday themed people/movies/etc and built cocktails that would fit into the five categories of flavor. The only hot cocktail recipe that I didn't create from scratch was a borrowed old timer drink called, "Tea and Krampus," which originally was a cold cocktail. I added some ingredients, took some out and make it hot. Fun surprises that happened? Lots of them. The Reindeer Games toddy has a passion fruit gum syrup, and adding hot water reactivates the gum arabic, causing little tiny looking clouds to form in the cocktail over time, that was really cool. Also our House Hot Toddy has hibiscus flowers in it, so over time seeping, the cocktail turns red, a bleeding heart of sorts. The Home Alone Toddy is a hit or miss for some people, either people like the herbal medical profile or they hate it. So I'm going to remove the ginger simple syrup from it and up the amount of fresh lemon juice and white vermouth, hopefully the lack of any kind of sugar will appease guests and make it less like, "a mint cough syrup, " HA! as some guests have described it.

Gastronomista:  Campari America is sponsoring this series on great Mixologists in smaller cities.  Do you mind sharing the recipe for the Reindeer Games made with Aperol?

Banks:  I'm honored to represent Denver, Comida and most importantly myself. E, it's been a pleasure.

The Reindeer Games Toddy
Created by Simon Banks of Comida

1 1/2 oz Fords Gin
1/2 oz Aperol
1/2 oz Passion fruit Gum
1/4 oz Fresh Lemon Juice
1/4 oz Fresh Ruby Red Grapefruit Juice
Garnish with a Lemon twist

Build this cocktail in a nice glass or a mug, first starting with Aperol and the passion fruit gum, then add your fresh juices to your jigger to help wash out any left over passion fruit gum, the acidcity will help strip this from your jigger, then add your Ford's gin, spritz the lemon zest over the mix and drop it in, then add 212 degree water to your glass/mug to a level of temp and dilution you prefer.


For more follow Comida on Facebook or stop by and visit them IRL:

Eat Comida at The Source
3350 Brighton Blvd #105
Denver, CO 80216

(303) 296-2747

Thank you for supporting the brands that make this blog possible.

Share This!