James Lee is the Owner/Operator at Big Red F's cocktail and food lounge, The Bitter Bar in Boulder. Lee flirted with hospitality from the early age of 13 with his family's country-style breakfast joint in the South. He gradually grew into bartending throughout college and settled into making it as a career, landing awards like Top 10 Mixologists in America from Playboy Magazine along the way. Lee sat with Eater to uncover his introduction into spirits with tequila, what's up with the term mixologist, his choice cocktail and more.
You're known to many as the Godfather of cocktails in Colorado. How did you got your start? Since I was 13, I've always been in the restaurant industry. My parents, who are Korean immigrants, moved to Chicago and I was born there in 1968. Then we moved to North Carolina in 1980 when I was 12 and they opened up a little country-style breakfast joint. That's where I started. We were the only Asian people making southern biscuits, gravy, chicken, dumplings and country ham. I remember waking up at 4 a.m. with my dad in the summer to go to the restaurant to setup and be open by 5:30. I would be dead tired by 2:00 in the afternoon. That was my start in the restaurant industry – nobody knows that by the way. Later, I got a degree in engineering, but after college I wasn't satisfied with my job. I made my way to Boulder in 1998 because I just wanted to be a semi-ski bum but not full-on. The reason I applied to Zolo was because a gentleman at the bar I used to bartend at in North Carolina told me that his nephew was the executive chef there. Zolo hired me and they didn't have many shifts, but there was one weekend bartending shift. The rest of the time I trained and waited tables until something opened up. At that time, Zolo wasn't Big Red F, but that was my introduction into Boulder's restaurant scene.
With awards like Top 10 Mixologists in America by Playboy Magazine and one of five finalists at The Sante Iron Bar Chef Competition under your belt, how did you do it? A lot of times it's by accident. Right? I didn't set out in 1998 to say I'm going to be a somebody in the restaurant world or a star bartender – it was more trial, error, and somebody introducing me to something I had no idea about. That something started with tequila at Zolo Grill. Buz Dabkowski does a lot of scotch tasting dinners, but he also really knew his tequila. He introduced me to that world which I needed, since Zolo was a tequila bar. He was one of the first ones to say, Hey James, this is how you taste. I was blown away. I was then very interested in spirits going forward. When I moved over to West End Tavern in 2004, I started meeting amazing people in the industry such as those who made the tequila, bourbon and created their own spirits. I got to hear it from the horse's mouth and they explained why they make it their way. When they explained it to me, I got even more passionate about it.
Since you're back at The Bitter Bar, your business card reads Owner, Operator, Bartender and Dishwasher, which sums up your involvement. What's your day-to-day like at The Bitter Bar? I open the door, turn all the lights on and rearrange my furniture [laughs]. No really, with more of the day-to-day operation I want to make sure we're prepped and that my staff is happy when they come in. My staff is most important to me, almost more important than customers. If my staff is happy, my customers are happy. That is my philosophy - Danny Meyer-style. From a bigger picture, I do have Joe [Arena] as my Executive Chef and Burton [Daniel] as Bar Manager and we always discuss what can we do to better ourselves. We talk about the future, what the next hot thing could be, and make sure that we all are on the same page.
The Bitter Bar changes menus seasonally and is always playing with cocktail ideas. How do you stay fresh and collaborate to create inventive cocktails? We do a lot of development and research. For example, Burton and I just went to San Fran and we learned so much, even in the wine country. I look up to other bars for everything from mise en place with fresh produce, to glassware, to technique. We always are creating things here but we deal with massive volume on weekends so we try to make sure we can duplicate it in a massive way.
Who and what do you draw your cocktail inspiration from? Ingredient-wise, I love anything that is fresh like cucumber, mint and basil. While that's redundant, not many people can execute incorporating fresh ingredients. I always tell my customers who want to duplicate our cocktails at home to use the freshest ingredients, and that includes ice. They always forget about that. A lot of times they say it didn't taste like what you made, and I ask what ice they used? Ice is vital. We have different ice programs here [at Bitter Bar] with different sizes and shapes.
In terms of bars, Aviary in Chicago does a lot of theatrical cocktails and sometimes I laugh, but I still am inspired from what they do and I try to make it an everyday cocktail. Nationally, Jim Meehan inspired me 7-8 years ago in NYC. He's the Owner/Operator of PDT (Please Don't Tell) and has written a few books already and is the Food & Wine Editor for the cocktail side. I also look up to Adam Seger from Chicago - he created Hum Spirit. His book, called Drink Like You Eat, always gives me the inspiration to create fresh cocktails.
What's your choice cocktail and why? It depends on what kind of mood I'm in. But I do really love a good Negroni and a good Manhattan that is properly made. My first test to a bartender is to ask for a Negroni or Manhattan.
What is your philosophy on educating behind the bar? We've been getting a lot of flak about being snobby. That's why we don't even use the work mixologist anymore. It's a touchy subject. So, if someone wants to learn about something, our bartenders - especially Burton and I - can gauge that. If someone says I want a margarita I'll simply offer that to them and if they melt in front of you and become open to more, then I can start educating that person and trying to ensure it's not overbearing or saying I know more than you. When I talk to my customers behind the bar or on the floor, I try to explain it in an everyday way. Because that's where the wine snobbery and mixology snobbery comes from since we talk in a different language and they don't know what we're saying.
On that note, the trend of mixologists as a role versus bartender is obvious - what's the difference? Is there one? The modern day mixoglist has become too much like a chemist or scientist with no personality. The mixologist makes certain things and says drink it because I made it for you, with a God-like attitude. That's where this negativity came from. And a lot of people will say - I just want a drink. We do mixology here, but we do it while we're not open. We make cocktails and figure out what works, what doesn't and ratios. We become geeks in a sense and scientists who are passionate. But once behind the bar and the doors open, we're on the stage and we have to perform and it has nothing to do with mixology - it has to do with customer service and being a good bartender.
For your team at The Bitter Bar, what do you look for in terms of style, understanding of cocktails and service? For me, with 20 years in bartending I make sure to instill and make sure they [the employees] have the passion. There is no greater reward for me than to have someone else on my team who can be better than I am in any sense. For me, teaching is everything. Teaching makes you relearn and learn about yourself. Our bartenders here have passion for learning. If they don't have it, they won't learn since it's so much to understand. It's about basics like how-to make cocktails, how-to bartend, but also about the history of the cocktail culture - we're talking Jerry Thomas days. I want to ensure they know how the cocktail came about and how to incorporate that knowledge into a modern day world by making their own art of mixology or craft cocktails.
What do you hope to see for the cocktail industry? How will it grow and evolve? I would like to see the cocktail world more established, uncompromised, and willing to offer things that are drink-friendly. We went away from that because have all these chemistry mixologists who want to do funky stuff and the cocktails became too funky. Those funky cocktails probably only appeal to three percent of the population and they're really cocktail competition recipes. I would love to see more establishments bring back good cocktails that are made for everyday drinking, more like session cocktails that are also easy to produce.
James Lee [Photo: Grace Boyle]