Distilling Colorado

The appurtenances of American statehood extend far beyond the political basics — a flag, seal, and a couple of senators — into an entire menagerie of official animals, flowers, gemstones, and insects. Colorado, for example, proudly lays claim to the Stegosaurus as its state fossil, and the Western Painted Turtle as its state reptile, in addition to a motto (“Nothing Without the Deity”), a tartan, a grass, and not one but two songs.

IMAGE: From left to right, and top to bottom, the symbology of Colorado includes Blue Grama grass, the Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep, the Colorado Blue Spruce (first discovered on Pikes Peak in 1862 by botanist C.C. Parry), the Greenback Cutthroat Trout (which displaced the Rainbow Trout as a stata emblem in 1994, due to its virtual extinction in real life), and the state menagerie’s newest addition, the Western Painted Turtle, nominated in 2007, by Jay Baichi’s 4th grade class.

Such symbols are intended to “represent the cultural heritage and national treasures” of each state. Naturally, such recognition is rarely bestowed without political jockeying and heated debate. Environmental groups lobby on behalf of endangered animals, vistors’ bureaus dangle the lure of tourist dollars, and fans mount spirited and successful campaigns on behalf of personal favourites, from cowboy boots to Western swing.

It is with trepidation, then, that I agreed to join the jury responsible for selecting the signature state cocktail for Colorado.

No state currently boasts an official cocktail, although the great Louisiana Sazerac Struggle certainly provides a cautionary tale. In March 2008, state senator Edwin R. Murray introduced a bill that would have designated the historic whiskey drink as Louisiana’s official state cocktail. After several defeats and revisions, a specially convened committee proposed an acceptable compromise, and the Sazerac’s sovereignty was enshrined, but limited to the city of New Orleans.

Indeed, the current list of official state drinks is regrettably dry: only Alabama has nominated an intoxicant (Conecuh Ridge Whiskey — a recreation of a Prohibition-era aged moonshine) as its official beverage, while the conservative majority stick to milk. Among the others, an astonishing twenty-three, including Colorado, have failed to express any potable preference at all, and most of the rest play it safe with fruit juice, although Maine has embraced its home-grown Moxie, and Nevada, amusingly, has drunk the Kool-Aid.

Of course, many might argue, with some justification, that states have more serious matters to discuss. Nonetheless, a cocktail that showcases local ingredients, celebrates a tradition of craft distilling, expresses regional terroir, or commemorates historical events or figures, is a valuable pedagogical tool in its own right, capable of inspiring debate, bonhomie, and, ultimately, civic pride.

So, if you’re in or around Denver this weekend, don’t miss the opportunity to give your verdict on the future Colorado Cocktail. The two-day event starts at the MCA Denver on Sunday at noon, with all-you-can Colorado distiller samplings, food trucks, and back-to-back fifteen-minute presentations on working with Colorado spirits, local innovations in mixology, and more, including a little talk from me on the cultural importance of cocktails and the birth of the singles bar.

Those who are still standing on Monday evening can come back for the cocktail competition itself, and help the judges decide between such specially created delights as the Pikes Peak Swizzle, The Centennial, and the Rocky Mountain Wildfire. Tickets are still available for both days; if you do come along, please say hello, and let me know which drink you think best represents the state of Colorado.

Meanwhile, if you are in Denver, you might also be interested in tonight’s Mixed Taste event at the museum, featuring Geoff Manaugh of Edible Geography’s partner site, BLDGBLOG, discussing the topic of “urban spelunking,” followed by star chef Jorel Pierce speaking on blood sausage. And, wherever you are, this is as good an opportunity as any to urge you to (re)-read Rebecca Federman’s charming stroll through history as commemorated by the cocktail, in which alcohol serves as the vehicle to discuss everything from the Apollo moon landings to Eliot Spitzer’s prostitution scandal.

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